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.Trinidad and Tobago’s proximity to Venezuela may simultaneously be of strategic interest to the Pentagon. Reports from Venezuela indicate that the post-Chavez government shows signs of internal unrest. Should that unrest manifest itself in an armed struggle for power, the pressure to intervene from interested parties within the United States would come quickly. Having strong relationships with Colombia, to Venezuela’s west, and with Trinidad and Tobago to the east can be very appealing for the United States.
Besides energy interests, strategic interests and drug interdiction, the United States is wise to try and bolster its relationship with Trinidad and Tobago because of Trinidadian membership in the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), two regional bodies of which the U.S. is not a member. Due to its relative economic strength and stability, Trinidad and Tobago is a respected voice in those international organizations. If the intention of the Obama administration is to try and increase engagement with Latin America, then all avenues, direct and indirect, must be explored.
As with any international relationship, there are certain things that the prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, will be seeking to discuss with Vice President Biden. Continuing cooperation in security and economic development for Trinidad and the Caribbean region will undoubtedly be high on her list. Do not be surprised, however, if the prime minister asks Vice President Biden for American support in adding small-state representation to international bodies such as the UN and the IMF. Persad-Bissessar was in Washington recently speaking on that very topic, and it has become an important issue for the government of Trinidad and Tobago.
When trying to figure out the significance that a small Caribbean nation could have for the United States, perhaps the final piece to the puzzle was revealed last week. Chinese President Xi Jinping will visit Trinidad and Tobago just days after Vice President Biden leaves. As American foreign policy has pivoted towards the Pacific, Chinese foreign policy has been engaging Latin American and Caribbean nations in trade negotiation and development deals.
It could be mere coincidence that Trinidad and Tobago will be hosting these two vital state representatives just days apart. But it is safe to assume that this was a strategic geopolitical move by both sides to garner support and promote good relations with this small yet increasingly important Caribbean nation.