On January 26, the Council of the Americas and the Atlantic Council co-hosted the Caribbean Energy Security Summit. The summit, convened by Vice President Joseph Biden, brought together Caribbean leaders, multilateral banks, private sector representatives, and U.S. government officials in order to address the critical issue of energy security in the Caribbean basin.
The summit demonstrated that there is high-level attention being given to the Caribbean in the U.S. government, which is willing to work with the region in order to take on the fiscal, energy, and environmental challenges currently present.
Caribbean nations are suffering from high energy costs and a dependence on fuel oil. They are indebted to countries such as Venezuela, through the Petrocaribe program. Because countries are receiving oil from Venezuela on preferential financing terms, there is very little incentive to diversify the energy matrix towards cleaner sources of energy such as natural gas and renewables. In a sense, the Caribbean is addicted to cheap oil—but this is not sustainable, given the declining state of the Venezuelan economy.
Furthermore, energy costs are affecting the region’s economic growth. According to the IDB, electricity rates in the Caribbean are up to four times more expensive than in Florida. The Caribbean’s economy is primarily driven by tourism, and electricity represents up to 50 percent of operating costs in hotels.
Moreover, the high dependency on imported fossil fuels is exacerbated by governance systems that are outdated. The obstacles to energy reform include high upfront costs, fiscally constrained governments, weak regulations, and lack of regional coordination.
With the exception of gas-rich Trinidad and Tobago, the 14 other countries of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) are energy importers. In fact, 93 percent of the region’s energy needs are met by oil imports, which average 13 percent of GDP. Venezuela is the main supplier of oil to the Caribbean through the PetroCaribe agreement, formed in 2005, which provides oil on attractive financing terms. However, declining oil production, deficient investment, and faltering leadership in Venezuela’s state-run oil company PDVSA cast doubt on the future of the arrangement. The termination of PetroCaribe would further wreak havoc on their tenuous fiscal situations. In many countries, Venezuela’s largesse has been a double-edged sword—affordable energy but increased reliance on imported oil.
Energy dependence and vulnerability are serious issues in the Caribbean, where residents suffer from high and fluctuating electricity costs, frequent blackouts and poor service. Electricity prices are some of the highest in the world, averaging US$0.33 per kilowatt hour compared to $0.09 per kilowatt hour in the United States. Oil reliance is stifling the Caribbean’s economy and the region must work towards diversifying its matrix if it wants to be competitive.
Natural gas might just be the solution. The Inter-American Development Bank recently held a Caribbean Energy Conference where panelists called for a transition to natural gas as a cheaper alternative. While natural gas would not be able to compete with subsidized fossil fuels from Venezuela, the termination of the PetroCaribe program would open the door for expanding the natural gas market. Jamaica, for example, pays 60 percent of crude upfront at market prices ($103 per barrel), and finances the rest with 1 percent interest over forty years—essentially receiving a 40 percent discount on their oil imports. The price of natural gas in the region ($10 per million BTUs) is not competitive with this discounted price. But an energy market where buyers had to pay market prices would drastically change the game for natural gas.
European governments were unlikely to be pleased to hear the call for reparations issued by Caribbean Community (CARICOM) heads of state last month. The Caribbean countries jointly released a statement calling for forward action on a plan to pursue reparations for “repairing the damage inflicted by slavery and racism.”
Is this really the best path forward to encourage development and future investment?
Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer of Antigua and Barbuda seems to think so. He argued that “nations that have been the major producers of wealth for the European slave-owning economies during the enslavement and colonial periods entered Independence with dependency straddling their economic, cultural, social and even political lives.” Based on that principle, the CARICOM nations have enlisted the counsel of a British law firm as they seek to gain reparations from Great Britain, France and the Netherlands.
The basis of the grievances leveled by the CARICOM states are hard to argue with, but the conclusion that they draw—that reparations are the solution for economic, social and political problems—would appear to be a non-starter. A primary argument against reparations is that CARICOM states already receive over $450 million per year in foreign aid from Europe, a good portion of which comes from the three nations being targeted.
Should CARICOM be successful in its bid for reparations, one unintended and likely consequence is a scaling back of foreign aid from the target countries. Another likely outcome is that European nations and the United States would pull back on their regular contributions to regional economic and social development.
Caribbean officials have yet to name the specific amount of money being pursued, but unless the desired payment was in the tens of billions of dollars, the whole push for reparations is unlikely to make financial sense.
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.
The United States opens World Cup qualifying today against Antigua and Barbuda, a game described by the Washington Post as David versus Goliath and his two snarling brothers. There is little drama to the outcome or indeed purpose to playing the game. True, if the Faroe Islands can have a team in World Cup qualification (um, where ARE the Faroe Islands?), then certainly the micro-states of the Caribbean are entitled to contesting the tournament, too. And, also true, the game does mean that the country will receive some press outside of the travel section of the newspapers, albeit small articles buried in the sports section.
But, really? The entire population of the nation of Antigua and Barbuda is less than 100,000 and could fit comfortably into the Dallas Cowboys football stadium. In all of World Cup history, only four Caribbean nations have ever gone to the tournament itself, all of which, not coincidentally, are among the larger states: Trinidad and Tobago in 2006, Jamaica in 1998, Haiti in 1974, and Cuba in 1938. The Benna Boys effort is therefore not just quixotic, it is somewhat of a farce.
So here is a proposal for consideration next time: the Caribbean nations should band together to compete under one flag, much as the West Indies do within world cricket competitions. The West Indies, or “Windies,” are a sporting confederation of 15 mainly English-speaking countries, British dependencies and non-British dependencies, and, although their fortunes have lately waned, in the 1970s achieved status as the world’s best. Much sporting success has come to the islands by pooling their resources. More importantly, working together toward a common goal is one element that has contributed at least somewhat to broader regional integration efforts.
The comparison is not perfect: soccer and cricket are different games, of course, and not all of those involved in cricket are eligible to participate in World Cup qualifying. As well, nations including Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica have achieved recent World Cup qualifying success on their own and may have little interest in participating as a group.
Nonetheless, the time has come to reconsider regional qualifying. Why not put together the island nations of the Eastern Caribbean, as a start (with or without Trinidad and Tobago), and enter the next time as a group? There are no guarantees that the results will be different, although the odds would at least improve; even with pooled resources the countries would still likely struggle on the pitch. Ultimately, though, that is not really the point, because the real agenda has to do with economic integration in the Caribbean Basin which continues to be more aspirational than reality. Building a team to compete in the World Cup would contribute to this long sought goal.
Today is the 101st observation of International Women’s Day, a time to shine the global spotlight on the economic, political and social achievements of women. From my perspective, although Caribbean women are still victims of sexism, machismo and other forms of discrimination—unfortunately as in every other region in the world—their successes have been remarkably profound. The right of a woman to education and political participation is hardly denied. A number of Caribbean women are parliamentarians and ministers; the current prime ministers of Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago are female.
International media are beginning to notice. The Independent (UK), in a ranking of “The Best and Worst Place to Be a Woman,” announced that the Caribbean is the best place for women to be a journalist and that the region has the highest percentage of women—almost 60 percent—working in high-skilled jobs. The Bahamas is ranked the highest for economic participation and opportunity for women. This progress shows that more people are finally divorcing from their prejudices, stereotypes and misconceptions about the societal status of women. However, as we rejoice in this euphoria it is crucial to issue a clarion call for change in areas where basic female rights are still violated, the most glaring of which is reproductive health.
Women and girls must have access to all options of modern contraception to make informed and responsible decisions about the size of their families. But this is not so. Women and girls in the Caribbean are still marginalized and negatively impacted by antiquated laws such as Sections 56 and 57 of Trinidad & Tobago’s Offences Against the Person Act, which fail to account for their sexual and reproductive rights. When I asked on Twitter about which reproductive rights matter most to women in the Caribbean, one follower noted the “need [for] access to affordable, safe and legal abortions for the pregnant poor teenagers as well as the 'successful' married women.”
Listen to a series of interviews with stakeholders in three countries of the CARICOM economic zone: Guyana, Jamaica and St. Kitts & Nevis.
On a global scale, very few women hold leadership roles in decision-making processes. This unfortunate reality holds true especially at the regional and national levels. Didier Ruedin, a scholar on population studies, notes that “in free and partly free countries, the proportion of women in parliament is closely associated with other measures of women’s status in society.” As the argument goes, if more women are integrated into society—and are viewed as respectable and capable leaders, equal to the social standing of men—then their participation in the political system is more likely.
And since 1945, when the United Nations Charter was adopted, equal opportunity for men and women has become a fundamental principle of human rights. In the gender equality movement, there have been significant changes over the years—particularly in the areas of entitlements and women’s roles in certain activities including decision making. In fact, the 1975 genesis of International Year for Women spawned international agreements benefiting women. Some such declarations include the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights, and the Millennium Development Goals, and they have been enacted to highlight the need for countries to act against discriminatory practices.
Yet many inequalities remain. Statistics show that:
• Two-thirds of the world’s illiterate people are female.
• Nearly 70 percent of the world's poorest people are female.
• Women represent a growing proportion of people living with HIV/AIDS.
• In only 16 countries in the world does female representation in national legislatures amount to larger than 25 percent.