Meeks calls for Obama era relations with Cuba, diplomatic talks with Venezuela, COVID vaccines for Caribbean neighbors
Ambassador Curtis A. Ward
(06 May 2021) — In a speech reflecting the diversity of issues in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) which must be prioritized by the Biden administration, Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY) called on the Biden-Harris Administration to return to the level of diplomatic relations achieved by former president Barack Obama with Cuba; to engage in diplomatic dialogue with the Nicholás Maduro government and willing Venezuelan opposition groups; for a policy change on Haiti to reverse the authoritarianism of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse; and to address the urgent need for COVID vaccines by Jamaica and other Caribbean countries.
In addressing the 51st Annual Washington Conference on the Americas (hosted by AS/COA) on May 4, 2021, Rep. Meeks, Chairman of the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee, brought a modicum of focus on the often-ignored Caribbean region, and on issues impacting the region. As is endemic among Washington think tanks, the Caribbean region is often ignored, even as some profess to be discussing “Latin America and the Caribbean.” They treat the Caribbean as a mere appendage to Latin America. That is why Congressman Meeks prioritizing issues impacting the Caribbean region into the discussion is so important.
Biden administration hemispheric agenda?
According to AS/COA, the conference would “Hear directly from the Biden administration on its hemispheric agenda… featuring exclusive remarks from Vice President Kamala D. Harris and other senior cabinet members.” If what I heard from most of the speakers represent the outline, or totality of President Biden’s “hemispheric agenda” there is much to be desired. The urgent issues facing the Caribbean are not priorities on the hemispheric agenda. It is incumbent on Caribbean governments to knock persistently on Washington’s doors to make a case for urgent attention.
Vice President Harris’s statement to the conference focused almost entirely on issues related to the Northern Triangle of Central America (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador) and Mexico, and in particular administration initiatives under her responsibilities to deal with the immigration crisis from the region. As anticipated, VP Harris highlighted the drivers of mass migration from the region, and, for the first time, provided a detailed explanation of the actions already taken and contemplated by the Biden administration to deal with the crisis.
Biden Cabinet bypass the Caribbean region
The Biden administration’s line up of speakers covered areas of priority engagement underway or contemplated by the Biden administration in the Americas. But, except for former Secretary John Kerry, Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, who referenced climate challenges to Caribbean countries and the urgent need for US partnership with the region to address them, the cabinet members’ remarks concentrated almost exclusively on Latin America. These included Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the Secretaries of the Departments of Homeland Security and Commerce, and the US Trade Representative. While this omission of the Caribbean as a part of the Americas was in line with the practice of the Washington think ranks, it was a disappointing failure of senior members of the Biden administration.
Secretary Blinken’s remarks concentrated on three key areas: ending the global pandemic, noting that the Biden administration will share 60 million doses of vaccines in a few months with the world; promoting economic opportunities, building resilience, and responding to natural disasters, climate change, promoting green energy, and providing easy access to clean energy supplies in the hemisphere; and supporting democracy — noting that democracy is being tested, and calling for everyone to speak with one voice on Haiti, on the “brutal” Maduro regime, and advocate for human rights of the Cuban people. Without providing details, Secretary Blinken appeared to forecast a tough US response to human rights violations in the hemisphere.
Former Secretary Kerry provided dire warning on climate change but forecasted a proactive Biden administration on the issue in the hemisphere and globally. He pointed to the humanitarian crisis as “climate refugees,” and that the US must work in partnership with all countries around the world, particularly in this hemisphere, to deal with the climate crisis. He noted Brazil, Argentina, Jamaica, and Antigua and Barbuda informing the Climate Summit on their climate mitigation efforts. Kerry noted the importance of access to climate investment and finance and informed the conference he had already met with and received commitments from banks and assets managers.
Meeks puts Caribbean issues at center of hemispheric policy
No Biden administration speaker even came close to Congressman Meeks commitment and focus on the Caribbean. He said he had called for President Biden to prioritize hemispheric countries in donating surplus vaccines; and in that regard, he, along with the House Caribbean Caucus and other colleagues, had pushed for the White House to provide the same offer of vaccines made to Mexico and Canada “to nations in the region on America’s third border – Jamaica and other nations in the Caribbean – experiencing a spike in cases.”
Chairman Meeks condemned gender-based violence, noting that “the pandemic has also deeply impacted the rates of gender-based violence with organizations throughout the region reporting an overwhelming rise in violence against women and femicide.” He said, “This must stop” and the US “must continue to support programs which prioritize the safety and security of women.” He also raised deep concerns for “the lasting impact of violence on future generations, as youth get caught up in organized crime and see very few alternatives.”
Chairman Meeks identified climate change as a significant driver of out migration as are violence, poverty, and corruption. While noting that Central America and the Caribbean remained particularly vulnerable to extreme weather and natural disasters, he said, “in tackling these issues the US cannot ignore the plight of the communities most affected by climate change.”
Prioritizing Cuba, Venezuela and Haiti in US hemispheric policy
On geopolitical issues the Chairman said, “now is the time to revert back to our Obama-era relations with Cuba”; that the US should fully re-staff its Embassy in Havana “and show the Cuban people that we value this important relationship.” Turning to Venezuela, Chairman Meeks, referencing the recent granting of access to the World Food Programme for humanitarian assistance to the people of Venezuela, said there was a window of opportunity for diplomatic engagement with Nicolás Maduro. He said there are indications Maduro is interested and willing to open negotiations with the Biden administration, which should be pursued to include opposition leaders who have called for negotiations and political participation, even without Juan Guaidó.
Chairman Meeks said he had made Haiti a top priority for his Committee. He said “the situation in Haiti continues to deteriorate as President Moïse rules by decree. The truth is that President Moise has lost his credibility to lead the country and does not hold the legitimacy to lead a constitutional referendum or presidential and parliamentary elections set for later this year.” The Chairman’s position on Haiti is broadly held by other members of the Congressional Black Caucus who have grown frustrated by lack of progress in advancing democracy, rule of law, and human rights by successive Haitian governments. He said the Biden administration must hold the Haitian government accountable for “the rampant kidnappings, gang violence, and human rights violations” and that he “will continue to call on the Biden administration to reconsider its policy towards Haiti.”
Rep. Meeks concluded that as Chairman he is “deeply vested in the promise of prosperity, innovation and responsible growth, but these goals will not be met if we do not recognize that what affects our neighbors impacts all of us.” This explicit commitment to the region, including the Caribbean, has never been articulated so succinctly before by prior committee chairs.
Caribbean must engage now!
I and other Diaspora members have been engaging the Chairman with information on important issues for the Caribbean, striving to keep the region on his committee’s busy agenda. His awareness of the region’s dynamics is quite evident. Thus, the Chairman’s support is encouraging and an opportunity for the Caribbean to engage.
© 2021 Curtis A. Ward/The Ward Post