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.Leaders did reach consensus agreements during the meeting, however. Vice President Biden and CARICOM Chair Michel Martelly, who is also president of Haiti, signed a trade and investment framework agreement to further the current trade relationship between the U.S. and the Caribbean region. Biden also signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar to jointly create a renewable energy research center for the Caribbean in Trinidad and Tobago. “There’s probably no group of nations better situated to take advantage of renewable energy possibilities than here in the Caribbean,” Biden said. Persad-Bissessar and Biden also signed a “status of forces” agreement between Trinidad and the United States that could pave the way for a more active U.S. military presence in and around the southern Caribbean.
These agreements aside, the vice president’s remarks at the conclusion of the meetings hinted at a much for conciliatory and approachable tone from the United States to its Caribbean neighbors. Biden used a good portion of the address to emphasize the positive aspects of current relations with the United States. He cited the elimination of many tariffs through the Caribbean Basin Initiative, the $200 million dollars pledged to support the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative and the $8 billion in remittances sent back to the Caribbean by members of the diaspora living and working in the United States. Beyond those facts, the Vice President spoke to the Caribbean audience about the Obama administration’s push for immigration reform, and referred to the administration’s $30 billion investment in reducing drug consumption in the U.S. as “part of our responsibility and our obligation.”
The change in tone towards the Caribbean may best be illustrated by two separate passages from the vice president’s remarks. “I believe in international relations, as in any relationship, it comes down to respect. Do we respect one another? And do we show respect?” Biden asked. In closing, he stated, “We need you. And I hope you’ll find a place in your hearts, in your economies, in your quest for energy, in your quest for societalization of your economies that we can play a part with you.”
That change in tone towards Caribbean relations may, in fact, be a result of the Chinese economic entrance into the region. In just a few days, Chinese President Xi Jinping will arrive in Trinidad and Tobago to address the same audience that Biden spoke to. While China has deep pockets, some regional leaders are wary of Chinese investments, believing they are only of short-term benefit to the Caribbean. In her closing remarks, Persad-Bissessar said, “In many ways, the CARICOM region is closer to the U.S.” than to other international interests.
But being courted by China as a trade and investment partner has emboldened the Caribbean region. No longer does the United States hold all of the cards in this relationship. As the U.S. attempts to build and strengthen its economic relations with Latin America, it will likewise need to pay much closer attention to the needs and interests of its neighbors in the Caribbean.