US – Caribbean relations more than China and Russia 

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Sir Ronald Sanders is Ambassador of Antigua and Barbuda to the United States and the Organisation of American States. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and at Massey College in the University of Toronto.

By Sir Ronald Sanders

There has been a troubling development in relations between the US and the 14 independent nations of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM).

In the absence of a clear US government strategy for the Caribbean, on February 7, a Bill entitled: “The Western Hemisphere Security Strategy Act of 2022” from two Senators, Republican Marco Rubio and Democratic Bob Menendez, was referred to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

This Bill was introduced with no input from Caribbean governments or any other official Caribbean representative organisations. Not surprisingly, therefore, the interests of Caribbean countries are not reflected in the Bill.

According to Senator Rubio, this bill is being introduced “at a time when the destabilizing impact of authoritarian regimes, and transnational criminal organizations, in addition to the malign activities of state actors like China and Russia, pose risks to US national security”.

The authoritarian regimes in the Caribbean and Latin America, which the Bill claims are causing a “destabilizing impact” on US security, are not identified. They could hardly exist in the CARICOM region, where, apart from Haiti and its very peculiar circumstances, all governments have been freely and fairly elected and adhere to both domestic and international requirements of the rule of law.

Indeed, according to Freedom House, a non-profit, majority US government-funded organization in Washington, DC that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom, and human rights, many Caribbean countries rank ahead of the US in the measurement of respect for political and civil rights.

In Freedom House’s Global Freedom Score for 2021, the US is rated at 83 (highest rating being 100), several points lower than Antigua and Barbuda (85), Barbados (95), Belize (87), Dominica (93), Grenada (89), St Kitts-Nevis (89), Saint Lucia (91), St Vincent and the Grenadines (91) and The Bahamas (91). Significantly, all the CARICOM countries, except Haiti, are rated as “free” as is the US.

In the context of “authoritarian regimes”, therefore, Senators Rubio and Menendez must have had in mind specific, and non-CARICOM, Caribbean countries. However, the Senators present no evidence of the “destabilizing impact” on US security of any Caribbean country.

Senator Rubio also identified “the malign activities of state actors like China and Russia” in the region as posing “risks to US national security”. In his Media Release, Senator Rubio claimed that: “There is no greater threat in our region than the growing meddling of Russia and China in Latin America and the Caribbean.”

It is in this framework, in which drug and human trafficking are included, that these two influential Senators have introduced this bill. It has come one year into the current administration of US president Joseph Biden, and almost five years since the US State Department, under former president Donald Trump, issued its “US Strategy for Engagement in the Caribbean” in June 2017.

In reality, the 2017 strategy attracted no funding and existed more in word than in deed. President Trump’s Caribbean interests focussed on Cuba, as a response to Cuban-American exiles with whom he allied to win the State of Florida in the 2020 Presidential elections, and on Venezuela for similar reasons.

President Biden, no doubt, pre-occupied with troubling domestic and external issues that included fighting the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, recovering the US economy, getting troops out of Afghanistan, and trying to restore international confidence in the US government as a reliable partner to Europe in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, has set out no Caribbean policy. Therefore, such a policy, as now exists, is one that responds to Caribbean advocacy in specific areas such as providing anti-COVID-19 vaccines from the large stockpile in the US. For the most part, departments of the US government have been working on the leftovers of the 2017 strategy.

It is into this vacuum that Senators Rubio and Menendez have stepped with their Bill that focusses the US Caribbean relationship only in terms of ‘US security’ and, even then, in terms that takes no account of how Caribbean countries view security.

Most countries in CARICOM would not regard their relations with China and Russia as “meddling”, nor would they share the view reflected in the Bill, that “There is no greater threat in our region than the growing meddling of Russia and China”. Further, while increased assistance with “security” would be welcome, the narrow frame, as expressed in the Bill, limits the areas in which CARICOM governments have placed security.

CARICOM has adopted an approach that “security” is multi-dimensional and while it includes some of the elements that the Bill has detailed, it also crucially includes Climate Change; access to financing for development; preparing for the effects of future pandemics; tackling insecurities in food, water and energy; correcting poor terms of trade, and the consequences of increased unemployment and poverty.

The Bill sets out its purposes as the US maintaining “credible security capabilities dedicated to Latin America and the Caribbean …. to deter acts of aggression; and to respond, if necessary, to regional threats and threats to the national security of the United States”. These objectives echo the Monroe Doctrine of a past era by which US governments exercised outsize influence in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Neither the US administration nor CARICOM governments can sit-by, allowing the Rubio-Menendez Bill to be the principal determinant of their relationship. And, it could easily become just that, particularly as one of the stated intentions of the Bill is that “the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense shall jointly provide a briefing to the appropriate committees of Congress on the implementation of the strategy”.

Officials of both the US and CARICOM governments should waste no time in ensuring that the “appropriate committees” of the US Congress and Senators Rubio and Menendez appreciate that the relationship between the US and the Caribbean is most secure when its economic and financial pillars are strengthened.

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