Vice President Joe Biden spent just under 24 hours in Trinidad and Tobago, where he sought to renew America’s bonds with the Caribbean through a small summit-like meeting with leaders of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the Dominican Republic. In that short period of time, it became apparent that the traditional dynamic that has characterized the relationship between the Caribbean and the United States may be coming to an end.
Perhaps this is due to the growing fiscal strength of a region, which currently sees economic growth rates that are twice that of Europe. Perhaps it is due to the increasing regional engagement of the world’s other great economic power, China. Whatever the reason, the archetypical “banana republic”-style heads of government that some in the U.S. may be accustomed to were not on hand during this meeting.
By all accounts, the dialogue held between Vice President Biden and the many Caribbean heads of government in attendance was bold, frank and—in the words of Trinidadian Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar—at times “brutal.”
The issues of rum subsidies and criminal deportations quickly rose to the top of the agenda. Caribbean leaders are insistent that the subsidies offered by the U.S. government to rum producers in their Caribbean territories is having a substantial negative impact on the trade economies of the rest of the Caribbean. Regarding criminal deportation, the complaint is that non-American citizens who are sentenced to more than one year in a U.S. prison are subsequently deported back to their country of origin upon their release. Yet, the receiving government is often prevented from getting information from the federal or state governments about the deportee’s offense.
Trinidad and Tobago, known more for Carnival and sandy beaches, is not often discussed in terms of its strategic importance to the United States. Yet there are several reasons that this small two-island nation appears on U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s itinerary for his trip to Latin America next week. After traveling to Brazil and Colombia, home to the two largest economies in South America, Biden will visit Port of Spain just over four years after President Barack Obama was in Trinidad for the 2009 Summit of the Americas.
The juxtaposition of this small island nation with the extremely large and influential nations of Brazil and Colombia may appear odd. However, Trinidad and Tobago is quickly becoming a much more important player in regional affairs and an increasingly important friend of the United States.
While it is not the oil exporter that Mexico, Canada, and Venezuela are, Trinidad and Tobago falls just behind Ecuador and Brazil, on average, as a Western Hemispheric supplier of crude oil. Additionally, Trinidad and Tobago is the largest supplier of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to the United States. Trinidad and Tobago’s position as an energy exporter becomes even more significant in the context of the U.S. goal to reduce its dependence on Middle Eastern supplies of energy.
Over the last decade, proximity to the Venezuelan coast has also made Trinidad and Tobago a prime transit point for drug traffickers moving narcotics out of South America to markets in Europe and the United States. Incidences of violent crime and narcotics-related gang activity have peaked, leading the government to declare a state of emergency in August of 2011. To help combat drug gangs, the Trinidadian government has worked with the United States government through a variety of programs, including the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative.
Gay rights activist Colin Robinson, from the Coalition Advocating for the Inclusion of Sexual Orientation (CAISO) in Trinidad & Tobago, talks about advocating for greater lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights in the Caribbean.
Listen to a series of interviews with stakeholders in three countries of the CARICOM economic zone: Guyana, Jamaica and St. Kitts & Nevis.
The Carnival Victory and Caribbean Princess cruise ships have sailed into
Expectations are high as U.S. President Barack Obama—popular in the region as in much of the world—prepares to meet his Latin American counterparts. Beyond meeting with five hemispheric leaders at the G-20 Summit in April, and Obama’s one-on-one talks with Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (in Washington), Mexican President Felipe Calderón (in Washington as President-elect and in Mexico City today) and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper (in Ottawa), this is Obama’s moment to create a first impression with leaders who want to see for themselves how his policies will differ from the wildly unpopular ones of the last eight years. In fact, hemispheric leaders are lining up and “expect to have 10 or 15 minutes with the President” at the Summit, notes Organization of American States (OAS) Secretary General José Miguel Insulza.
After almost two years of parsing first candidate then President elect and now President Barack Obama’s words for his ideas on Latin America, the world will finally get a view in April 17, 18 and 19 in Trinidad and Tobago at the Summit of the Americas. Certainly President Obama’s recent interview with Univision caused some consternation among Venezuelan public officials who saw his statements regarding Venezuela as an affront to national sovereignty and dignity. But beyond the usual sensitivities, President Obama’s meeting in the Caribbean with the 33 other elected heads of state, coming on the heels of his first international meeting with NATO allies, will provide a rare moment for the President to focus on the region—in the midst of a multitude of other demands on his time and attention—and begin to articulate a new vision for the hemisphere.
In contradiction to a recent response to an earlier blog post of mine, I really do believe that President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s trip to the Summit of the Americas is worthwhile. (I agree with Richard Feinberg that this is our opportunity to recast our relations in the hemisphere in a new and more positive light. I just believe that we—including the hemispheric community—need to be more cautious about the goals of the process and not build in multiple unfunded mandates, a series of meaningless discussion forums, and endless reams of recommendations—that often amount to little more than platitudes and demands that states do something, though what and how is never clear. (Though I’ll confess Nicole Kidman and fireworks would be nice too)
Let’s just scale back our expectations and use this as a modest opportunity to reach out to a new freshman class of elected heads of state and a way to broaden the agenda beyond (but still including) free trade.
I applauded the initiation of Summit of the Americas Process in Miami 1994 and the subsequent meetings in Santiago and Quebec, the latter in many ways reflecting the high-water mark of inter-American cooperation. But now with the approaching April 2009 Summit of the Americas meeting in Trinidad and Tobago, I can’t help wonder: what’s the point? In reflecting on the distortion in the coverage of the 2005 process during the Mar del Plata, the growing divisions over free trade and the accumulation of declarations and mandates with each summit (each one seemingly having less to do with the original intent than the previous) I can’t help wondering if the whole thing has outlived its usefulness. Sure, I understand (and still sympathize) with the initial goals of the first—and believe that even the mere act of assembling the elected presidents from the 34 countries (for most it will be the first time they’ve met our new U.S. President-elect) is worthy. And yes, anything that gets the U.S. president focused on the region is important.
Look, though, at the sediment of mandates that have piled up over the last four full summits. They range from everything from the original stated goals (trade and democracy) to other more domestic issues (education spending and municipal administration). The latter make great international talking points, but quite frankly I don’t know what they are doing on a summit agenda if the skeletal body that is responsible for managing the process(SIRG) isn’t vested with the authority to make them mandates (as they’re referred to in the statements and the website). In fact, the insistence of referring to declarations as mandates risks only diluting the meaning of the word. Is it a mandate if no one has the authority to enforce compliance with benchmarks?