The Caribbean: Lessons and Outcomes from the IX Summit of the Americas
Ambassador Curtis A. Ward
(11 July 2022) –
The IX Summit of the Americas (Summit) while providing no history-making policy declaration, offered some insights into the Biden Administration’s hemispheric policy and discernment of U.S. pragmatism in the Americas. The Biden Administration included some important hemispheric issues on the agenda and offered U.S. partnership to deal with them. I anticipate post-Summit assessments will be undertaken by national governments, regional and subregional organizations, international financial institutions (IFIs), and regional and sub-regional development banks throughout the hemisphere. There are specific and cross-cutting follow-up roles of each category.
Leading up to the Summit, very little detail was known of the Biden administration’s priorities except for the overarching theme of “Building a Sustainable, Resilient, and Equitable Future” for the hemisphere. No details were given on the policy and how it would be implemented. Only days before the convening of the Summit were media briefings made available on important Summit objectives.
Instead of a focus on policy and program development, and discussion of priorities for the region, the media was preoccupied with which heads of state were likely to boycott the Summit in protest of the Biden administration’s decision not to invite the leaders of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela to what the US government described as a Summit of the sovereign democracies of the hemisphere. According to the White House, President Biden did not wish to have non-democratic leaders at the Summit, but that did not seem to apply to all countries in the Americas. The Biden administration’s exclusionary policy does not bode well for the hemisphere.
However, President Biden took what appeared to be a pragmatic, albeit a contradictory approach to the hemisphere, and invited Brazil’s autocratic leader Jair Bolsonaro, and held a bilateral meeting with the Brazilian president on the margins of the Summit. Brazil’s importance in the hemisphere and globally cannot be overstated, and Brazil’s membership in BRICS would also have been a factor.
President Biden’s exclusionary policy sparked a boycott by Mexico’s president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, leader of one of the hemisphere’s major players. President Obrador’s decision not to attend caused a stir among members of Biden’s foreign policy team. Some Central American and Caribbean leaders of lesser consequence also decided to stay away, but most of the leaders or representatives of CARICOM states, plus the president of the Dominican Republic (Caribbean Region), attended the Summit. In fact, leaders representing most of the people of the Caribbean Region, Cuba excepted, participated in the Summit and used the occasion to advance the region’s priority agenda.
In reality, certain issues specific to the Caribbean region normally gain very little traction except when Caribbean leaders can make their case directly and in person with the U.S. president or vice president. As a region with specific challenges and needs, the Caribbean Region must consistently engage at the highest possible level to advance beyond having its priorities determined in northern capitals. In the past, Caribbean governments have failed to engage fully and effectively with Washington in mutually beneficial partnerships to advance regional priorities as determined by the region, and not priorities determined in the U.S. capital. Each Summit provides an opportunity for Caribbean leaders to sit down with the U.S. president, face-to-face, and engage in dialogue on the region’s priorities.
Each Summit provides opportunity for that level of interaction, and when necessary to challenge the U.S. government on its hemispheric, and particularly on Caribbean regional policies. The Ninth Summit was no exception. Caribbean leaders, for whatever reason, who were absent from the Summit forfeited perhaps their best opportunity to engage on the issues that are of most importance to their countries and the region. Most were present.
Caribbean priorities and Summit outcomes
Among the issues which moved in a positive direction for Caribbean governments is the way countries are classified to allow or deny access to concessionary financing for growth and development; crisis response, including emerging from the Covid pandemic; responding to energy and food insecurity; and capacity-building to deal effectively with the effects of climate change. As Barbados Prime Minister Mia Motley pointed out, Caribbean countries are disproportionately affected by the current middle-income classification which deny them access to concessionary financing. And as Vice President Kamala Harris acknowledged at the Summit changing this dynamic is something the Biden administration can do. Changes in the rules of the IFIs on concessionary financing terms will be critical to the Caribbean development agenda.
Caribbean priorities were also not discussed publicly by Caribbean governments or by the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) secretariat. We knew there were discussions within Caricom but, for some unknown reasons, details of the region’s priorities for US-Caribbean relations were not made public. As far as the Biden administration was concerned nothing was said of future U.S.-Caribbean relations. That was not unusual, as we have become accustomed to new U.S. policies and programs being unveiled at these Summits. Also, the region is known to often benefit from face-to-face meetings with former U.S. presidents at prior Summits.
The hemispheric Summits are often the backdrop for US administrations to announce and launch important new initiatives, policies, and programs. Likewise for new US-Caribbean partnership programs. These include the U.S.–Caribbean Third Border Initiative (TBI) by President George W. Bush at the Third Summit of the Americas in Quebec in April 2001, and the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI) by President Barack Obama at the Fifth Summit in Port of Spain in April 2009. The scope of the TBI was expanded at the Special Summit of the Americas in Monterey, Mexico in April 2004.
President Biden is no stranger to the Caribbean. While serving as vice president to President Barack Obama, then Vice President Biden signed the very important Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) between the U.S. and CARICOM in Port of Spain in 2013. Also, as Vice President, he was charged by President Obama with implementation of the Caribbean Energy Security Initiative (CESI) in 2014. And in 2015, then Vice President Biden convened and hosted a Summit of Caribbean leaders in Washington to discuss and give effect to the CESI.
The CESI Summit allowed Caribbean leaders to engage directly with the Obama administration in focusing the aims of CESI on boosting energy security in the region. Investments in alternative energy development were high on the agenda. CESI programs aimed at opening new opportunities for sustainable economic growth in the Caribbean by promoting investments in energy technologies and the development of alternative energy through U.S. guaranteed finance programs. CESI also provided technical and policy assistance in development of legal and regulatory frameworks for alternative energy investments in the region.
Biden’s response to Caribbean plea for relief
Some Caribbean countries were early beneficiaries of the CESI but not enough has been done since the end of the Obama administration to broaden its scope and application. Concessionary financing is one of the inhibiting factors. According to Vice President Harris, “development of climate financing and getting rid of some of the obstacles to access financing for these nations, obstacles which I believe that some are unnecessary and can be eliminated.” President Biden also informed Caribbean Region leaders that he had “some answers to be able to be significantly helpful in that regard.”
The challenges faced by the region in 2014 which gave birth to the CESI are far greater in 2022 than they were eight years ago. Caribbean fragile economies face a steep climb to emerge from the Covid pandemic, and the Russian–Ukraine war, which began with the illegal Russian invasion on February 22, 2022, has driven already high energy costs to unsustainable levels, and has created a global food crisis which affects Caribbean countries disproportionately. Also, the increasing threat from natural disasters and the effects of climate change on the islands and coastal areas of some states pose a constant and existential threat to CARICOM member states. In addition, most countries in the region suffer high rates of crime and violence, and insecurity of maritime boundaries present open opportunities for criminal enterprises engaged in illicit drug and arms trafficking.
President Biden and Vice President Harris used the meeting with Caribbean Regional leaders at the IX Summit to unveil new US–Caribbean partnership programs which target these critical areas for the Caribbean region. Biden’s new Caribbean regional policy is in sync with Caribbean regional priorities.
Action on these policies and programs with meaningful input in the design and implementation by Caribbean governments should be an important next step. The level of funding will be extremely important to avoid some of the shortfalls that beset some of the past programs. Caribbean governments have been lacking in making their cases to the U.S. government as a whole and have relied heavily on their interactions with the Caribbean desk at the State Department. They have shunned meaningful engagement with the U.S. Congress which has responsibility for approval of budget allocations to fund the programs presented by the Biden administration.
Biden’s new hemispheric pragmatism
President Biden’s hemispheric priorities and the overall benefits to the Americas which were unveiled at the Summit are a welcome change from the non-policies of the preceding administration in Washington. Biden’s pragmatism is evident in his approach to the hemisphere. His decades of dealing with U.S. often shambolic hemispheric relations has led him to understand the level of skepticism which exists even among U.S.-friendly countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. The programs and policies announced during the Summit, if actualized, could change this paradigm. Emerging from the Summit is the expectation that progress is possible in U.S.-hemispheric relations on many practical fronts and in areas of mutual interests.
Biden offered some specific plans for advancing the recovery process from the Covid pandemic and dealing with the current economic problems forced on the region by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Dealing with the high cost of energy and food insecurity to ameliorate the devastating effect on the region’s economies should resonate with governments across the hemisphere. How these programs are implemented in the near- to medium-term will determine whether the Biden administration can overcome the skepticism which generally marks these announcements from Washington.
In addition, the seemingly intractable hemispheric migration problems could begin to see some relief if the countries of the region move forward on Biden’s “Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection.” Washington providing significant levels of development and security assistance to countries most impacted by transnational crime, particularly in the Northern Triangle, and changes in U.S. treatment of asylum seekers could encourage regional cooperation along the lines set out in the Los Angeles Declaration.
Caribbean geopolitical realism and U.S. partnerships
The Caribbean is not homogeneous but there are more in common than there are differences. Every Caricom member state has significant development challenges that require commitment and partnerships with the American government, regardless of who occupies the White House or which political party controls both chambers of the United States Congress. The Caribbean region needs the Biden administration to remain focused and engaged on the challenges the region face.
The Caribbean has in the past benefited from prior Summits, and commitments to regional cooperation. There was a good start in the first year of the administration of former president George W. Bush when the TBI was unveiled as a security and development program. The scope of favorable trade regimes has expanded and extended; and new security partnerships introduced. The TBI suffered from the massive military spending on the two protracted wars in which the Bush administration had engaged in 2001 and 2003.
President Obama offered a new security initiative and expanded security partnerships throughout the region. Shifting from the TBI to the CBSI, unlike the poorly financed and under-resourced TBI, President Obama persuaded an unwilling U.S. Congress to provide significant levels of funding and other resources to the CBSI.
Prior to the Summit there was no discernable Biden administration policy towards the Caribbean Region. President Biden’s administration was yet to match President Obama’s level of commitment and partnership with the Caribbean Region, or reverse Trump’s policies which effectively ravaged regional unity, and reversed Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba. There was no face-to-face dialogue between the U.S. president and Caribbean political leaders. The Summit provided the first, and most likely will be the only opportunity, to have that level of dialogue between CARICOM leaders as a group and the U.S. president during Biden’s first term. Unfortunately, some CARICOM leaders became distracted by issues surrounding which countries were invited to the Summit and which were not. They missed the only opportunity they will have to engage with the president on a personal level.
The principle of regional inclusiveness is worth defending, but it should not have dominated the conversation and created the tension it sparked. The priorities of the region are best advanced when Caribbean leaders are unified in purpose and speak with one voice. Yet, in recent years, disunity among CARICOM members has become more of the norm rather than the exception.
U.S. and Caribbean have shared priorities
There are shared priorities of mutual interests between CARICOM members, individually and collectively as a region, and the United States. The U.S. share maritime security and transnational crime challenges with the Caribbean. U.S. efforts to deal with illicit trafficking in drugs, and lack of effective measures to stem the flow of guns through and to the region are priorities for the region. Continued rise in crimes linked to drug and illicit gun trafficking, and the effects of this scourge on regional economic development and growth are of major concerns to the region. Immigration pressures driven by crime and economic marginalization in the region are of major concerns to the Biden administration which face significant domestic political pressure, particularly in an election year preoccupied with other major competing domestic and geopolitical issues.
Every country in the region, as well as the U.S. mainland, face significant challenges from climate change. American technology, expertise, and financial support to develop and maintain climate change resilience are indispensable for the region.
Caribbean governments, individually and collectively, have strong views and varying interests in their relationships with Cuba and Venezuela. The Biden Administration, driven in part by domestic considerations but also based on certain fundamental democracy and human rights principles, with which most Caribbean Region governments are in sync decided to exclude these countries from the Summit. I see no long-term benefit from an exclusionary policy.
In my view, except for extremely compelling reasons, absence from important meetings such as the hemispheric Summit is a loss of opportunity for discussion of the region’s priorities face-to-face with the top decision-maker in the US government – the president of the United States. To have a real impact on the decisions taken, and the opportunity to impact on decisions that could affect the countries of the region, leaders must have a seat at the table where they can engage in dialogue directly and not through intermediaries. There is little doubt the ineffective boycott by some Caribbean leaders will soon be forgotten. What is most important are the deliverables from the face-to-face discussions which took place and the relationships developed through personal interaction with the U.S. president and vice president that could further inure to the region’s benefits.
The Caribbean beyond the Summit
According to the Joint ‘Readout’ of President Biden and Vice President Harris’ meeting with the leaders of the Caribbean Community and the Dominican Republic, the Summit was an opportunity “to develop a plan to partner in addressing the unique vulnerabilities and urgent economic challenges facing these countries … overlapping economic challenges stemming from COVID-19 pandemic, the impact of climate change, food and energy insecurity, and lack of financing.” As a sign of goodwill, perhaps pragmatism and commitment, President Biden used the meeting to announce that his administration will provide US$28 million in new food security assistance to Caribbean countries.
In addition, the leaders 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 are to be developed and roadmaps tailored to implement this process. Illegal firearms trafficking to the region, particularly to Jamaica, is a top priority.
The U.S. and the Caribbean Region agreed to establish “three high-level committees tasked with developing immediate and concrete, joint, and near-term solutions” to the “economic challenges stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, the impact of climate change, food and energy insecurity, and lack of access to financing.” Addressing these issues and challenges will be in the context of joint “commitment to promoting and defending democracy and the rule of law, as enshrined in the Inter-American Democratic Charter.” Among the reasons given by the Biden administration in the first place for excluding Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela was their lack of adherence to democracy and the rule of law as provided by the Charter.
Despite the decision by some Caribbean governments to stay away from the Summit, the Caribbean Region was well represented, and the programs announced by President Biden and Vice President Harris will inure to the benefit of the entire region. It is now incumbent on Caribbean governments working collectively and in their national space, where appropriate, to develop programs that ensure full implementation of the promises made at the Summit.
Caribbean governments must be cognizant that good intentions by Washington aside, Vice President Harris, who has been tasked with overseeing implementation of U.S. policy for the region, has a demanding portfolio in the Biden Administration. It is an imperative for Caribbean governments, individually where appropriate, and collectively through Caricom must keep U.S. attention focused on implementing the Summit’s outcomes; they must keep the momentum going. They must fulfil their side of the mutual partnership obligation. If they do, the Caribbean Region will realize the benefits of the Summit’s outcomes.
© Curtis A. Ward/The Ward Post