By David Jessop
Imagining a better future for the Caribbean is not hard, but delivering it is becoming infinitely more complex.
In the modern world, in a non-biblical sense, a Caribbean promised land ought to be able to deliver stable economic growth from which all citizens benefit; significant progress towards the eradication of poverty and crime; a financing mechanism that provides for universal high-quality free health care and education; future-facing infrastructure that supports development and investment; mechanisms that mitigate the now unstoppable impact of climate change; social mobility; a vibrant outward-looking private sector; guaranteed food security; and the earned wherewithal to pay for such transformative change.
In most Caribbean states the list of dynamically interlinked issues requiring resolution are now mind-numbing in their complexity.
To reach Camelot, the region will also have to address the societal issues which by example have for too long held women back. The region’s workforce needs to be reoriented and skilled to enable the development of higher value service industries, Caribbean integration requires new thinking to respond to global economic change, governments need to better define their red lines on sovereignty, and practical solutions are needed on issues from tax reform to reparations.
Unfortunately, past failures to address structural reform in real-time or to factor in the marginalising impact of globalisation and post-cold war stability have not only made delivery difficult but the issues are about to become more acute.
The pandemic will significantly worsen indebtedness at a time when the Caribbean’s extra-regional partners have different priorities and cannot agree on how potentially supportive concessional financing might in future be provided. Although tourism will return and economies slowly recover, the underlying problems will remain, possibly becoming more complex if the region fragments in all but name into sub-groups with different outlooks and needs.
Even if this outline analysis is halfway correct, future success, as opposed to muddling through, will require new approaches to leadership and for the region’s politicians to provide a much stronger, coherent, and persuasive strategic vision.
There are of course Caribbean political, business, and other leaders able to reimagine the region and their country’s place in the world and who convincingly are trying to do something about it: Mia Mottley in Barbados is a good example, and there are others. However, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that if the region is to truly escape from its fraught history and identify what is necessary to deliver the future, the region’s political class and establishment needs to step outside its collective comfort zone, explain frankly the implications of the long-term problems the region faces, and commit to delivery and timely responses.
In the recent past, the big issues that Caribbean leaders had to address were largely linear, finding a viable path out of preference, achieving greater equity in global trade, fostering tourism in ways that generate employment and taxation, delivering development in a region of social market economies: all issues capable of resolution by negotiation and individual intervention. However, in recent years, changes in the wider world have made Caribbean leadership an exercise in something akin to four-dimensional chess, requiring an awareness of the actions of third nations and parties whose objectives may be opaque and far from developmental.
In addition to the normal exercise of government that should enable citizens to see that their lives and livelihoods are improving, leaders and governments must now also respond to multiple other distracting events ranging from cyber and other security threats which in unprotected societies can hold whole nations to ransom, to offsetting national reputational damage driven by social media and the rolling news cycle.
Very soon, the region’s leaders may have to respond to strategically critical developments that will affect the Caribbean’s future economic and political trajectory.
On January 10, president Biden and Russia’s president Putin will meet in Geneva for three days. Although their encounter nominally responds to the dramatic pre-Christmas escalation of East-West tension in Europe and the presence of large numbers of Russian troops on the borders of Ukraine, the outcome is potentially of great geopolitical significance. Their discussions in some respects mirror the division of Europe at Yalta in 1945 and the later Cuban missile crisis, while also paralleling in some respects what could happen between the US and China in the South China Seas and in relation to Taiwan.
Oversimplified, president Putin, who threatens a military intervention in Ukraine and an energy crisis, wants a world in which the major powers agree spheres of influence, reach legally binding agreements on the location of military installations, and have NATO, the west’s mutual defence alliance, accept that parts of the former Soviet Union can never become members.
In contrast to Putin’s desire for the issue to be resolved by one-on-one discussions with president Biden, Washington and its allies argue that Ukraine and any sovereign state should be free to choose its own system and alliances, and that their actions should not be limited by the influence of great powers.
If as seems likely the emerging crisis is not resolved, and the US in all but name strengthens its influence in those parts of the world it sees as central to its own security, Caribbean leaders are going to have to think how they jointly and separately relate to the multipolar world that emerges.
The region’s overriding ties in relation to trade and investment, security, culture, continue to be with the geographically proximate US and to a lesser extent the EU and UK, but are balanced by the extensive long-term economic support that China has committed. Russia has what it now describes as a ‘strategic relationship’ with Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, and is deepening its economic engagement with the Caribbean and Latin America. In addition, all nations in the region have positive and mutually supportive relations with Cuba, as some do with Venezuela.
If as seems likely, a new and possibly alarming multidimensional cold war is in the offing, it could test Caribbean leadership and the response of civil society to the limits, as remaining nonaligned, which in the past has offered a way out of overtly taking sides, this may time be harder to achieve.
For this reason, it may be the moment for the Caribbean to consider how global confrontation might offer it leverage to obtain new, well-financed, rapidly delivered support from one or another global actor. If this involves the region’s leadership shrewdly defining the nature of the Caribbean’s modern identity and needs and the way in which future alignments might practically help them deliver viable solutions to the problems the region faces, there is an outside chance the Caribbean might reach something close to the promised land.