By David Jessop
Speaking recently at Bocas Lit Fest, Jamaica’s former prime minister, P J Patterson, observed that in recent years there had been a “deliberate attempt” to split the Caribbean.
After referencing the EU’s divisive action in relation to the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of Nations (the ACP) he went on to say “I am afraid to say (fragmentation) is happening in CARICOM and perhaps the difference in our approach in relating to Venezuela is the best example of that”.
Such divisions, he observed, are becoming more pronounced “the more so when there is interest in a commodity which is being found to exist in abundance in Guyana”. He also noted how difficult it will be for the Caribbean to achieve its objectives in relation to debt, climate change, COVID-19 and participate in the development of a new world order if others divide regional unity.
Patterson makes an important point.
Reading and listening online to the recent comments made by the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo during his recent visit to Suriname and Guyana and to members of their recently elected governments, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Washington has, by design, sought to divide the region to obtain the support of the majority of Caribbean governments for its regional agenda.
By finding ways to divide the region into groups that might be considered ‘the willing’ and the ‘less willing’, it has with subtlety and softer language begun to deliver in the Caribbean a version of the Monroe Doctrine designed for the 21st century.
This is not to suggest that the support that the US is now offering is unwelcome, but to observe that with the exception of Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Dominica, Antigua and Barbuda, every other CARICOM nation tacitly conceded that there is no longer unity of purpose within CARICOM.
For most of its first term, the Trump administration’s policy towards the region has been driven by concern about Venezuela, lessening China’s economic influence in the region, and enhancing its own security.
However, in recent months Washington has deployed language that seeks to accommodate the Caribbean’s differing views and strong defence of sovereignty by placing greater emphasis on delivering mutual economic benefit, in ways that will see US corporations playing a role that more closely integrates the region with its powerful northern neighbour.
This newfound subtlety was clearly in evidence in the language used in relation to China in a recent non- attributable briefing by a senior State Department official prior to Pompeo’s visit.
In answer to a journalist’s question, the official said that the US was not saying do not deal with China. “We deal with China and other countries deal with China. They’re a big economy. There’s really no choice but to deal with them. But what we are saying is when you deal with them, make them deal on transparent, 21st century, above-board terms, not on the sort of 19th-century imperialist, mercantilist, opaque terms that Chinese Communist Party and Chinese businesses owned by the – owned or controlled by the Communist Party seem to favour”, he said.
The senior official also urged countries to look at their security interests. Venezuela by harbouring ‘terrorists and narcotraffickers’ made it in “Guyana’s own interest … to try to work together (with the US) to try to resolve the crisis in Venezuela”, he observed.
Washington’s policy perspective on the Caribbean appears to be based on several overriding premises which will likely to govern how and with which Caribbean countries it prefers to deepen economic relations.
Firstly, it requires all nations to be western-style democracies. In one of the more interesting comments made when the former administration in Guyana would not accept the country’s contested election outcome, Pompeo said, “we have long said that we have no preference for a winning party, as long as it is selected through a free and fair electoral process that is credible”. He also warned that the US was prepared to deploy sanctions against sitting politicians who did not comply.
Secondly, when it comes to security, The US is consolidating its position as the principal provider of analysis support and training across the region, as well as deploying a much stronger multi-faceted and better-integrated presence.
Its much-strengthened capabilities in the Eastern Caribbean, are principally tasked against the sea air and land corridors out of Venezuela through which organised crime, with or without the involvement of government, move narcotics, gold, arms and people North and West through the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific, developing as they do so networks that corrupt and may criminally subvert other nations. The US is also engaged in providing security support in other vital ways including in relation to the growing regional cybersecurity threats by a wide range of external actors.
Thirdly, and importantly for the region’s future growth, the US sees the provision of support to the willing coming through mechanisms such as the Growth in the Americas Initiative which so far Guyana and Jamaica have signed onto. The initiative promises in part to encourage US corporate support with infrastructure for water, energy and hydrocarbons, buildings, airports, basic sanitation, information technology, logistics infrastructure, roads, railways, bridges, ports, and tunnels.
Speaking in Guyana and Suriname, Pompeo said that the US will put no political pressure on countries to accept tenders from US corporations, but in Suriname and Guyana made the point that US companies were global leaders in investment in infrastructure. He also indicated that Washington had a significant interest in participating in the far-reaching strategically important economic transformation that is beginning to take shape in the two countries.
In the world of realpolitik and geostrategic accommodation, such statements suggest that the US has developed a strategy intended to increase its dominance in the Caribbean, not just at the expense of China and Venezuela, but in relation to the EU and other global players as well. CARICOM and the wider region would do well to determine how as a group it intends responding to this new and likely long-lived version of the Monroe doctrine that offers benefit, but at a price.