Foreign Policy in CARICOM: pursuing national development benefits

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By Elizabeth Morgan

The recent visit of US Secretary of State, Michael Pompeo, put the spotlight on US/CARICOM relations and CARICOM countries’ continuing foreign policy dilemma of balancing their relationship with global and regional powers to gain national development benefits and influence amid hegemonic competition.

Before WW II, the colonial British West Indian territories were largely shielded from US influence. The US focused on Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Central and South America. A legacy of distrust lingers.

Greater US influence in the Anglo-phone Caribbean came in the post war period. Following independence, the US became a major investor and trading partner. Independent Commonwealth Caribbean countries were generally aligned with the western powers and their ideology, and were supporters of multilateralism in the United Nations system.

The Soviet Union and its socialist ideology were viewed with apprehension. The Organization of American States (OAS) was established in 1948 with hemispheric security as one of its key objectives. British Guiana’s Cheddi Jagan would be an early victim of suspicions of socialism.

By 1960, the Soviet Union had a foothold in Castro’s Cuba. Forms of socialism were appearing more attractive to various regional leaders as a pathway to equitable development. By the early 1970s, administrations in Guyana, Jamaica and elsewhere, supporting non-alignment, were strengthening diplomatic and economic relations with Cuba, the Soviet Bloc and the People’s Republic of China. Cold War tensions brewed within the region.

CARICOM was formed in 1973 and the founders anticipated that strength in unity would aid in building mutually beneficial relationships with the global powers including the European Community which Britain had joined.

National positions, however, would lead CARICOM countries to be seen as more closely aligned with one side or the other. By the end of the 1980s, US hegemony, in the Grenada aftermath, saw the offer of trade and economic cooperation through the Caribbean Basin Initiative.

1989 -1991 was a landmark period in which the Soviet Bloc disintegrated and the Cold War ended. Alliances began to shift. US Presidents, with doubtful success, sought to strengthen relations in the hemisphere with the Enterprise for Americas Initiative, the Summit of the Americas, the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) and the Caribbean Third Border Initiative. The US’ Caribbean policy would primarily focus on security and immigration.

By 2005, the socialist People’s Republic of China had emerged as a trade and economic power. Their reputation as a more flexible development partner spread among developing countries including those in the Caribbean, though some countries still recognized Taiwan. BRICS, the alliance of emerging economies (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), signaled a possible alternative to traditional development partners. Jamaica, for example, had new embassies in China, South Africa and Brazil.

With rising oil prices and economic concerns, Venezuela instituted the PetroCaribe cooperation agreement providing concessions for energy supplies to interested CARICOM countries. Within Latin America and the Caribbean, Luis Lula da Silva of Brazil and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela were the regional leaders encouraging Latin America and the Caribbean unity. The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), including Cuba, was founded in 2010. Countries in CARICOM were strengthening relations in Latin America and with China.

Post 2010, a lot has changed. Lula and Chavez are off the scene. Brazilian growth has waned; Venezuela is in crisis; and South Africa is yet to realize its potential. In the global economy, protectionism in trade and the impact of climate change are growing concerns. The US and others are troubled by China’s influence in the developing countries. Under President Donald Trump, tension has mounted between the US and China. In this scenario, current CARICOM administrations want to retain their relationship with both.

They also want to maintain their relationship with the EU through the ACP. A new agreement is being negotiated to unite the Caribbean and EU in a treaty bound partnership of equals. The UK is leaving the EU to chart its own course in the world, eyeing a Commonwealth alliance. Russia remains a force with aspirations.

Once again, CARICOM countries, as mainly small island developing states seeking national development benefits, find themselves facing a world order in transition. They want to maintain their ‘friendly’ relationship with major global and regional powers competing for influence, while themselves remaining unscathed.  This manoeuvre requires diplomatic agility and strategic creativity, especially in the multilateral arena. The self-interest approach, indeed, could also be squandering regional advantages. CARICOM Members must be certain that they are coming to terms with the complexities of the world as it now exist and considering the future.

Submitted by Elizabeth Morgan, Specialist in International Trade Policy and International Politics

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