Monday, May 23, 2011

Resetting US-Caribbean relations

By Anton E. Edmunds:

The announcement of the departure of Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Dr Arturo Valenzuela has prompted quite a reaction in the Washington community that tracks hemispheric affairs. While some argue that Valenzuela was marginalized by others with direct access to the White House and the Secretary of State, others have weighed in on how badly academics do in similar roles. There is even an assessment that the US role of protector of democracy in the region was damaged under his watch.

Anton Edmunds is the President of The Edmunds Group International, LLC (TEG), a business and government advisory service firm with offices in Washington DC and the Caribbean. He can be contacted at and prior posts reviewed at Edmunds Group News, Views & Events.While it may be unfair to blame this one individual for the collapse of relationships with some countries that have become emboldened in their ability to goad the United States, it is equally unfair to look to Valenzuela’s predecessor as an example of a more effective Assistant Secretary or for that matter, claim that the US regional relationship has suddenly been harmed. The reality is that the United States has long had regional relationship problems and has not had a consistent regional strategy in decades. A key fact that most chose to ignore is that relationships do not remain static, and the region itself for better or worse has changed.

Gone are the fledgling independent Caribbean states of a generation ago, and the new democracies of post conflict Latin America, both groups in the past clinging to a relationship with a regional hegemon freely dispensing aid and protection as these new nations weaned themselves from both colonial master and communist threat. Gone also is the belief by countries that the United States is a benevolent partner, willing to allow them to slowly evolve while accepting systems and standards consistent with its own. Instead what we see is a dysfunctional hodgepodge of struggling economies, each trying to eke out an existence in a merciless global marketplace while their leadership learn on the job the importance of good governance, an area where some would argue many are failing.

A perceived or real absence from the region by the US, while focusing elsewhere has served to exacerbate this weakening of ties and while opening of markets has done wonders for trade flows, it has proven not to be the panacea that Washington or the region once thought it would be. While by rote, Cuba has been the major focus of every incoming head of the Western Hemisphere at the State Department, it may not be any longer in reality the biggest problem. Instead it’s a combination of nuisance situations that serve to aggravate the United States vis-à-vis the Hemisphere.

There is Venezuela who some argue has managed to leverage its petroleum resources to gain friends and influence people; and one also sees a surging China providing aid to multiple nations and financing major a infrastructure and hospitality development. There is even an increased Middle-Eastern presence, with countries promising resources to a region some would argue is starved for attention and support, as in the case of Libya with the Eastern Caribbean.

The fact that the region has changed, with Caribbean and Latin American leaders becoming less wedded to their largest trading partner is not lost on observers. The hope is that with crime rampant, drugs flowing freely through the region and the threat of countries becoming controlled by criminal elements, the US and the region can find themselves once again together as partners sharing solutions to address important socio-economic problems.

This not unlike as in the days of the Cuba-Russia threat that preceded the Caribbean Basin Initiative and other similar initiatives. Recent initiatives such as Merida and the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative may well be attempts by the US to reengage.

Specific to the Caribbean, the Washington relationship appears to be one characterized more and more by feelings of both parties of dissatisfaction, distrust and disillusionment. The Caribbean unfortunately has long believed that a proud history of democracy should mean something more than it does, and that the tradition of a stable transition of government should be rewarded by thoughtful programs to advance this region’s development.

The reality is that be it with Europe or the United States, such a democratic history does not automatically translate into treats. As with the trade negotiations with the European Union, though called flawed by some, a level of maturity and creatively must be developed by the region if it is interested in working with its partners on co-authoring agendas and programs that are nuanced, thoughtful and comprehensive.

Caribbean leadership has also failed to effectively understand how Washington works and instead of cultivating multi-pronged alliances based on shared concerns such as security and mutually beneficial economic growth, instead depend on relationships of old and worse, looks to tenuous familial links between US government officials and countries of the region as a foundation upon which to advance policy discourse.

The great hope that a president of similar likeness and a State Department head who has travelled to the region in the past would usher in an era of re-engagement without real inputs from the Caribbean is a pipedream. Even relationships with entities such as the Congressional Black caucus have been badly managed and the Caribbean with few exceptions has failed to deliver its part of the equation when engaging groups like this by not submitting good ideas for consideration and worse, not engaging in the simplest of action of following up.

For the future, willingness by the Caribbean to develop and proffer solutions that take into consideration US policy direction is critical. That willingness must extend to listening to sometimes ill-conceived proposals but importantly, to understanding what drives them and to work to broker compromise where everyone wins.

While a knowledge gap and weakness at the senior levels at the US Departments of State, Commerce and other agencies in dealing with the Caribbean does not help and some may well characterize the placement of some who cover the region as tokenism, the Caribbean must itself step up to the plate by placing its best and brightest in the right space to rebuild a fractured relationship.

Some point out that a lack of attention by agencies such as USAID supporting on issues such as disaster mitigation and business continuity; the linking of key industries like tourism to agriculture; and the supporting of skills training in viable industry areas reflect changes in Washington and the centralization and politicization of this agency by the State Department.

Others argue that the bigger issue may simply be one of Caribbean irrelevance to the US or as stated before, the region’s inability to make itself heard. In any event, the lack of focus on the Caribbean is real and can be seen across the board.

In the case of the US Department of Commerce, it is perceived that the primary focus continues to be solely one of interest in building stronger alliances with Free Trade countries, with little acknowledgement of and unwillingness to invest in strengthening a robust trading relationship the Caribbean. Caribbean irrelevance to that entity may well be evidenced in the fact that never once in the three year history of that organization’s Americas Competitiveness Forum, has a Caribbean Head of State or corporate leader been featured.

In the case of others, including the Department of Energy, the use of proxies such as the OAS is becoming habit instead of direct engagement. One even sees the use of countries like Brazil and Canada as proxies for US engagement.

Unfortunately, for many in Washington there are some fundamentals that it is argued tell a different story. The lack of responsiveness from the region to overtures by the administration does allow many to question the seriousness of the Caribbean. As this is a problem also experienced by many an investor, the question as to whether Caribbean governments are incompetent or worse is not uncommon.

The now discounted Caribbean promise of an integrated marketplace, and regional standards in areas such as security has also served to dissuade many a career official from trying to advance a Caribbean agenda. Lack of action by the region on past initiatives does little to protect them from change by newcomers to Washington agency offices.

On the regional front, the Caribbean today is very much at the crossroads. The region lacks leadership at its crown jewel CARICOM, which begs the question as to which entity should major US agencies engage on regional programs. While the region itself reflects on the value of this body, one can only imagine what allies within agencies such as the State Department are thinking, as they have long had questions related to that organ’s ability to deliver. Gone too are the Caribbean statesmen of yore and lore who were able to command a certain amount of respect when it came to policy discussions with the US.

Compounding this is the re-emergence of regional and sub-regional rifts, often driven by personal and cultural inter-island animosities and protectionism that now consume significant time and resources.

When asked to comment about the future of the US-Caribbean relationship, there is expressed by many the hope is that the replacement for Dr Valenzuela will bring some broad regional experience and that Cuba and Venezuela, while they will continue to be key countries of focus will not be issues that derail the advancing a productive US-Caribbean relationship.

There is also hope that there will be real depth at the State Department and other administration agencies as it relates to the Caribbean, and one will see the Administration take a real stab at engaging Caribbean experts, maybe from the Diaspora community to fill out some of its ranks. Irrespective of the change in Washington, critical will be the ability of the region to do its part to help reset the relationship.

May 23, 2011