A new bill proposed in the United States Senate titled, “Cut Profits to the Cuban Regime Act of 2020,” has put Caribbean states in the line of fire as lawmakers look to advance U.S. policy toward Cuba during the COVID-19 pandemic; a move that has the potential to strain U.S. relations with Caribbean Community (CARICOM) countries.
The bill, introduced by Republican Senators Rick Scott (Florida), Marco Rubio (Florida), and Ted Cruz (Texas), would require the U.S. Department of State to release the list of countries that contract with Cuba for their medical missions program, and ensures that such contracts are considered in the annual U.S. Trafficking in Persons report rankings.
In short, the bill would effectively stifle the revenue received by Cuba from its medical missions and punish recipient countries to appease President Donald Trump’s key South Florida base as the 2020 U.S. presidential election gets closer. While the bill focuses on Cuba, its contents have extraterritorial and harmful effects on countries in the Caribbean, who without Cuba’s medical support, are unlikely to have tackled the COVID-19 pandemic as swiftly as they have.
The decision of CARICOM states to invite, at one point, more than 500 Cuban medical personnel into their respective countries, was pragmatic. At the time, this was against the backdrop of insufficient support from richer countries, such as the United States. Given the recent rhetoric of U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, who earlier in the year stated that “it’s time for a deeper relationship” between the United States and Caribbean nations, one would think the United States would have been more forthcoming in its support for the region during the pandemic. The support never came, and so the Caribbean turned to its longtime partner, Cuba, for support.
CARICOM countries faced a potentially dire situation as their public health systems neared collapse due to the increase in COVID-19 patients. This led governments to impose travel restrictions, effectively shutting down the region’s most important economic sector: tourism. With tourism a crucial sector in the economies of many island nations, it was imperative that states quickly manage COVID-19 in an effort to reopen and revive the economy.
The Caribbean’s economic dependency on tourism is not unknown to the U.S. Senators—who routinely influence U.S. policy on Latin America and the Caribbean. This means that they either unintentionally overlooked the effects the bill’s contents would have on Caribbean states or have simply disregarded the sovereign right of Caribbean nations to do what they must to protect the livelihoods of their people. With this bill, the senators are punishing CARICOM states and others who’ve depended on Cuban medical professionals to assist in their COVID-19 strategies, when ironically, the senators’ own states have seen dramatic spikes in COVID-19 patients and deaths—Florida is now the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States.
If the bill is enacted, one of its stipulations, that the State Department factor in countries that receive Cuban medical personnel into their annual Trafficking in Persons report, will have consequential effects on several CARICOM states.
In the State Department’s Trafficking in Persons report—which ranks states in terms of how well a government meets the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s (TVPA) minimum standards for the elimination of human trafficking, with Tier 1 being the best and Tier 3 the worst—countries placed in the Tier 2 Watch List for three consecutive years are automatically moved to Tier 3.
If the acceptance of Cuban medical personnel becomes a factor in the ranking system, it would place Tier 2 Watch List CARICOM states, such as Belize and Barbados, in Tier 3 for the 2021 report. Furthermore, it could put seven additional CARICOM states that are currently ranked as Tier 2 on the same trajectory as Barbados and Belize.
Placement in Tier 3 comes not only with funding restrictions from the United States, but gives the U.S president the authority to direct U.S. based multilateral development banks and the International Monetary Fund to ”vote against and use their best efforts to deny any loans or other uses of the institutions’ funds.”
Given the economic impact of COVID-19 on CARICOM states, especially those potentially at risk of the senators’ bill, such as Barbados and Belize whose 2020 real GDP is forecasted to experience a 7.6 percent and 12 percent contraction respectively, the implications of the bill would serve as an unnecessary contribution to the challenges of these countries.
Numerous CARICOM heads of government have individually and collectively, for example through the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States, opposed the senators’ bill. In their words, they “repudiate” its contents and argue that there is no evidence that the Cuban medical professionals in their country are part of forced labor, as the senators claim. If the bill moves forward, more heads of state are likely to speak out against it, and the contents will weaken U.S.-Caribbean relations at a time when global and hemispheric solidarity will be vital in a post-COVID environment.
U.S. actors routinely caution CARICOM states on their engagements with states such as China, Cuba, and Venezuela, as well as lobby for their support in regard to U.S.-led initiatives against them, but the United States rarely provides the Caribbean with a mutually beneficial alternative. Instead, the bill reflects a unilateral and contradictory U.S. foreign policy toward the Americas that has consistently put partner nations at risk to advance its outdated Cuba policy.
Not only does the bill strain U.S.-Caribbean relations, but contradicts U.S. efforts to isolate Cuba from its Caribbean allies. CARICOM states routinely argue that the U.S. embargo on Cuba breaks international law and is unhumanitarian in its application. They have used international forums, such as the United Nations General Assembly as well as the communiques that follow each CARICOM intersessional meeting to voice these concerns. Thus, although not a member of CARICOM, Cuba remains a valued partner of the Community since Guyana, Jamaica, Barbados, and Trinidad established diplomatic relations with the country in 1972.
The contents of the senators’ bill seek to infringe the good will enjoyed between the United States and CARICOM members. To pass such a move would be a grave mistake, further isolating the United States under the administration of President Donald Trump.
Wazim Mowla is a Guyanese American graduate student at American University, a researcher for the African & African Diaspora Studies program at Florida International University, and an intern for the Permanent Mission of Antigua & Barbuda to the United States and the OAS.