The COVID-19 pandemic is thrashing the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) states, effectively erasing economic growth and amplifying the risk of public health disasters. The pandemic has exposed the vulnerabilities of CARICOM countries, many of which are small island developing states (SIDS) that are dependent on one or two economic activities.
The public health emergency created by COVID-19 has led to a scarcity of medical resources and the drastic overnight reduction in government revenues. As of the end of April, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts that due to the “sudden stop” in tourism, the Caribbean will experience negative growth of 6.2 percent. Beyond the impending economic recession, CARICOM governments have struggled to secure medical resources and are experiencing a shortage of medical staff as they disperse throughout each member state. Given this, the governments of CARICOM countries are seeking medical support from their long-term partner, Cuba. Over the course of two months, Cuba has sent more than 500 medical professionals to help the Caribbean.
An Isolated CARICOM
Cuba’s support fills the space left behind by an absence of global leadership. Amid the pandemic, the United States government has taken a strong unilateralist stance and no other great power has hastened to organize a multilateral response to best tackle the virus. Following the U.S.’s decision to defund the World Health Organization (WHO) and its failure in urging international financial institutions to address the crisis in developing countries, CARICOM governments were forced to take pragmatic approaches, including seeking Cuban assistance.
At the moment, CARICOM reports that there are more than 1,300 reported cases in its member states, with close to 75 deaths. According to the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), CARICOM states are still in its earliest stages of contagion. They warned that the region has yet to reach its peak.
As a result, CARICOM governments have begun to plan accordingly. Prime Minister of Barbados and current Chair of CARICOM, Mia Mottley, recently called a special heads of government meeting to address COVID-19. Mottley has also been vocal at the United Nations, advocating for a UN Recovery Trust Fund to support SIDS. Simultaneously, Antigua and Barbuda’s Prime Minister, Gaston Browne, has written to the World Bank Group (WBG) and the IMF to propose a course of action that would include vulnerable Caribbean economies in measures adopted for more troubled states—this includes debt relief, low-cost loans, and budgetary relief.
The United States and China have done little to support Caribbean states. Recently, the United States collectively deported close to 200 Jamaican and Haitian immigrants without testing them for COVID-19. Alarmingly, there has already been a case of a Jamaican deportee testing positive for the disease. Actual assistance to Caribbean countries from the U.S. has been minuscule, unbecoming of the world’s richest nation. On March 30, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) called for a $2.5 trillion package to developing countries. However, the package focused only on immediate responses to COVID-19 and ignored the wider economic impact on the region. The United States has yet to provide a substantial region wide funding package to CARICOM.
As for China, although it has delivered protective equipment to the Caribbean states with which it has diplomatic relations, desperately needed economic and financial assistance has not been forthcoming. Indeed, China, like the U.S., has insisted on maintaining debt servicing even though the treasuries and foreign reserves of Caribbean borrowing governments have been gravely depleted as a consequence of the harmful impact of COVID-19.
At the end of the 31 inter-sessional meeting of CARICOM heads of government on February 20, 2020, member countries stated they regard enhanced sanctions on Cuba by the United States as an “unjustifiable application of laws and measures of an extra-territorial nature that are contrary to international law.” In the same statement, before the pandemic reached the Caribbean, CARICOM leaders thanked Cuba for its medical support and refuted the notion that Cuban medical assistance is a form of human trafficking.
Support for Cuba has provided a collective benefit for the region. COVID-19 has the potential to overwhelm Caribbean public health sectors, especially with government resources thinning out to address an incoming economic recession and a strong hurricane season. Further, Caribbean states have small populations and a limited number of public health professionals. Cuba’s medical assistance, in the form of medical professionals, deescalates this issue. Cuba has been able to supply capable bodies that can test, treat, and provide care to those in need. As COVID-19 is expected to affect countries in waves, Caribbean public health systems will benefit from Cuban medical personnel.
This is sure to strengthen mutually beneficial CARICOM-Cuba relations, and result in greater support internationally by CARICOM countries, even in defiance of the present U.S. government’s desire to isolate Cuba. For example, at the conclusion of CARICOM’s special emergency heads of government meeting on April 15, due to humanitarian concerns, member states reiterated their call for the United States to lift its sanctions on Cuba.
This has become another installment in a valuable, historical relationship between CARICOM and Cuba. As the COVID-19 pandemic progresses, the Caribbean will continue to welcome Cuban assistance. After the first wave of COVID-19 passes and borders start to reopen, a greater number of Caribbean medical students may regard Cuba as an attractive location for training, creating another wave of CARICOM citizens who are loyal to Cuba. In addition, if the Cuban-developed antiviral drug, Interferon Alpha 2B, proves effective in treating patients with COVID-19, Caribbean governments will surely purchase it.
CARICOM governments are in an unprecedented crisis. The vulnerability of their countries to exogenous shocks and the poor response to their plight by powerful countries in their neighborhood, particularly the United States, are leading CARICOM governments to examine their relationships with other states. In that examination, Cuba has won simply by sending medical personnel to help island states, while the United States has been parsimonious and detached in its response.
Wazim Mowla is a graduate student at American University and a researcher for the African & African Diaspora Studies program at Florida International University. Mowla also interns for the Permanent Mission of Antigua & Barbuda to the United States and the OAS and the Inter-American Dialogue’s Asia & Latin America Program.