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Commentary: US Congress reconsiders strategic importance of partnership with the Caribbean
Published on July 20, 2016 Email To Friend    Print Version

By Bruce Zagaris

On July 14, 2016, the US House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere held a hearing on the “Strategic Importance of Building a Stronger US-Caribbean Partnership.” On June 13, 2016, the House of Representatives passed HR 4939 (the United States-Caribbean Strategic Engagement Act of 2016) by a vote of 386 to 6.

Bruce Zagaris is a partner with the Washington, DC, law firm of Berliner Corcoran & Rowe LLP. A former lecturer at the University of the West Indies Law Faculty, he testified in Congress on the Caribbean Basin Initiative, and his practice has focused on Caribbean financial services and investment.
HR 4939 requires the Secretary of State, in coordination with the Administrator of the US Agency for International Aid, to submit a multi-year strategy for US engagement with the Caribbean region to Congress no later than 180 days after enactment. This strategy would in part focus on improving citizen security, reducing trafficking of illicit drugs, strengthening the rule of law and promoting greater economic development. Although the Senate has not yet acted, there is significant bipartisan interest in a similar bill in the Senate.

While the bill is short of substance and, like the 1983 Caribbean Basin Initiative of the Reagan Administration, is motivated largely by US national security interests in the region and the way in which Venezuela, China and Cuba have filled the void in the region, nevertheless it presents the first opportunity since the mid-1980s for the region to engage the US executive and legislative branches.

The hearing focused on the void in the region as a result of the collapse of Venezuela and the limitations of PetroCaribe, the Venezuelan initiative in 2005 to provide high-subsidized oil to the Caribbean. The hearing emphasized the need to relieve the region from its dependence on imported energy and shift to alternative energy sources, such as solar, wind, and thermal, and promote and enhance the Obama administration’s Caribbean Energy Security Initiative to facilitate a cleaner, more energy secure future consistent with the Paris climate change accords.

The hearing underscored the fact that the preferences in the Caribbean Basin Economic Recovery Act, revised in 1990, are limited to trade in goods, while current trade in the region is in services. Hence, any new trade arrangement should strengthen trade in services between the US and the Caribbean, including in health, education, and business. In addition, the testimony focused on the need to rectify the fact that the small size of Caribbean jurisdictions does not enable them to take advantage of financing and feasibility studies by the Overseas Private Investment Corporation.

The hearing discussed the problem of withdrawal by US banks of correspondent relationships with Caribbean indigenous banks and the fact that such withdrawals harm US-Caribbean cooperation by cutting Caribbean people from US banking and producing a void that makes the Caribbean vulnerable to interests inimical to the US.

On travel and tourism, testimony called for a strategic look at increasing US immigration pre-clearance presence through a hub and spoke system to provide enhanced security. Another suggestion was to provide technical assistance, such as in the area of increased training for the development of a shared watch-list for travelers into and within the region.

Clearly, the House passage of HR 4939 and the hearing as well as the US national elections present a rare opportunity for the region. CARICOM, national governments, the Caribbean Diaspora, and other interested groups in both the region and the US should network, strategize, and collaborate with members of the US government to pass a similar and hopefully more substantial bill in the Senate.

One element the Caribbean can request is bilateral tourism agreements, whereby the US agrees to collaborate with Caribbean countries in developing tourism joint ventures, tourism promotion and marketing, and technical assistance.

Just as important, the Caribbean should try to engage with US states. Many long-term tourists from Asia and Northern Europe like to combine trips to Florida and Eastern US with the Caribbean. By having tourism agreements with states, those states and the Caribbean, working with the private sector, can develop and market joint tourism agreements in areas such as plantocracy, music, visual arts, food, and other culture.

Such collaboration will benefit the states as much as the Caribbean. The Caribbean and US states can collaborate on educational and health care exchanges, the way that Cuba and CARICOM countries have done.
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