Engaging the Caribbean: From Relations to Actual Strategy
October 24, 2016
In a sharply divided political environment the U.S. House of Representatives in June passed The United States-Caribbean Strategic Engagement Act (H.R. 4939) by a 386 to 6 margin. This was a noteworthy achievement. A degree of political momentum was also evident this summer when Congress passed legislation to deal with Puerto Rico’s $70 billion debt. The dream of a new era for “strategic engagement” in the region can also be associated with the historically significant if politically clumsy visit by President Barack Obama to Cuba in late March. And an eventual revival of the Congressional Friends of the Caribbean caucus would be a reminder of an earlier era when the region resonated with the top echelon of U.S. foreign policymaking.
Actually, the pace of recent activity draws attention to the absence of a “Caribbean policy.” This is not so much meant as a criticism as a reflection of a policy process that has become very fragmented. Policies regarding the region exist, but many of them operate through competing bureaucracies and offer little indication that policymakers are succeeding in delivering some unity of thought. The House legislative effort (the Senate has yet to act) addresses that concern and instructs the executive branch to come up with a plan—which begs the question of how a future administration will envision a “strategic engagement” with the Caribbean. We may not have to wait too long, but the reverberations ensuing from the U.S. presidential campaign are highlighting issues—trade agreements, immigration policy, border control, and national security, let alone U.S. engagement in support of democracy—that should make one pause, including Caribbean leadership.
Let’s be frank, the most defining feature of U.S.-Caribbean relations is that they remain a poor cousin to Latin American and “Western Hemisphere” policy priorities. Notable exceptions are two long-standing U.S. policy conundrums—Cuba and Haiti—that have syphoned off resources and enormous policymaking interest. This conceptual disconnect may explain why most U.S. Caribbean-related initiatives of the past three decades have probably promised more than they have actually delivered—although it is not for a lack of trying.
The last time a synchronized vision emerged was at the beginning of the G.W. Bush administration, which launched the Third Border Initiative (TBI) at the 2001 Quebec City Summit of the Americas, but the ensuing potential never materialized. In scope the TBI was arguably a successor to the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI) of the Reagan years. The CBI’s strategic logic encompassing also Central America had held up well until the end of the Cold War, although its follow-on trade preferences iterations (the Caribbean Basin Economic Recovery Act and the Dominican Republic–Central America Free Trade Agreement [CAFTA/DR]) were ultimately of greater value to Central America than the Caribbean region—the Dominican Republic’s success under CAFTA is an exception. Between the CBI and TBI surfaced the Partnership for Prosperity and Security in the Caribbean, soon forgotten.
More recently the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI) has brought the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) countries and the Dominican Republic under one regional strategy, although conceptually as an appendage of a broader hemispheric security focus (notably Central America and the Andean region). The CBSI has faced challenges that come with having to operate across many national jurisdictions and bureaucracies that encompass the Caribbean, and how all of these pieces are actually supposed to work together. Summits have also been held with leaders from the region, and the Caribbean Energy Security Initiative has engaged senior U.S. leadership as well as triggered commitments of financial and industry interests. Nonetheless, cumulatively all of these efforts since the 1980s have not generated a sustained sense of heightened engagement by either side. So, are we now at a turning point?
U.S. policy perceptions of the region fluctuate between distant ambivalence at one end (despite the Caribbean’s geographic proximity) and politically messy aggregations of policy considerations (re: drugs, thugs, refugees, and terrorists) at the other. Nonetheless, when compared to deepening challenges the United States faces elsewhere, U.S.-Caribbean relations should be viewed as an unrealized potential. First and foremost, this region of 15 countries (and entities such as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands) represents a strategic partnership, a community whose governing political norms and societal values preponderantly coincide with those of the United States, and whose aspirations are reinforced by an extensive and increasingly politically integrated U.S. diaspora. Despite the relatively small scale of some of its components, the Caribbean ranks high in several individual U.S. political, security, and financial policy interests as the region comes under pressure from an expanding set of global forces.
While the fragile and small-scale jurisdictional character of the region has its challenges, U.S.-Caribbean policy is more directly burdened by the jumble of priorities and the wide mix of local, national, and foreign stakeholders that frames it. Much of what H.R. 4939 calls attention to actually exists in some form in existing policies and programs: (1) enhance diplomatic relations; (2) increase economic cooperation; (3) support regional integration; (4) encourage sustainable development through diversification and competitiveness; (5) reduce crime/curb drug trafficking and strengthen rule of law/citizen security; (6) increase energy security; (7) advance democracy and human rights; and (8) support public health–related cooperation. The thornier problem is extracting from all of this activity greater synergies than is presently the case. The task of devising a “strategic engagement” will therefore have to deflect the expedient temptation of generating new policy variations of existing ones—let alone simply calling for an additional batch of consulates and embassies.
What is required is not only policy discipline but a good dose of sensible thinking. One starting point can be to consolidate policy around a core of four strategic tracks. This will not be easy but without it a robust Caribbean “policy” will not substitute for the present dynamic of Caribbean “relations.” A second task will be to come to grips with two other policy domains that have had arguably an outsized impact on the character of U.S. policy: Cuba and Haiti.
I) Trade and investment—In need of recalibration to match the region’s changing economic activity. Last defined under the 1990 Caribbean Basin Economic Recovery Act with an emphasis on trade in goods, the focus has now shifted primarily to trade in business services, as well as higher education, health, and other sectors where the region may have comparative advantages. The need to catch up with reality can be seen with the Caribbean’s large banking centers (Cayman Islands, Bahamas, and others), whose use as safe harbor repositories by global investors also means that they fall under the tightening grip of U.S. anti-money-laundering laws targeting illicit flows. As the financial services industry addresses the awkwardly phrased need of “de-risking,” one unintended consequence has been the decline in U.S. bank correspondent relationships with local counterparts, which may be creating a market for new illicit flows. Another area in need of an updated regime affects smaller-scale financing and investment, notably in tourism, whose typical scope is often too small to qualify for Overseas Private Investment Corporation support. All of this affects private-sector initiatives and also limits opportunities for the United States to play a positive role in the region.
II) Citizen safety—Also commonly referred to as “citizen security” and with loose definitions added to the mainstream development lexicon over the past decade. Part of the problem lies with its conceptual catch-all character designed to address a wide mix of issues involving endemic poverty, violence, and corruption. It operates at the nexus of economic and social development assistance programs and rule of law initiatives—and programmatically stretches out to two other defining aspects of U.S. interests, narco-trafficking and immigration policies. This mix matches up with pockets of individualized needs in Caribbean countries, although not on the scale of Central America, where the citizen/safety/security nomenclature is (correctly) widely used. Operationally, portions of what is being addressed here fall under the current mandate of the CBSI but end up comingling efforts such as fighting illicit trafficking and promoting social justice into superficially integrated policy domains.
That much of this needs to be synchronized or sequenced is understandable, but it might be advisable to first untangle what is meant by citizen safety, with its mix of economic and social development, and governance initiatives from an admittedly overlapping universe of regional security-related threats associated more directly with law enforcement, intelligence, and even national military establishments. Among two hybrid issues, responses to humanitarian crises entail unique U.S. capabilities with unmatched logistical resources (notably military) but also call attention to enhanced efforts for localized first responders. A second issue—regional responses to health epidemics—potentially entails similar assets but initially engages a much broader professional health network unevenly distributed across the Caribbean.
III) Regional security—Anchored by the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative in what is a segmented agenda for some of the reasons noted above. The higher profile in the region of the U.S. military two decades ago is now a shared arena of other federal agencies, state and local law enforcement, and a U.S. Southern Command relocated to South Florida. With narco-trafficking, the challenge has been to insure that parallel U.S. initiatives in the Andean region and Mexico/Central America do not result in diverting drug flows back into the Caribbean. In this regard, the slow-motion implosion of Venezuela under Chavismo sustains the country as an open trafficking platform, and it fuels regional trepidation regarding the wider ramifications of an upcoming political denouement in Caracas. Regional security interests may also reacquire a geostrategic dimension not seen since the end of the Cold War, with Russia toying with notions of a renewed presence in Cuba and China pursuing a broad-gaged engagement in the region as a whole. Regional security also now encompasses an expanding cybersecurity threat as well as some indications of possible home-grown terrorism or jihadist cells.
All of this draws attention to the fragility of the region’s two key sectors—tourism and the leisure economy, and financial services—which would not require much to be derailed. More integrated regional intelligence capabilities, beefed-up subregional indigenous maritime control assets, proposals calling for greater use of “one-stop” security clearance procedures, as well as expansion of state-of-the-art passenger information and passport control systems, are part of a diverse menu of initiatives. Programmatically, this also implies focused technical assistance and training, let alone a sharper determination that policies are actually achieving their goals.
IV) Regional energy autonomy—A more pressing long-term issue for the region with the collapse of Petro-Caribe. The latter’s appeal for cash-strapped small countries offered no sustainable energy resource future and little contribution to economic development. The United States should never have allowed such a scheme to emerge from Venezuela. Considerable thinking is being put into shifting the region to alternative and sustainable sources—wind, solar, thermal, and possible connections to North American resource supplies. The latter is dependent on the commercial distribution feasibility of actually doing so and some residual unease about exporting U.S. energy resources.
Not to be overlooked remain the further (careful) exploration and development of more traditional oil and gas reserves, such as the Guyana-Suriname offshore basin, described by the U.S. Geological Survey as one of the world’s most prospective, underexplored offshore basin—in fact, recent successes off-shore Guyana allude to commercial viability. U.S. policy in tandem with private-sector engagement and superior technological know-how can make a measurable difference. Admittedly, all of this has a long way to go to trigger results for the Caribbean, but there is momentum.
Cuba : Much now rests on the recent opening to Havana, although few of the benefits implied by it have yet emerged. Instead, there is the disquieting paradox of a heightened repression targeting Cuba’s democracy activists while U.S. businesses are, in the phrasing of a recent analysis, “flooding the Cuban bureaucracy.” Likewise, while it might be politically expedient for the outgoing administration to fast-track U.S. business-friendly regulatory adjustments through presidential directives, it is further alienating congressional constituencies that will be needed in 2017 and beyond to make sense out of Cuba policy. Recall that congressional legislation (notably the Libertad Act of 1996) codifies into law the boundaries of U.S. policy into the mid-term.
Nonetheless, two plausible policy frameworks could pave the way toward more meaningful relations with Cuba. The first is a political approach, based on the premise that a credible U.S. policy comes from it being linked to our values, which means that the opening of ties with Havana is not an excuse to disavow those values. This would focus on Raul Castro’s purported transition in 2018 and, rather than wait until it happens, synchronize U.S. initiatives across a broad range of activities toward that event. Bridging this effort with the Caribbean’s democratic community might also be a way to highlight the positive reality that political modernization in Cuba will strengthen the region as whole.
U.S. policymakers need to display greater sensitivity than has been the case so far to the long-term material impact on the rest of the Caribbean of even a slow reentry of Cuba into the regional system. This is no small matter in view of the potentially widening disparity of scale in the region’s individual economics and demographics. The second policy framework is therefore multilateral and economic in scope, loosely harmonized with the political one described earlier. It capitalizes on the preference of the Cuban regime to diversify its international relations and provides it a potentially wider set of economic platforms—but channels this activity more coherently to address Cuba’s considerable development challenges and some of its overlap with the rest of the region. This will not be easy for the United States, but the reality is that over the long run Cuban financial, technological, and consumer activity is most likely going to acquire a strong U.S. content.
Haiti : A $70 million-plus electoral fiasco, combined with an interim government since last February (now past its due date) wrestling to hold repeat presidential elections, leaves Haiti close to rudderless—and unlucky. Early in October, Hurricane Matthew slammed into Haiti’s southwest peninsula, causing enormous damage and postponing the elections for at least several weeks. Prior to this latest calamity, Washington had been withholding further electoral assistance, forcing the Haitian government to cobble together the needed resources in what has resembled a form of crowdfunding. This may have had the salutary effect of forcing Haitian leadership to own up to their collective responsibilities, although a positive outcome to all of this remains uncertain.
Withholding funding may have been the right response by Washington, but it begs the question of where this is all supposed to end up. To most observers, U.S. policymakers (and other international actors) appear resigned to resolving Haiti’s political stalemate through expediency, if only to have an elected government in place by February 2017. But while U.S.-Caribbean relations can be on automatic pilot during the current U.S. elections interregnum, Haiti’s deteriorating political and economic circumstances may not be so accommodating. The administration should avoid leaving its successor a glorious mess.
U.S.-Caribbean relations includes other considerations, but coalescing around the above four policy tracks and forcing discipline into the management of the Cuban and Haitian relationships would go a long way in transitioning to a more defined Caribbean policy. Admittedly, there are several residual issues, with immigration policy probably the most prominent. Although high-decibel politically—and highlighted in the current U.S. election cycle—it is arguably not a center of great controversy in U.S.-Caribbean relations with the notable exceptions of the sensitivity associated with Cuban and Haitian refugee policies. But these have become so compartmentalized that they should be viewed as unique elements of respective U.S. policies toward Cuba and Haiti. By extension, coming to grips with them should also address immigration policy concerns.
Alternatively, what the immigration issue draws attention to is a potentially more relevant factor. The extensive West Indian and Dominican U.S.-based diaspora, in addition to the Cuban and Haitian communities, represent an increasingly politically integrated constituency and an underutilized asset in shaping U.S.-Caribbean policy. A CSIS study issued in the late 1990s made the point that the future of U.S.-Caribbean relations could not be separated from the dynamic of the Caribbean diaspora in the United States. It represented then an already salient constituency and a “nascent force in U.S. policymaking,” and that is even more the case today.
The 2016 U.S. presidential campaign saw the emergence of two newer-generation Cuban-American candidates, while the last decade has seen an expanding group from the Caribbean diaspora elected to local, municipal, and state-level government. Many are now found in the federal service, including the White House. These voices help shape local business and investment decisions but also stretch out to a broad range of policy issues, such as health services, energy, and education. Members of Congress may initially be more likely to listen to these domestic constituencies than Caribbean governments, particularly if they are themselves from the region’s diaspora—for example, a Dominican-American, Adriano Espaillat, is running for retiring Representative Charles Rangel’s seat in New York. Likewise, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands’ representation on Capitol Hill are unique assets, admittedly in need of support from Washington but also representing a strategic gateway to an energized U.S. role in the Caribbean.
A renewal in U.S.-Caribbean relations draws attention to the inherent limitations of earlier frameworks. The CBI did well in the 1980s, framed by global strategic imperatives, but reduction to a security prism leaves out too much in today’s environment. The TBI conceptualization was appealing in its ability to visualize a distinct relationship with the Caribbean vis-à-vis other U.S. borders (Canada and Mexico), but it could also be misconstrued as emphasizing barriers and a threatening region. One way to move forward is for policymakers to work from an overarching vision—grandiose perhaps—of an effective interaction between core U.S. policy interests and Caribbean multilateralism, energizing what can be termed a “Caribbean Twenty-first Century policy.”
Caribbean multilateralism is layered with assets, starting with functioning if somewhat fragile national and regional networks of norm-based institutions, including CARICOM, the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB), and with an enlarged definition of the region, the Association of Caribbean States. Significant subregional visions are also beginning to take shape, the best example being a form of northern Caribbean subregional economic functionalism bringing together Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and the Bahamas. A rebooting of the roles Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands play in U.S. regional policymaking adds to this expression of a more integrated U.S. policy. Canada’s historically significant engagement in the region must be viewed as a strategic factor for any U.S. conceptualization of Caribbean policy, including its large exposures in banking, mining (notably in Cuba), and power generation. Ottawa also has a significant development assistance portfolio that merges well with U.S. priorities, let alone playing a long-term role in Haiti’s stabilization efforts. Likewise, the residual presence of France and the Netherlands in the region, intersecting with key interests in the financial, leisure industry, and regional security domains, is also part of this Caribbean multilateralism.
Twenty-five years ago, Robert Pastor and Richard Fletcher formulated a stark question that has not been answered: “Can the Caribbean end its economic stagnation and backwardness and embark on a bold new course to fulfill the region’s potential?” An integrated U.S.-Caribbean policy—a Caribbean Twenty-first Century policy—can play a role in answering this in the affirmative.
Georges Fauriol is vice president for programs, grants operations, and evaluation at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and a senior associate with the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. The views represented here are those of the author and not of NED or CSIS.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2016 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.Photo credit: YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images