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Bill to strengthen U.S.-Caribbean relations heads to Obama for signature

From (L to R) Prime Minister Keith Rowley of Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica Prime Minister Andrew Holness and St. Lucia Prime Minister Allen Chastanet at the opening ceremony of Caribbean Community (Caricom) gathering in Guyana in July.
From (L to R) Prime Minister Keith Rowley of Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica Prime Minister Andrew Holness and St. Lucia Prime Minister Allen Chastanet at the opening ceremony of Caribbean Community (Caricom) gathering in Guyana in July. jcharles@miamiherald.com

After years of complaining that their region doesn’t get the attention from the United States that it should, Caribbean leaders won a small victory in U.S. Congress on Tuesday.

Legislation aimed at strengthening the United States’ engagement with the Caribbean region unanimously passed the U.S. Senate on Tuesday and was sent to President Barack Obama to sign into law.

Under the United States-Caribbean Strategic Engagement Act (H.R. 4939), the U.S. Secretary of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development will devise a multi-year strategy on issues of concern to the region such as security, energy, diplomacy and increased access to educational opportunities. The bill was sponsored by New York Democrat Rep. Eliot L. Engel, ranking member of the house committee on foreign affairs, and South Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a former chair of the committee. The bill passed the house earlier this year.

“It’s not a panacea, but a step in the right direction,” said a congressional aide working on Caribbean matters.

The region will still need increased foreign aid from the U.S. for the engagement to truly be effective. Still, it comes at a critical time for the region, which is facing a banking crisis as an increasing number of U.S. banks are pulling out because of new rules, security and energy concerns.

For years, 17 Caribbean nations, for example, have relied on Venezuela’s Petrocaribe discounted-oil program for access to cheap fuel, and cash for social programs. But with Venezuela’s economy in crisis and oil prices at a low, these cash-strapped Caribbean nations are anxious to find other energy alternatives and global partners.

“It is long past time to have a multi-year strategy that will allow us to increase engagement with the Caribbean, especially when it comes to energy and security,” Engel said.

Ros-Lehtinen echoed similar sentiments.

“It is vital to work proactively and collaboratively with Caribbean nations to promote close cooperation in the areas of security, trade, illicit trafficking, and energy,” she said.

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