Elizabeth Morgan | Advancing US-CARICOM relations: Contact with the Biden administration
For this week, in reflecting on the region’s contact with the Biden administration since January, I reverted, for reference, to my articles on relations within the Western Hemisphere of September 30 and on more effectively promoting regional interests in US-CARICOM relations of December 19, 2020. I also considered the challenges facing the Biden administration.
I am assessing the contact between CARICOM and the US since President Biden took office to be positive. The US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, held a virtual round-table meeting with foreign ministers of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) on April 21. A brief report on the website of the US State Department informs that Secretary Blinken met with CARICOM representatives to demonstrate the US’s commitment to working with the region to advance bilateral and regional interests. He emphasised strong partnership, plans to manage COVID-19, promoting regional recovery, cooperating on building climate change resilience, and continuing collaboration on strengthening security, democratic values and human rights. There would, of course, be no dramatic change in traditional US policy and approach.
Following the US presidential election in November 2020 and the election of Democrats, Joseph Biden and Kamala Harris, there was much discussion on what this would mean for the Caribbean. There were calls for the region to be prepared to engage with the new Biden administration.
This meeting between Blinken and CARICOM foreign ministers, in my view, was an introduction, a getting to know you, and was a positive development. As CARICOM Secretary General Ambassador Irwin Laroque stated, this was a return to the USA recognising CARICOM as a group. The invitation was to the CARICOM member states and not to a select few.
Eamon Courtenay, minister of foreign affairs, foreign trade and immigration of Belize, chair of CARICOM’s Council for Foreign and Community Relations, in his remarks, welcomed the meeting and took the opportunity to signal issues of interest, such as COVID relief, post-COVID economic recovery, debt, situation of middle-income countries, climate and disaster resilience, and immigration. CARICOM countries have had continuing concerns about the US travel advisories listing countries to be avoided by its citizens due to high COVID-19 case rates. Mark you, the USA is also viewed by other countries as one to be avoided due to its own high COVID case rates.
Let me acknowledge that the USA has mobilised to provide humanitarian assistance to St Vincent and the Grenadines with the continuing eruption of La Soufriére.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE FOR WESTERN HEMISPHERE
I am noting that this initial meeting was convened even though President Biden’s nominee for the position of assistant secretary of state to head the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, Brian A. Nichols, is still to be confirmed. The bureau is the centre of policy making for this hemisphere. Nichols, an African American, is a career diplomat whose most recent assignment was as ambassador to Zimbabwe. Prior to that, he was ambassador to Peru and had served in several other diplomat positions in Latin American countries. Of note to us in the Caribbean is that, in the Western Hemisphere Bureau, he has served as director of the Office of Caribbean Affairs.
It will be interesting to see whether Biden’s US policy in Latin America and the Caribbean remains the same as under the Obama administration (not seen as such a good track record overall in Latin America and the Caribbean) or whether he seeks to rebuild relations along a new path. The 9th Summit of the Americas, scheduled to be held in the USA this year, will be an opportunity, even if held virtually, to get a better sense of the Biden policy stance. The US assumed the summit chair in July 2020.
TRADE AND INVESTMENT
For CARICOM, the Biden team in foreign trade policy at the Office of the US Trade Representative (USTR) is also important. Katherine Tai, USTR, was confirmed by the Senate in mid-March. It is also useful to know the current assistant USTR for the Western Hemisphere and the officer responsible for the Caribbean. Advancing trade and investments should be a key issue for CARICOM. Even as trade figures declined in 2020, the US maintained a significant surplus in its exports to CARICOM countries. Only Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago registered a surplus in their US trade. As the USA is the region’s principal trading partner, recovery also depends on recovery in the USA and sustained growth includes expanding exports of goods and services to the USA.
On contact, importantly, last week, two CARICOM Heads of Government, Andrew Holness of Jamaica and Gaston Brown of Antigua and Barbuda, participated in President Biden’s Summit on Climate Change held on April 22 and 23.
It is also necessary to forge the links on Capitol Hill in the House and Senate. I saw that the chair of CARICOM, Prime Minister Keith Rowley of Trinidad and Tobago, on March 25, met virtually with Congresswoman Maxine Waters, chair of the House Committee on Financial Services. Waters, I believe, is a co-chair of the House Caribbean Caucus and is a member of the Black Caucus.
The CARICOM Caucus of Ambassadors in Washington, DC, is expected to strengthen the links with the Biden administration in key departments as well as with representatives in Congress. What they need is clear, coordinated guidance from capitals on the region’s policy positions towards the USA. I welcomed discussions organised by the UWI’s Institute of International Relations on CARICOM-US relations and would like to see the institute go further in facilitating discussions and papers on the region’s own strategy.
In the first 100 days of the Biden administration, contact with the administration and action to advance USCARICOM relations has been positive given the challenges. We have to see how relations progress from here at the regional and hemispheric levels.
Caribbean American Heritage Month is observed in June in the USA and, as I have said before, it does provide an opportunity, with the diaspora, to further voice and advance regional interests.
Elizabeth Morgan is is a specialist in international trade policy and international politics.