By David Jessop
It is easy to share the excitement felt across the Caribbean at president-elect Joe Biden’s victory in the US polls.
However, a calmer voice within suggests that while the outcome will bring some short-term big-picture policy gains for the region, the extreme political polarisation the election highlighted does not bode well for the country that matters most to the region.
That said, and despite Trump’s apparent interest in a confused and vindictive transition process, Biden is already advancing plans in several policy areas of general significance to the Caribbean. These relate to climate change, addressing COVID, the roll-out of a vaccine, and stimulating the US economy.
In the case of climate change, Biden will reverse the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the 2016 Paris climate change accord and seek a significant role in the delayed COP 26 global climate summit, now to be held in Glasgow in November 2021. The US president-elect has already said that he will ‘listen to science’, that it is his intention the US achieve net-zero carbon emissions by the middle of the century through radical reform measures and will integrate climate change targets with US foreign policy.
The incoming administration is expected to re-join the World Health Organisation, establish a new COVID-19 task force, and allocate US$25 billion for vaccine development and distribution. It will probably also support the WHO’s COVAX facility that will benefit most Caribbean nations by providing at reduced cost significant quantities of vaccines as they become available.
Assuming Congress can agree, the region also stands to benefit indirectly from the Biden presidency’s intention to deliver a package of domestic measures aimed at stimulating post-pandemic economic growth. This and a possible vaccine should enable the Caribbean, two years out, to see the return of significant demand for US travel to the Caribbean.
Of almost as great importance to the region will be a change in US government values in the form of a commitment to multilateralism, an end to the induced polarisation in organisations like the Organisation of American States, the reassertion of ethical values on black lives and gender equality, and respect for and support for allies.
Although easy to overstate, given the global pressures they will face, Biden, his wife and vice-president-elect Harris all know and understand what motivates and matters to the region. In addition, the often-underestimated importance of the expert advice and analysis provided by long-suffering career service officers in the Caribbean and in the US is now expected to be better heard.
On trade and investment policy the tone and approach of the Biden presidency will be different and linked less transactionally to the US’s security and political concerns. However, there is little reason to believe that the new administration will do anything other than continue to secure the hemisphere as an integrated special trading partner in order to lessen Chinese influence, stimulate nearshoring, and continue existing policies that support a central developmental role for the US private sector.
In contrast, the coercive and regionally divisive approach taken by president Trump in seeking a coalition of willing Caribbean states prepared to trade off an improved economic relationship against meeting US trade, political and security objectives, is expected to end. Despite this, the pressures in relation to Chinese 5G and other emerging technologies will continue, albeit based on a common Western approach to investment screening.
On security, the US’s regional and hemispheric concerns and support are unlikely to alter. However, of particular significance to the Caribbean is an awareness in the Biden camp that the vacuum created by isolating Venezuela and Cuba has created a destabilising refugee crisis, citizen poverty, and instability, offering geopolitical opportunity to Russia, China, Iran and Turkey.
Specifically, on Cuba, the Biden team made clear before the election that it wants to retore a working relationship over time but that this cannot be the same as existed under president Obama. As in the case of Venezuela, this may involve a negotiated step by step approach that seeks to ease tensions, addresses the US’s border refugee crisis, establishes on a multilateral basis support for the Cuban people, and slowly restores travel, trade and limited forms of cooperation.
What this caution reflects is concern among Democrats that the Cuban American vote in Florida and voter perceptions of ‘socialism’ impacted to their detriment in what was once a swing state. Although Cuba has yet to say more about the election outcome, one interesting commentary in the state media has suggested that misplaced political perceptions about a relatively small group of Cuban-Americans in Florida may determine future US-Cuba policy. ‘By focusing on that tiny vote, in national terms, both parties are unaware of the position of broad sectors of US voters who favour the most normalised relationship possible with Cuba and who have specific interests in business, science, culture, academic relations, health and other sectors’, Cubadebate wrote.
More generally the Biden presidency is expected to continue the process of strategic reorientation begun under president Obama that recognised that the US would over time cease to be the sole global hegemon and that it needs to address China’s rapid technological advance.
Caribbean leaders have congratulated president-elect Biden and in private are now looking forward to a period in which many of the economic and political issues that matter most to the region will receive a more sympathetic, less transactional hearing in Washington.
However, it is far from clear, even with a friend in the White House, whether a divided and poorly integrated Caribbean still struggling to overcome the pandemic has the energy and leverage to successfully prosecute its case.
Beyond the good news, the region urgently needs to end its graduation out of concessional financing, needs a well-supported multilateral post-pandemic recovery package, and to convince Washington that fairly achieved US, Chinese, European and other investment all have a future place in the region. It needs to engage now.