Editorial | US-Caribbean relations in the world of Trump
Except for his bombast against undocumented immigrants and his promise to build a wall of exclusion along America's southern border with Mexico, Donald Trump has talked little of, and has shown even less interest in, a US foreign policy for the Western Hemisphere. Neither does his emerging foreign policy team suggest a significant focus by a Trump administration on the region, much less its Caribbean component.
Indeed, insofar as there is a discernible coherence to the embryonic Trump foreign policy, it is centred on the Middle East as the front line in the fight against Islamic State (IS) militants and co-opting to Vladimir Putin's Russia in that battle. That is why legislation passed this week by the US Congress, and headed for signature by President Barack Obama, is significant.
Sponsored by Eliot L. Engel, a Democratic House member from New York, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican, the bill declares it US policy to increase engagement with Caribbean governments, the private sector, and civil society groups so as to strengthen America's diplomatic and economic relations with the region, as well as, among other things, support "regional economic, political, and security integration efforts".
Contextualising the Caribbean
The Caribbean in this context is defined as the remaining beneficiaries of the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI), which is primarily the members of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and a handful of its associates and a few semi-autonomous Dutch territories in the region.
In another political dispensation in Washington, the Engel-Ros-Lehtinen bill would have been immediately embraced as substantive and far-reaching. From the stand of this region, it would be welcomed as locking in the recent - some might claim belated - initiatives of the Obama administration to reconnect with the Caribbean, especially with its energy and border security projects. Indeed, not since the presidency of Bush the Forty-First, and its ideas of a hemispheric-wide free trade area, has the Caribbean felt so courted by Washington.
Response to Venezuelan influence
The Obama rekindling of relations with the countries of its so-called third border was, in part, a response to Venezuela's deepening influence in the Caribbean, after the late Hugo Chavez provided aid, including preferential oil deals, under the PetroCaribe scheme, to regional countries. Indeed, as Representative Ros-Lehtinen said, the aim is for the Caribbean to "view the US as a reliable partner and push back against the negative influence" of Venezuela's leftwing government.
Added Representative Engel: "At a time when our friends in the Caribbean need us more than ever, this bill will prioritise our partnership with the subregion for many years to come." There is no certainty in that declaration.
The bill does obligate the State Department to, within six months, outline a programme for implementing the strategy and thereafter, report annually on efforts. Further, after two years, the president will have to report on the success of the initiative.
This obligation will mean little if, in fact, the Caribbean is not a priority agenda for a Trump administration, which we doubt it will be. There are no sanctions to the administration for failing to deliver anything substantive under the bill. The administration can deliver pro forma reports to the Congress.
If that turns out to be the case, this bill can still have value for the Caribbean. It provides a focal point for engagement by Caribbean governments with Congress for keeping the channels open until a more propitious turn of events.