Thu | Dec 8, 2016

Editorial: CARICOM’s case in the trade data

Published:Tuesday | April 7, 2015 | 12:00 AM

When Caribbean Community (CARICOM) leaders meet Barack Obama in Kingston this week, they will not be without good reason, and ample ammunition, to advance their case for the US president to accelerate the recalibrated relationship he promised in Port-of-Spain six years ago on the basis of an "equal partnership".

Of course, everyone understood that Mr Obama, the leader of the world's most powerful country, engaged in a bit of rhetorical hyperbole in those remarks, but there are, indeed, mutual interests that should cause Washington to be concerned about the viability of the small, vulnerable states that comprise CARICOM. And these do not relate only to the 14 votes that CARICOM countries possess at the United Nations and in other international fora, or the strategic position they occupy along global shipping lanes, or even that they represent what Washington likes to call its third border, thus representing a critical security buffer.

mutual interests

All these things matter. But they tend to undercut deep, practical analyses of US-Caribbean economic and trade relations, except for their value to the region. Yet, this is an area where, for pocketbook-conscious Americans, the mutuality-interests argument is likely to find fertile ground.

CARICOM is not good at collating and/or publicly disseminating data of any kind, so current trade statistics are not readily available. However, of the US$16.63 billion in goods CARICOM countries imported in 2010, around a third came from the United States, representing a five-year average. Those imports, though, were 27 per cent less than 2008's, before the global financial collapse began to bite. America was not insulated from that fallout. US exports to the Community declined by a quarter or US$2 billion, to US$6 billion.

In the context of America's global trade, the number is minuscule, but the loss of US$2 billion in sales would have accounted for jobs, many of which Mr Obama's administration is still attempting to recover. That process would be faster if CARICOM's mostly debt-ridden, slow-growth economies were in better health and in a better position to buy US products.

crisis

While Jamaica may be among the more extreme examples of CARICOM's situation, it is broadly representative of the Community's crisis, exacerbated by declining exports to the world's biggest market. It is perhaps more than coincidental that this country's exports to America grew relatively rapidly from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s - peaking at US$846 million in 1995 - the years of strong political support for the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI), before the launch of the North American Free Trade Area and the collapse of the Multi-Fibre Agreement. Further, Jamaica's exports of US$285 million last year are less than half of what they were in 2009, while America's exports to the island have recovered most of what was lost over the period.

Three decades ago, when Ronald Reagan promoted the CBI, it was framed in a Cold War context: another front in the fight against Leftist movements in Latin America. Mr Obama should be no less ideological: the ideology of self-interest - an appreciation that growth and jobs at home are helped by having healthy economies in Jamaica and the rest of CARICOM. In the '80s, Edward Seaga suggested a Marshal Plan-style intervention for Jamaica and the Caribbean. We now translate that to Mr Obama giving political heft to new trade initiatives and private-sector investment in the region.