Zika, banking top Caribbean meeting in Belize

Caribbean Community (Caricom) leaders attend opening ceremony Monday. The regional bloc is meeting in Belize for a two-day summit that started Tuesday and ends Wednesday.
Caribbean Community (Caricom) leaders attend opening ceremony Monday. The regional bloc is meeting in Belize for a two-day summit that started Tuesday and ends Wednesday. Courtesy of Caricom

Central America’s Maya mountains formed the backdrop for a two-day summit of Caribbean leaders that began Tuesday in Belize with some familiar challenges — and at least one new one.

Concerns about the devastating effects of the fast-spreading mosquito-borne Zika virus top the agenda for leaders of the 15-member Caribbean Community regional grouping known as Caricom. Among the agencies that leaders will hear from is the the Caribbean Public Health Agency, CARPHA.

With Zika confirmed in five Caricom territories, fear is growing that it will soon arrive in other countries, potentially impacting the region’s travel and tourism industry. Earlier this month, CARPHA called on Caribbean nations to take strong measures to eliminate mosquito breeding and asked citizens to avoid being bitten given the potential public health emergency it poses for the region. Researchers in Brazil are examining a possible link between the virus and microcephaly, a birth defect where babies are born with smaller than normal heads. The CDC last month warned pregnant women to avoid travel to Zika-affected areas.

Other topics high on the list are climate change financing and the damaging consequences of the end of correspondent banking relationships. The global trend, known as de-risking, is impacting regional banks that are increasingly unable to process payments across international borders.

“Our people have already begun to feel the consequences of such arbitrary decisions,” Caricom Secretary General Irwin LaRocque told leaders Monday evening during the opening ceremony. “It is having an impact on the ability of our people to receive their remittances and transfer their funds for trade and investment transactions. This state of affairs demands that we act collectively to address this issue with the relevant regulatory authorities and the international community.”

Belize Prime Minister and current Caricom Chairman Dean Oliver Barrow said the banking development has “absolutely cataclysmic ramifications for us.”

“Under pressure from their regulatory authorities in Europe and especially the U.S., banks in those jurisdictions have been closing their correspondent relationships with our indigenous financial institutions,” Barrow said. “This deprives our banks of the ability to keep U.S. deposits, do wire transfers, facilitate credit card settlements for their local clients and our economy.”

Barrow said a visit to Washington, D.C. two weeks ago to meet with U.S. regulators only produced “tea and sympathy.”

“The regulators all agreed that, absent a solution, our economies, our societies would go belly up; and conceded that could be in no one's interest, including theirs,” he said. “But ultimately, the regulators insisted, it was strictly a decision for those sovereign U.S. banks to make. They would have to decide whether it was in their interest to deal with us.”

Barrow noted that the Caribbean is still struggling to recover from the shocks of the global financial crisis. Also, Caricom nations that rely on Venezuela’s discounted-oil Petrocaribe financing program are facing a double-edge sword. While the drop in oil prices has meant cheaper fuel for consumers, it also means fewer investment dollars for countries that relied on higher oil prices to make social and infrastructure investments.

Also on the agenda is the ongoing border dispute between Guayana and Venezuela and the deportation of Haitians from the neighboring Dominican Republic.

Since Caricom last met in July in Barbados, three leaders have been re-elected: Barrow, who won a third consecutive term; St. Vincent and the Grenadines Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves, who now is the region’s longest serving prime minister after assuming the role in 2001; and Suriname President Bouterse Desiré, who won a second term in office.

Notably absent from the gathering are the leaders of Jamaica and Haiti. Jamaican Prime Minister Portia-Simpson Miller has called elections for Feb. 25 and remained home to campaign. Former Haitian President Michel Martelly ended his five-year presidential term on Feb. 7 without an elected successor. On Sunday, the country’s parliament elected a former head of the Senate, Jocelerme Privert, to lead a 120-day transitional government. It’s the country’s second provisional government in 12 years.