CARICOM/US Relations: More Effectively Promoting Regional Interests

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By Elizabeth Morgan

Since the US Presidential elections on November 3, won by Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, various fora in the Caribbean have been assessing what the new administration will mean for the region.

US Vice President-elect Kamala Harris

The Gleaner Editorial of November 24 titled “CARICOM Reset on Relations with US” called for Member States of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) to be prepared to engage with the Biden/Harris administration to have its issues addressed. The Gleaner suggested that CARICOM should utilize the back channels it has in Washington DC, such as the diaspora, members of the new administration with Caribbean heritage, and members of Congress.

The CARICOM Diaspora in the US

From a 2017 document, the CARICOM Diaspora in the USA numbers about 2 million with most coming from Jamaica and Haiti. They are concentrated in New York and Florida. To participate in the US political process, persons of immigrant origin must be US citizens to vote in elections. Thus, persons with resident status, green card holders, are not eligible to vote or to stand for political office. It is reported that more eligible Caribbean nationals participated in the November 3 elections motivated not only by the desire for a change of administration but by Kamala Harris’ Jamaican heritage. The Gleaner’s editorial of Sunday, December 13, highlighted the Caribbean women who actively campaigned to elect Biden.

The CARICOM diaspora could have more political influence in the USA, but as I had pointed out in my article of June 19, 2019 titled “A United CARICOM Diaspora?”, while there are national diaspora organizations, on a regional level, the diaspora is still not united and well-coordinated. The Institute of Caribbean Studies led by Claire Nelson does organize events especially in June, National Caribbean-American Heritage Month. To do what the Gleaner envisages to promote Caribbean interests, it seems that the CARICOM diaspora would need to be more cohesive and better organized.

US Congress

The US House of Representatives has at least two representatives with CARICOM heritage, Congresswomen Yvette Clarke of New York (Jamaica) and Frederica Wilson of Florida (Bahamas).

I noted that there is a bi-partisan Congressional Caribbean Caucus co-chaired by Yvette Clarke and Maxine Waters. This Caribbean Caucus was established in about 2012. Its primary mission, I read, is to provide a platform for members of Congress to work in collaboration with the US Government, CARICOM, Diaspora groups, and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to increase cross cultural, historical, political and economic understanding. It is not clear to me how active this body now is, but it could be an important vehicle for channeling CARICOM interests and strengthening relations.

The Biden Administration

The Vice-President-elect does have Jamaican heritage and so does Susan Rice nominated to be Biden’s Director of the Domestic Policy Council. Caribbean linkages in the new administration might have benefits, but CARICOM needs to foster useful relationships in the Departments of State, Treasury, Labour, Energy, Homeland Security, Health, Commerce, Agriculture, Environment and the Office of the US Trade Representative. There should be investment in building relationships on Capitol Hill (Congress) and in the Federal Departments.

The CARICOM Caucus of Ambassadors and Consuls General

All CARICOM countries have diplomatic representation to the USA in Washington DC. Most are also their country’s Permanent Representative to the Organization of American States (OAS). The Ambassadors work closely in coordinating issues of common interest, but must focus on building the bilateral CARICOM/US relationship.

CARICOM Consulates are also in New York City and Miami, and the Consuls General also work together. They are very involved in strengthening the relationship with the diaspora and should also be strengthening relationships at the state and city levels.

Policy guidance to our representatives come from their national governments also taking account of decisions from the organs of CARICOM, the Conference of Heads of Government, the Council on Foreign and Community Relations (COFCOR), and the Council for Trade and Economic Development (COTED). I think an annual visit to Washington DC by the Chair of CARICOM or Chair of COFCOR would be a useful exercise.

CARICOM’s US Foreign Policy

For CARICOM representatives to engage effectively with the US Administration, the Congressional representatives and the diaspora, CARICOM needs to have a clear policy and strategy to guide its representatives in Washington DC, in New York and Miami, and elsewhere.

Currently, the CARICOM/US relationship is covered by, among others, the following instruments: US/Caribbean Strategic Engagement Act and Strategy; the Caribbean Basin Initiative (the Caribbean Basin Economic Recovery Act and the Caribbean Basin Trade Partnership Act); US/CARICOM Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA); the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative; and the Caribbean Energy Security Initiative.

Ii continues to be my view that CARICOM would benefit from convening a symposium in which to reflect upon its relationship with the USA, examining the effectiveness of these instruments and the mechanisms for lobbying, in order to determine regional priorities and strategies/tactics. CARICOM would then be in a better position to engage with the diaspora through existing bodies, with the Congressional representatives and Caucuses, and with key figures in the Biden Administration. Preparation before engagement is essential. This should be on the regional agenda for early in 2021 with the aim to execute a regional initiative during National Caribbean-American Heritage Month thus better utilizing existing structures.

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

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