CARICOM Leaders meeting with VP Harris provides opportunity to advance Caribbean security
Ambassador Curtis A. Ward
(30 May 2023) — The Caribbean region, which is sometimes referred to as the Caribbean Basin, is defined conveniently according to the geopolitical and security interests of the United States. While there are similarities to be found in the problems besetting the wider Caribbean Basin which includes the countries of Central America, the islands of the Caribbean, and CARICOM member states, there are no one-size fits-all prescriptions for the problems facing the region’s security. Discussion of this issue in this context is confined to the countries of the Caribbean region comprising CARICOM and the Dominican Republic (DR). Cuba is not part of this geopolitical construct and for several decades now attracts different US geopolitical and security considerations.
The upcoming meeting between CARICOM plus DR Heads of Government and U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris in The Bahamas on 8 June 2023 will provide an opportunity to advance the U.S.-Caribbean agenda set at the June 2022 Summit of the Americas. That agenda includes programs on food security, energy security, the climate crisis, and regional security. The White House release on the upcoming meeting, while referring to a range of issues, only mentioned climate resilience and energy security as the subjects for discussions. And, while it appears there may be some progress on some of the issues facing the region, there appears to be a significant lag in providing resources necessary to achieve an optimal level of Caribbean security and crime reduction. This is particularly evident with respect to Haiti.
Security problems for the entire region have gotten worse, and the trafficking in illegal guns from the United States is a major factor. Specifically, the U.S. has done very little to stop the illicit trafficking in guns and ammunition, primarily from Florida ports to the region. The US concept of, and responsibility for U.S.-Caribbean security appears to be one-way.
Having read the White House statement on the agenda for the meeting, I am concerned that the situation in Haiti is not highlighted as a priority security and stability concern for the entire region. This meeting would be an opportune time for the Biden-Harris administration to lay out its plans for helping CARICOM in helping Haiti, and to expound on any new initiatives by the Biden-Harris administration to stem the flow of illegal guns to Haiti, specifically, and to the region, generally. This should be a major first step in whatever solutions being contemplated. It is also an opportunity for Caribbean leaders collectively to lay out the region’s priorities for Haiti and the region and pressing the importance of stopping illicit trafficking in U.S. guns and ammunition to the Caribbean.
I am hopeful that discussion of Haiti’s future will occur, and viable solutions will be offered at the meeting. But I am not overly optimistic that the statement to be issued at the end of the discussions will outline steps to be taken by the U.S. in partnership with CARICOM to assist Haiti and bring relief to the Haitian people. At a minimum, there should be a special meeting on Haiti set for the very near future to work out the details of a U.S.- CARICOM partnership on the situation in Haiti. And less anyone should question support for a proactive CARICOM-US partnership on the situation in Haiti, be mindful of the fact Haiti is a full member of CARICOM and is a member of the Caribbean family.
Furthermore, crime and security, and governance problems in Haiti affect the entire Caribbean. Instability and lack of security in Haiti also affect U.S. national security. Drug trafficking through Haiti to the U.S. mainland and the flow of large numbers of Haitian migrants to the U.S. border are of major national security concerns for the United States. These issues converge and can only be resolved effectively by working in partnership.
Succeeding US administrations hold Caribbean countries primarily responsible for protecting their porous borders from illicit guns entering their territories and to prevent transnational criminal networks from using these vulnerable territories for transshipment of illegal drugs to the United States. The U.S. also pressures the governments in the region to ensure money launderers do not abuse their financial systems to access the U.S. financial system. This latter requirement places tremendous burdens and costs on indigenous banks to comply with U.S.-imposed standards. These costs are borne by local banking consumers through increased fees and new rules which make it virtually impossible for many low-income individuals to open bank accounts.
Under normal circumstances, the level of reasoning holding each country responsible for securing its own territory from abuse may be defensible. Indeed, each country has primary responsibility for securing its own borders. However, with porous maritime borders and interconnectedness, effective border control requires capacities beyond Caribbean security capabilities. These are not normal circumstances.
The irony, perhaps inherent hypocrisy in U.S. policy, is that the U.S. places the burden of securing U.S. territory from the shipment of drugs and contraband from Caribbean ports to the U.S. on the backs of Caribbean countries, while not assuming its own responsibility for the illegal guns shipped from U.S. territory to the region. The bulk of U.S. security assistance focuses on maritime capacity building assistance. Thus, Caribbean maritime security is concentrated on stopping drug trafficking, primarily the shipment of illegal drugs from South American producers to the U.S. homeland.
U.S. security and Caribbean security are inextricably connected. The Caribbean is located astride the major shipping lanes from the Panama Canal and the eastern seaboard of South America to U.S. Gulf States and the U.S. East coast. Thus, the U.S. has a vested interest in securing Caribbean maritime space, and, in so doing providing supply chain security and interdiction of illegal drugs. This is in America’s national security interest and the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) is heavily vested in these aspects of the region’s security. Hence a large percentage of security assistance provided under the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI) is concentrated on maritime security capacity building. But that area of investment is far removed from that which is required to stem the flow of illegal guns to the region.
Complementary to maritime security is port security. That is, concentrating on security measures and operational capacity to prevent illicit trafficking in drugs and other contraband that can do harm to the U.S. homeland. Caribbean container transshipment ports were deemed vulnerable and are required to screen all cargo destined for US ports.
In the aftermath of 9/11, to prevent terrorists from using containers to deliver a weapon of mass destruction, dirty bombs and their precursors to the US, the container security initiative (CSI) program was introduced by the U.S. Customs Service then in the Commerce Department. Risk assessments were also introduced and compliant exporters and shippers are granted certification to facilitate containerized shipments to the United States. U.S. Customs Officers are placed in foreign ports to ensure pre-screening of all containers destined for the United States. Now, more than 80% of all maritime containerized cargo shipped to the US are prescreened and appropriate risk assessments standards applied in CSI ports. Of the 61 CSI certified international shipping ports, seven are in the region – Kingston (Jamaica), Caucedo (Dominican Republic), Freeport (Bahamas), Colon and Manzanillo (Panama), Puerto Cortes (Honduras), and Cartagena (Colombia).
The Kingston port is a major container transshipment port in the region and, to maintain that position, becoming CSI certified was a national imperative. In response to the CSI requirements and to secure Jamaica’s position in maritime container shipping, then prime minister P. J. Patterson’s government made an initial investment of over US$60 million to purchase X-ray and gamma ray equipment which were installed in the Kingston port to screen containers destined for the US from Jamaica. Prescreening U.S.-bound containers secure the US homeland and facilitate trade between the two countries. But it is one-way security. There is no reciprocal arrangements for shipments from US ports to Jamaica and elsewhere in the Caribbean. Hence, US sourced guns are easily smuggled in shipments to Jamaica, Haiti, and other countries in the region.
At the meeting between the Caribbean leaders (CARICOM and the DR) with President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris at the IX Summit, they discussed “the need to strengthen security cooperation and engagement, including countering small arms trafficking” by building on the CBSI and extending those security imperatives to include “combating trafficking in persons, cybersecurity, and cybercrime.” Most importantly, the U.S, would tailor its “support to CARICOM member countries, to address specifically the supply and flow of illegal handguns and assault weapons trafficking throughout the region.” National action plans to counter firearms trafficking were to be developed and roadmaps tailored to implement this process. Illegal firearms trafficking from the U.S. to the region was deemed a top priority.
Almost a year hence, security issues, particularly illegal firearms trafficking, are either being ignored or being relegated to a second-tier concern for the U.S. This defies reality of the threat and must be reversed; and the Bahamas meeting provides an opportunity to discuss these matters in the context of Caribbean partnership with the United States. The mutual security interests of Caribbean countries and the United States, and the security and stability of Haiti are interrelated. Not including security and the illegal gun trade on the agenda for the Bahamas meeting would be a disservice to the region.
© Curtis A. Ward