In a few weeks time the President of the United States, Barack Obama, will attend the Summit of the Americas in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad.
Since his inauguration, expectations have been rising about a new US relationship with the Caribbean. Sadly, there is in this a large measure of wishful thinking.
While no one should deny that the arrival of a popular first black President is important for the Caribbean both perceptually and emotionally, the expectation of any dramatically changed relationship fails to recognise the very different concerns about the world and the hemisphere that the Caribbean and the US have.
Having spent much of the last week in Washington, it is clear that there is a need to manage Caribbean popular expectation downwards about the substance of the summit and to look more specifically at the ways in which subsequent meetings will determine how the region’s future relationship with the United States will develop.
Regional contentious issues
The US relationship is for the most part positive if low key.
While there are contentious issues such as the future of offshore financial centres and other vital questions relating to security, Haiti, Cuba, migration, debt and trade, to say nothing of the global economic crisis, relations between the US and the nations of Cariforum are normal and unremarkable.
A few months ago – seemingly missing the message of President Obama’s foreign policy statements on the hemisphere while on the campaign trail – a number of senior figures in the region suggested that President Obama’s election to the White House would mark a new engagement with the Caribbean.
This Anglophone Caribbean-centric view of the US and the world is unlikely to be matched by anything the President might say in Trinidad.
However what is clear is that there is a desire on the part of the new US administration to develop out of the summit practical initiatives based on a new partnership with the region. How effective these will be will be is very much up to the region as Washington and Europe share the same exasperation about the regions failure to implement or pursue actively what is agreed.
The world is now a very different place to the one in which Mr Obama campaigned for the White House.
The US economy is in serious trouble, there are significant and growing international problems relating to Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan and Pakistan; there is a pressing need to create a consensus on how to address the global economic crisis and the US is trying to extricate itself from two wars.
In short there is no time at the highest levels to consider the Caribbean other than in the broad strategic context of Latin America.
When the US President arrives in Trinidad with his huge entourage it will be to attend a hemispheric summit. While this is undoubtedly a matter of pride for the Caribbean and for Trinidad in particular, it does not guarantee that the US President will speak to Caribbean concerns other than where they touch on broader US interests.
While he will undoubtedly seek to recognise his host nation and use the opportunity for at least a bi-lateral and perhaps a short regional encounter, his principal objective will be to signal, while trying to calm a sea of domestic and international troubles, that the US is seeking a new and more balanced relationship with Latin America and the Caribbean based on partnership.
If earlier indications hold true, he may specifically refer to the Caribbean in his remarks in relation to trade, geographic proximity, and the common problems of climate change.
It is also likely that there will be commitments to the Caribbean to extend US initiatives elsewhere in the Americas on security as it relates to narcotics trafficking, organised crime and transnational criminal networks and there will be significant references to Cuba and Haiti. But for the most part future US thinking is likely to be wrapped up in hemispheric language about the world economy, growth and partnerships in the Americas as a whole.
Almost all other Anglophone Caribbean issues fall into the category of ‘difficult’ or as being too small to address specifically.
Offshore tax heavens
At the level of difficulty, the most obvious is the rapidly changing attitude in OECD nations on the offshore tax environment. The Obama administration has now endorsed far-reaching legislation to force ‘secrecy jurisdictions’ to reveal the identities of those individual and corporations who use them. This commitment is also supported by the Governments of the UK, Germany and France.
The view is driven by a belief that such offshore centres contributed to the global banking crisis and by extension the overall economic problems the world has to address.
Whether Caribbean nations are considered to constitute secrecy jurisdictions or not remains to be seen, but this is challenging for nations from Barbados to the BVI which have built their economies on tourism and financial services.
A further interesting guide to Caribbean thinking in Washington’s order of priorities appears in a document recently published b y the United States Trade Representative’s Office (USTR).
Entitled 'The President's Trade Agenda', it sets out in hundreds of pages President Obama's intentions on reorienting US trade policy so that it better benefits US families while paying closer attention to social accountability, the environment , transparency and the poorest developing countries.
It contains some general language that will be of help to the region, but the sole specific reference to Central America and the Caribbean, states:
"See chapter III, Section A for a discussion of this topic" which then turns out to be a history of the free trade agreement between the Dominican Republic, Central America and the US.
Washington now has a polite and structured approach to the Anglophone Caribbean; a frustration with the slow pace of implementation and follow up on the part of the region; an interest in specific countries; and a desire to make small incremental changes in the trade relationship. It has in many ways a sensible and proportionate approach that will through meetings at Assistant Secretary level lead to practical outcomes. While there are clearly US/Caribbean issues that need to be addressed, this realistic approach may bring benefits.
For decades the Caribbean happily complained about overt US interest and at times, interference in its affairs. More recently the language has turned to a sense of concern about Washington’s apparent disinterest.
If as seems likely a new order emerges over the next decade in the Americas, the Summit in Trinidad may be the moment to begin to place less emphasis on Caribbean relationships with the US and Europe and to engage more fully in a dialogue with the hemispheric nations of the South.
David Jessop can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Source: BBC Caribbean.com