Securing Paradise: The Need for Intentional Diplomacy in the Caribbean

By Liam J. Miller

Image Credit: US Navy/DVIDS

There is trouble in paradise. 

Ongoing political unrest in Haiti and Cuba have dominated headlines and have even led to talks of potential U.S. military intervention. The recent increase in American attention on the Caribbean is a reminder of the region’s often-overlooked strategic significance. 

While Washington’s attention has been focused elsewhere, China has been expanding its global influence into the Caribbean and aims to replace American influence in the tropics. The United States needs to take this opportunity to engage with Caribbean states, not just to advance development, but to protect its interests.

Trade between Caribbean states and China rose sharply between 2002 and 2018. China has also allocated around $70 billion of development funding to Caribbean states. In 2016, the China Harbor Engineering Company allocated $730 million to transit infrastructure in Jamaica. The Bahamas also partnered with China on tourism sector investments. China’s Export-Import Bank provided a $2.5 billion loan to help develop the Baha Mar resort, which opened in 2016.

Similarly, China has dramatically expanded investment in Cuba despite no obvious relationship between the two during the Cold War era. Trade between the two has increased since 2015, and China now trails only Venezuela as the largest exporter to Cuba.

During the pandemic, China has been making diplomatic inroads through personal protection equipment donations and the establishment of several Confucius Institutes in Caribbean countries where the U.S. currently lacks a solid diplomatic presence. 

As China continues to expand its influence in what has been called the U.S.’s “ third border,” there are two options: the U.S. can neglect the region, or it can proactively revamp its relationship with the Caribbean through intentional diplomatic engagement efforts.

The Caribbean’s economically vital tourist industries have been battered by COVID-19, so helping with the region’s needs is more pressing than ever before. 

President Biden ought to study the Caribbean Basin Initiative, which was launched in 1983 under the Reagan administration and gave Caribbean nations duty-free access to U.S. markets for many types of goods. 

Washington’s willingness to open markets to Caribbean producers played a role in weakening the appeal of Soviet Communism in the region and contributed to the U.S. winning the Cold War. Caribbean participation in these bilateral trade agreements also led to development and prosperity in their economies.

With an average annual GDP growth of 4% per year, general development throughout Caribbean countries has substantially outperformed Latin American countries since 2002. Social indicators have also improved, as literacy rates in Caribbean countries have risen by approximately 10% and infant mortality has fallen 50% since 1980. The Caribbean Basin Initiative stands as a successful example of positive U.S. diplomacy.

However, recent U.S. engagement (or disengagement) has caused U.S-Caribbean relations to lose momentum. U.S. engagement should focus on advocating far reaching, significant economic and social change in the region.

Firstly, the U.S. should immediately provide humanitarian assistance through prioritizing the Caribbean for vaccine distribution and additional COVID-19 assistance. Given that many Caribbean states lack the necessary human capital and financial resources to combat the devastating consequences of COVID-19, the continued allocation of vaccines and medical supplies would demonstrate goodwill and signal a valuable investment into strengthening the Caribbean’s healthcare infrastructure.

Secondly, the U.S should encourage Caribbean states to carry out bureaucratic reform within their governments. For decades, the Caribbean has been a haven for corruption and kleptocratic practices that have permeated local and national governments. 

Aligning with President Biden’s vigorous call to combat corruption both domestically and internationally, the U.S. should continue to collaborate with Caribbean governments towards eliminating corrupt practices. 

The State Department can do this by collaborating with regional NGOs and anti-corruption organizations to create comprehensive education training programs to raise awareness of corrupt practices within Caribbean governments. The promotion of good governance would lay the groundwork for Caribbean states to function better as democratic societies and likewise reaffirm the U.S.’s position as a bulwark of democracy.

Thirdly, the U.S. should address regional economic stagnation. COVID-19 has required widespread deficit spending throughout the region. Climate-associated financial harm is projected to reach 10% of regional GDP by 2050, further damaging hopes of a sustainable economic environment. 

The Biden administration can modernize the Caribbean Basin Economic Recovery Act by ensuring that it allocates more funding towards industries such as local food production, digital technology and small business entrepreneurship. 

A 2019 community relations project between the US Navy and the Royal Bahamas Defence Force
Photo Credit: Petty Officer 2nd Class Stacy Atkins Ricks/DVIDS

All of this would encourage Caribbean countries to become more self-sufficient in their own right and fully participate in the global economy. Extra focus can also be given towards preserving the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative Act, which aims to distribute $75 million towards regional security, particularly in the areas of disaster mitigation, rule of law and climate resilience.

In March 2019, President Trump met with several Caribbean leaders in the U.S, and in October 2020, signed into law an extension of the Caribbean Basin Economic Recovery Act. However, regional diplomacy under the Trump administration faltered due to the failure to promptly appoint ambassadors to Caribbean states, which betrayed a lack of interest in Caribbean affairs. 

The Biden administration must not make the same mistake. Personally meeting and developing mutual bonds of trust with Caribbean leaders is a must. Perhaps even a visit by President Biden or Vice President Harris (who also has Jamaican ancestry) to the region can go a long way in showing that the U.S. genuinely prioritizes its relationship with these countries.

If the U.S. does not reprioritize its relationship with the Caribbean, China will continue to build its influence in the region. As the Caribbean continues to succumb to Chinese influence, American strategic influence will continue to decline and risk losing a sphere of influence.

Regardless of policy specifics, the U.S. ought to interact with the Caribbean through intentional diplomatic engagement that recognizes the region’s value to American interests. 

Liam J. Miller is a current Political Science and Economics Major at Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. He is originally from Nassau, The Bahamas.

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