Caribbean leaders meet with Trump, say he promises renewed U.S. engagement in region

The leaders of five Caribbean nations sympathetic to the Trump administration’s hard line on Venezuela spent Friday discussing the South American nation, as well as how the United States can be a better partner, with President Donald Trump at his private Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach.

“I have a feeling Venezuela will come up,” Trump said at the onset of the discussions, adding that he looked forward to “spending a lot of time together this afternoon and discussing ways that we can be beneficial to you and you can be beneficial to us.”

Caribbean leaders said most of the talk centered around trade and investments, and the U.S. has committed to sending a representative from the Overseas Private Investment Corporation to visit each of their nations — the Bahamas, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica and Saint Lucia.

“It’s absolutely important that it’s not just talk, that there will be real investments; investments that will benefit the region and benefit your country as well,” Jamaica Prime Minister Andrew Holness said, addressing the press at the conclusion of the two-hour meeting.

“The message from this meeting was that the United States wants to encourage and promote a stronger relationship with the region,” Holness said. “We’re very happy with that message. We feel that it’s a message that is long in coming. … We’re satisfied that there will be instrumental action with that message.”

Allen Chastanet, prime minister of Saint Lucia and the incoming chairman of the 15-member Caribbean Community, said there hasn’t been this level of engagement since Ronald Reagan engaged with former Jamaican Prime Minister Edward Seaga in the early 1980s.

“It’s been a really long time since leaders of the region have been invited to meet with the president of the United States of America and we think this is the beginning of a much broader initiative by America to the Caribbean,” Chastanet said. “This meeting was really about President Trump’s vision to re-initiate dialogue with the Caribbean.”

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Still, countries like Trinidad and Tobago, the region’s economic giant, and Guyana, where an oil find will soon transform the economy, were not among among the invitees. The five have aligned themselves with the Lima Group, a hemispheric organization in the Organization of American States that has been stepping up pressure against Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro’s regime.

“Given Trinidad’s proximity and historic connection to Venezuela, its acceptance of 40,000 Venezuelan refugees, as well as its cross-border cooperation in oil and gas exploration for regional energy security, its inclusion at such a meeting would seem logical,” said Anthony Bryan, a Caribbean energy expert. “T&T as a small state has always held to a foreign policy of non-intervention and non-interference in the affairs of other states, and together with the Prime Minister of Barbados and the Chairman of Caricom, has been involved in recent efforts to seek a peaceful resolution of Venezuela’s crisis.”

All five Caribbean leaders earlier this year supported an OAS resolution backed by the U.S. to not recognize the legitimacy of Maduro as he began a second term in office in January. Then weeks later, the Bahamas, Haiti and the Dominican Republic decided to recognize opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the country’s interim president.

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From left, Prime Minister of St. Lucia Allen Chastanet; President of the Dominican Republic, Danilo Medina; President Donald Trump; First Lady Melania Trump; Prime Minister of Jamaica Andrew Holness; Haitian President Jovenel Moise and Prime Minister of the Bahamas Hubert Minnis pose for a group picture before the meeting at Mar-A-Lago. Jose A. Iglesias jiglesias@elnuevoherald.com

That decision, which Haitian President Jovenel Moïse called a strategic one, garnered the support of the Trump administration but split the 15-member community, known as Caricom. The bloc, which four of the five countries are members of, has come out in opposition to the Guaidó recognition and asked the United Nations to intervene.

“The Lima Group’s decision ignored Caricom’s united position on peaceful resolution of the Venezuelan crisis,” Bryan said. “This meeting may have the deliberate effect of dismantling regional unity further.”

A senior administration official defending the selection of leaders to meet with Trump said the U.S. shares a unique relationship with each of the Caribbean nations that were invited to Mar-a-Lago on Friday. But the administration, he said, also wants to send a strong message.

“We are deadly serious about a peaceful transformation of power in Venezuela from Maduro to Juan Guaidó in the National Assembly,” the official said, “and we want to see the countries in the hemisphere that haven’t yet rallied to the opposition’s cause to do just that.”

Just as leaders began their meeting, the Treasury Department announced tough new financial sanctions targeting Venezuela’s banks.

The sanctions, the official said, were “significant” and in response to the predawn detention of Guaidó’s chief of staff, Roberto Marrero. Washington has accused several individuals in Maduro’s administration, including a judge and two prosecutors, of being behind the arrest.

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Caribbean leaders said they were not briefed on the sanctions and they did not come up. Still, Moïse and Chastanet said that the Venezuelan situation needs to come to a quick resolution..

Both the crisis in Venezuela and the U.S. sanctions have adversely affected Caribbean nations that once received a stable supply of oil and gas from Venezuela as part of its PetroCaribe alliance. The program provided long-term financing, allowing Caribbean nations to pay 40 percent of their oil debt at a 1 percent annual interest rate over 25 years and the rest in cash.

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President Donald Trump greets the media during a photo op before the start of the meeting with Caricom leaders in Mar-a-Lago on Friday. Jose A. Iglesias jiglesias@elnuevoherald.com

Today, those countries are not only having to pay for fuel in cash up front on the U.S. and Caribbean spot market, the administration’s oil sanctions in January mean that correspondent banks in the U.S. are refusing to forward their debt payments via wire transfer on to Caracas.

“One of the things that President Trump wants to hear as countries in the Caribbean disassociate themselves from reliance on Venezuelan oil in the near term.... we’d like to hear what steps we could take,” the official said. “We think with increased American oil and gas production, we’re now the largest producer of oil and gas again, that there are lots of ways we can accommodate the demands from the western hemisphere as a whole.”

Asked how allegations that Trump’ had referred to Haiti and other nations as “shithole countries” affect relations, the official dismissed it, saying the president never made the derogatory statement.

“The fact that he’s having this meeting gives a lie to the idea that that somehow influences his feeling about these or any other country,” the official said. “This is a serious effort to engage with key countries in the Caribbean with whom the United States has a lot of common interests.”

A previous version of this story said the five Caribbean nations were members of the Lima Group in the OAS. They have aligned themselves with the bloc. The story has been updated to reflect that.
Jacqueline Charles has reported on Haiti and the English-speaking Caribbean for the Miami Herald for over a decade. A Pulitzer Prize finalist for her coverage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, she was awarded a 2018 Maria Moors Cabot Prize — the most prestigious award for coverage of the Americas.