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David Jessop | Renewing the Caribbean-US relationship

Published:Sunday | May 1, 2016 | 5:00 AM
The US Capitol in Washington, DC.

A few days ago, the US House Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously agreed on a draft bipartisan bill that seeks to have the administration give greater priority to the United States-Caribbean relationship.

The legislation, the United States-Caribbean Strategic Engagement Act of 2016, was sponsored by the ranking member of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee, Eliot Engel, a Democrat, and Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican and a former chair of the committee.

It requires the US secretary of state and the administrator of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to submit to Congress a multi-year strategy that focuses on a new approach to the region and to the Caribbean diaspora in the US.

The bill has no funding attached to it. Instead, its intention is to make the point that the Caribbean should matter more to US administrations. Congressman Engel said that because of the many challenges facing the US, some parts of the world received more attention than others, but despite this, the region was "profoundly important" to the US. His bill, he said, made clear that US-Caribbean relations were "a major priority".

 

US POLICY PRIORITIES

 

The legislation requires that the State Department and USAID identify US policy priorities towards the Caribbean; outline an approach that will broaden their outreach to the Caribbean diaspora in the US; and to describe how they will work with governments to improve citizen security and reduce narcotics trafficking.

It also calls for the creation of a comprehensive multiyear strategy that improves energy security, while seeking improved diplomatic engagement and the development of an approach that encourages economic diversification in the region. In addition, it requires reports on the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative and an evaluation of US diplomatic engagement with the Eastern Caribbean, a matter of particular interest to Congressman Engel.

While the State Department in particular is interested in the House Committee's initiative, it is clear from private conversations that it will be very much up to the region to respond to the opening that Mr Engel and Mrs Ros Lethinen have created.

Unusually, it also offers an opportunity for the Caribbean and the US administration to give serious consideration as to how the region's diaspora might be engaged in the political and policy process.

 

CYCLE OF DOUBT

 

It would be easy for the region to dismiss the bill given the absence of any funding and the apparent generality of its approach. Not only would this be wrong, but would fail to see that it can enable the region to break out of a cycle of doubt, complaint and cynicism about US policy.

Put another way, this is an important initiative as it offers the region a unique opportunity to reset the relationship. If positively responded to, it could force creative thinking by both parties about its modernisation and the issues it should address.

Unfortunately, some in the Caribbean have become so used to telling the US what is wrong with its policy, and continuing to press for more funding, that Washington with its many other global priorities has largely tuned out.

This need not be so as the region has many friends in an around both political parties and in the administration who want to have a well-considered dialogue on the issues that matter to both the US and the Caribbean.

In a few days, there will be a first opportunity to welcome the opening the bill has provided.

On May 3-4, Caribbean and Central American heads of government will attend in Washington meetings led by US Vice-President Joe Biden on regional energy, and seemingly on other issues including security and correspondent banking.

There, CARICOM ought to be able to build on the House Foreign Affairs Committee's helpful initiative, making clear at the very least that the region wishes to flesh out the ideas it contains and develop a well-thought-through approach to Congress and the administration, while encouraging a broader dialogue through the many think tanks and policy influencers who at present think very little about the Caribbean.

In doing so, the region could usefully develop with its friends in Washington practical proposals based on the areas the bill outlines, while encouraging diaspora organisations to come together to extend the Caribbean's political reach by playing a role in the process.

Commenting on this and the need for the region to follow up on the initiative, Sally Yearwood, the executive director of Caribbean Central American Action in Washington, has stressed that the region needed to respond and to see this as what she described as "a unique opportunity to engage constructively with Congress and the administration".

Ms Yearwood has also said that she hoped that when Caribbean heads of government are in Washington for the regional summit, they clearly communicate their support for the bill.

"The bill provides a road map that could influence US-Caribbean dialogue for years to come and could have an important and positive effect on relations and cooperation in strategic areas," she said.

She also said that her organisation in the light of the bill was working with Caribbean private sector leaders to encourage engagement in the Caribbean and Washington in the areas in which they believe greater US involvement is required.

Congressman Engel has called on the US administration to demonstrate a genuine and detailed commitment to its relationship with the Caribbean. It is now up to the Caribbean to reciprocate and develop language and thinking that is not just reactive to present problems, but results in new ideas and new thinking about the future relationship.

Regrettably, for too long the region has not been able to identify with a single sustained voice how the dialogue with the US might be renovated, become less antagonistic and closer.

Given the bill's uncontentious nature and the absence of any funding requirement, it may well pass easily through both houses of Congress into law. If it does, and the value of this helpful bipartisan initiative is recognised in the region and built on, it could set the scene for a more practical engagement with the next US administration.

David Jessop is a consultant to the Caribbean Council. david.jessop@caribbean-council.org