An evolving relationship between Obama and Caribbean leaders

The driveway to National Heroes Park, like other streets that President Barack Obama will travel, received a fresh coat of tar ahead of Obama’s overnight visit to Kingston, Jamaica..
The driveway to National Heroes Park, like other streets that President Barack Obama will travel, received a fresh coat of tar ahead of Obama’s overnight visit to Kingston, Jamaica.. Miami Herald Staff

As Antigua Prime Minister Gaston Browne welcomed his fellow Caribbean leaders to a two-day summit earlier this year, he looked out into the audience and thanked Venezuela, China and Taiwan for their support.

“The governments extended a hand,” he said. “We will not forget.”

Browne’s admission was as much an acknowledgment of the three nations’ new role in a region once dominated by the United States, as much as it was a statement about Caribbean leaders’ feelings that the region has been neglected by their most important security and trading partner.

Now, as President Barack Obama arrives in Jamaica for a two-day visit, interest seems to be reawakening. Obama, expected to land Wednesday evening in Kingston, plans to meet with Browne and other Caribbean leaders Thursday before flying to Panama for the Seventh Summit of the Americas.

“Cordial relations between the Caribbean and the United States are important to economic growth, stability as well as security,” Guyana opposition presidential candidate and retired army brigadier David Granger said during a recent fundraising visit to Miami. “The two engagements by President Obama, first in Trinidad and now in Jamaica, will deepen that relationship.”

Six years in the making, the meeting between Obama and leaders of the 15-member Caribbean Community regional grouping known as Caricom comes as the Caribbean finds itself with no shortage of issues to tackle — from the need for development, financing and competitiveness, to crime and energy security, to the changes in Venezuela and Cuba.

Some regional observers say that it’s the crisis in oil-producing Venezuela, which has fallen on turbulent economic and political times, that’s suddenly getting the attention of the Obama administration. Last summer, as Venezuela experienced record-high inflation and food shortages, the Washington launched the Caribbean Security Energy Initiative.

In January, Vice President Joe Biden hosted Caribbean leaders and private sector investors at the State Department to discuss how the United States could help them cut their addiction to Venezuelan oil in favor of alternative energy sources.

“The president of the United States — President Obama — has made it absolutely clear that both the Caribbean and Central America energy and security are, in fact, primary issues for us,” Biden said at the energy summit. “It’s overwhelmingly in the interest of the United States of America that we get it right, and that this relationship changes for the better across the board. So I want you to know that the combination of those two issues is paramount with us, equal to anything else we are doing around the world.”

The U.S. has been focused elsewhere in the world, and Caribbean leaders have themselves been developing new partnerships. In addition to strengthening ties with the Venezuela government, some joined its regional bloc, ALBA, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas. Others have rolled out the welcome mat and tourists visas to mainland China.

“The tourist industry in China is growing at a phenomenal rate and for the region, and certainly for Trinidad and Tobago, this is an enormous market that can be tapped in the future,” said Winston Dookeran, the foreign minister of Trinidad and Tobago, which hosted a May 2013 visit by Chinese President China Xi Jinping on the heels of a two-day visit by Biden.

Noting China’s inroads into the region, U.S. observers say it’s unfair to compare its largess with that of the U.S., which engages in other ways and is now seeking to incorporate a U.S. commitment to help Caribbean nations revamp their energy sector through natural gas exportation.

“There is a concerted effort by the United States government to up its approaches to friends in the region. I think a lot of it has to do with the collateral effects and damage that could occur as a result of a Venezuelan crash, economically and politically,” said Carl Meacham, director of the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “The attention the administration is giving with energy has the potential to serve as a building block for the relationship to evolve into something else.”

Eleven of Caricom’s 15 countries participate in Venezuela’s discounted Petrocaribe oil program, which was launched in 2005 to counter U.S. influence in the region. Through the program, nations pay only a small portion of the costs up front for oil and refined products. They finance the rest under generous long-term debt agreements and use the savings for social programs and infrastructure investments.

But with world oil prices plummeting, countries are losing the advantages. And despite Venezuela’s insistence that Petrocaribe isn’t going away, analysts are questioning how long it will last.

“I don’t think this is going to be a meeting about Venezuela, but Venezuela will be a subtext,” said Council of the Americas Vice President Eric Farnsworth. “There is an obvious change going on in Venezuela that is going to impact the Caribbean one way or another.”

Another country that is likely to come up at the Obama meeting is Cuba, Farnsworth said. Publicly, Caribbean leaders have warmly received the U.S and Cuba’s thawing relationship but from an economic stand point, their lives just got more complicated.

“If I were a Caribbean leader, I would be very interested to know what the U.S. president’s plans are in reference to Cuba because of my economic well-being,” Farnsworth said. “Once Cuba does open up, the potential for U.S. investors to go to Cuba and overlook other parts of the Caribbean is significant.”

Caribbean Community Chairman Perry Christie, prime minister of the Bahamas, hinted as much during the group’s February meeting in his island-nation’s capital.

The region, Christie said, “celebrated with Cuba when President Obama confirmed that America will cut loose the shackles of its past and seek a better future for the people of Cuba and America.” But soon after, Christie called on his fellow leaders to urgently engage in a feasibility study to develop a multi-destinational tourism initiative with Cuba.

Christie noted that the relationship with the United States “is evolving” and leaders welcome it.

The U.S., for example, indicated that it would no longer block concessional financing for development projects by Caribbean nations considered to be middle-income countries.

Christie said he hopes that Obama would gain from the meeting “an understanding that the Caricom region is of significance to America and should receive even more attention than it is getting now.”

Farnsworth said that while Caribbean leaders’ impression that the United States has been focused elsewhere has merit, he would challenge the notion that the U.S. has cast the region adrift.

“The level of day-to-day engagement between the United States and the Caribbean is quite high in terms of security activities with the Treasury Department or banking regulators, Coast Guard officials, drug enforcement agent types. There is constant engagement at the working levels,” he said. “What hasn’t occurred is the high-level political engagement with the Caribbean.”

Obama’s visit comes nearly 33 years to the date that President Ronald Reagan became the first U.S. president to visit Jamaica on April 7, 1982.

Reagan had taken a liking to then Jamaican Prime Minister Edward Seaga, who had broken diplomatic ties with Cuba and introduced his own brand of Reaganomics, declaring the country open to free enterprise and foreign investments. In return for his austere fiscal policy, millions of dollars in donor aide poured into Jamaica.

Seaga, in turn, became a strong supporter of Reagan’s Caribbean Basin Initiative, which provided trade and investment incentives for Caribbean and Central American countries, excluding those with close ties to Cuba.

Today, Jamaica continues to struggle financially. But its woes are not the result of economic chaos but the continuing fallout of the 2008 global economic crisis, which is affecting almost all of Caricom.

Meanwhile, many of the issues the region faced during Reagan’s 1982 visit to Jamaica — channeling private investment, strengthening security, combating drug trafficking — remain unchanged.

And that, says former Trinidad and Tobago ambassador Reginald Dumas, poses a huge challenge for Caribbean leaders, who are known more for their rhetoric than for their action.

“Everybody can’t talk,” Dumas said about the meeting with Obama. “They should have a position on whatever they want to raise with him. If they want to raise Venezuela, if they want to raise Haiti … they have to have a position on that and be prepared to say, ‘This is what we would like to see happen and we want to work with you in this area.’”

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