By Alicia Nicholls
Caribbean leaders have joined with those around the world to warmly congratulate US president-elect, Joe Biden, on winning the US presidential election of November 3, 2020. Of particular pride for the region is that his second-in-command, Senator Kamala Harris, who has both Jamaican and Indian parentage, is not just the first woman vice president-elect, but first person of colour and first person of Caribbean descent to ascend to such high office in the US.
As of the time of this article’s writing, incumbent Republican president, Donald Trump, who has now lost the popular vote twice, has not yet conceded defeat and has launched several legal challenges, calling the election ‘fraudulent’.
Beyond the symbolism of the Biden-Harris win, and assuming a peaceful transfer of power come January 20, 2021 (the date set for Biden’s inauguration), what does the Biden/Harris victory portend for the future of US-Caribbean relations?
Who are Joe Biden and Kamala Harris?
Joe Biden, who is 77 and will be 78 when inaugurated, will be the oldest US president to assume office. This was Biden’s third run for the White House. However, he brings a wealth of experience and skills as a former long-standing Senator for the US state of Delaware where he was a member and eventually chair of the Senate Foreign Relations committee. He was also vice president under the Obama administration. This experience will be invaluable for the long slog ahead of him.
His much younger vice president, Senator Harris, is an accomplished attorney-at-law, who was the District Attorney of the City and County of San Francisco, the attorney-general of California and currently serves as a US senator for California. Harris, who is the daughter of an Indian-born mother and Jamaican-born father, had also been a candidate for president in the Democratic primaries this election cycle.
The long, hard task ahead
As noted in his victory speech delivered last night in Wilmington, Delaware, president-elect Biden acknowledged the monumental task ahead of healing a politically divided nation, rescuing an economy on the brink and a country plagued by the COVID-19 pandemic and civil unrest.
Biden’s consistent message of unity and racial equity should bring some comfort to persons of the Caribbean diaspora negatively impacted by the racially charged rhetoric and divisiveness that marked the past four years of the Trump administration. Biden has also repeatedly promised to repair and rebuild relationships with traditional American allies strained under President Trump, such as with the European Union (EU).
Biden’s win will occasion a pivotal turning point in the US’ approach to the COVID-19 pandemic which the Trump administration epically mishandled. Trump, notably, suspended US funding to the World Health Organization (WHO) and consistently downplayed the seriousness of the virus, even after he himself and many of his White House staffers became infected. In contrast, one of Biden’s first acts will be to announce a 12-person COVID-19 taskforce evincing a more robust response to the virus which has so far infected over 9.5 million Americans and killed 234,000.
The frequent saying “when America sneezes, the Caribbean catches a cold”, is not an exaggeration given that the US is the region’s largest trading partner, tourism source market and home to the Caribbean’s largest diaspora. Many Caribbean countries, dependent on US tourist arrivals, have had to classify the US as a ‘high risk’ country because of the Trump administration’s bungling of the pandemic. A better coordinated federal approach to stem the US’ currently high coronavirus infection and death rate should benefit Caribbean countries whose tourism sectors have been particularly hard hit by the economic fall-out from the virus globally.
On the issue of trade, it is likely that Biden will be less embracing of free trade than under the Obama-Biden administration. This is because there is growing sentiment in the US, especially in the so-called ‘Rustbelt’ states which were key to Biden’s win, that trade has not been a net positive for American workers. That being said, a more multilateral approach and some semblance of stability and consistency should appear in US trade policy under the incoming Biden administration.
Unlike his predecessor, Biden has expressed support for the World Trade Organization (WTO) whose relevance and operations have been undermined over the past four years. One of the Trump administration’s latest acts has been to delay the selection of Nigeria’s Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the candidate deemed most likely to achieve consensus to be the next WTO director-general. It remains to be seen whether the Biden administration will support her candidacy.
Biden’s victory also means that the Caribbean and the world have regained an ally in the fight against climate change, an ally which is in fact the second-largest emitter of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Biden has promised that the US will rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement, which the US negotiated and joined under the Obama/Biden administration and from which his predecessor withdrew just this week. Additionally, he will seek to implement his Plan for Climate Change and Environmental justice which will include measures to limit the US’ greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
Biden has also indicated a more humane approach to immigration than the Trump administration which curtailed legal pathways to immigration, implemented the infamous Muslim ban and the equally inhumane family separation policy resulting in some 545 migrant children separated from their parents at the border still to be reunited with their parents.
The Trump administration also saw US aid cuts to charities and NGOs world-wide, including in the Caribbean. This included a prohibition on aid to those which include abortion advice in the reproductive health services they provide to women. Biden is pro-choice and it is likely this policy will be reversed.
The less certain…
There are, of course, several unknowns. On the issue of Cuba, Biden has criticized Trump’s hard-lined approach. While we can assume Biden might take a more conciliatory approach and loosen restrictions similar to what was done under the Obama-Biden administration, it is unknown to what extent he is willing to go the extra step to finally end the US’ decades-old illegal embargo on that island nation.
Less certain will be Biden’s approach to US-China relations which had always had its ebbs and flows, but escalated into an outright trade war under the Trump administration until the signing of the Phase 1 Trade Deal. Although not all Caribbean countries recognise the People’s Republic China, that country’s growing economic presence in the Caribbean has been a source of some tension in US-Caribbean relations.
Venezuela is another ally of the Caribbean which has had strained relations with the US. While it is unclear what would be Biden’s approach to the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, he is likely to take a more multilateral and cooperative approach than the unilateral approach currently taken by the current administration.
Another unknown is where Biden stands on the issue of offshore international financial centres. The Obama-Biden administration had taken a particular harsh stance against Caribbean IFCs, branding them as ‘tax havens’. As I noted in a previous article, while it is hoped that VP Harris’ Caribbean ancestry might have a modulating influence on the administration’s engagement with the Caribbean, it is important for the region to remember first of all that she is an American first.
It should also be cautioned that the extent to which Biden will be successful in his legislative agenda will be dependent on whether the Democrats or Republicans control the Senate which is still undecided. That said, the Biden-Harris presidency will mean a steadier hand at the US ship of state – a marked departure from the erraticism, unilateralism and volatility of the past four years. Like the rest of the world, the Caribbean could at the very least look forward to a more traditional US foreign policy, a more stable if more inward-looking trade policy, and a return to multilateral cooperation on some of the world’s greatest challenges, such as climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B. is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade.