Photo Credit: Caribbean Business Report
As the race for the White House continues with votes still being counted in swing states, Americans and the international community anxiously await the final election results. As well as electing the next president of the United States, Americans have also voted for members of the House of Representatives and Senators. Preliminary results show Democrats taking control of the House and Republicans maintaining control in the Senate. Joe Biden has stated that if he becomes president, he will restore American leadership and rebuild partnerships to address global problems—a return to the liberal multilateralism which underpinned the Obama-Biden years. America’s relationship with both allies and adversaries have been transformed under President Donald Trump and the world has significantly changed over the last four years. To what extent did U.S. foreign policy in the Anglophone Caribbean change under President Trump? If Biden is declared the winner of the presidential elections, how will this impact American foreign policy in the English-speaking Caribbean? Will house and senate election results have an impact on U.S.-Caribbean relations?
Will it matter who controls Congress?
As part of my doctoral dissertation research on U.S. engagement in the Caribbean, I reviewed congressional testimonies from various committees in the House of Representatives and the Senate over the period 2000 to 2016. I discovered that matters pertaining to the English-speaking Caribbean were always addressed in a bipartisan way. There was general consensus, that given the democratic stability of these small nations, the United States had indeed neglected their neighbors and the time had come for increased engagement with the region. The reason for this renewed interest stemmed from U.S. security concerns and U.S. economic interests. Members of Congress raised concerns about drug trafficking and the return of the Caribbean connection, drug-related crime and violence, escalating homicide rates (the English-speaking Caribbean countries experience some of the highest homicide rates in the world), terrorist threats emanating from the region (over a hundred nationals from Trinidad and Tobago left the Caribbean to join the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq), endemic corruption, and infectious diseases, all posing either a direct or indirect threat to the national security of the United States. Additionally, Congress recognized the Caribbean’s strong economic linkages with the United States and the need to maintain open trade with secure borders. According to the State Department, in 2018 the U.S. realized a $12.3 billion trade surplus with the Caribbean. The United States also has significant investments in the region and Americans comprise the majority of tourists who visit the Caribbean.
The U.S. government therefore saw the need to increase foreign assistance to the Caribbean which led to legislative action taking place over the course of the 21st century. This started with the Caribbean Regional Assistance Act of 2001. The purpose of the Bill (H.R. 502) was to amend the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 by adding Chapter 13 – Assistance for the Caribbean Region. On April 14, 2016 the U.S. government prioritized the Caribbean by introducing a bill in the House of Representatives (H.R. 4939) to make it official policy to increase U.S. engagement with the Caribbean, which led to the United States-Caribbean Strategic Engagement Act of 2016. Unanimously passed in the Senate, it became public law in December 2016. In June 2017, as a follow-up to H.R. 4939, the U.S. Department of State and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) submitted a multi-year Caribbean strategy to Congress which established the framework for U.S. engagement with the region. The strategy, Caribbean 2020: A Multi-Year Strategy to Increase the Security, Prosperity, and Well-Being of the People of the United States and the Caribbean, identified security, diplomacy, prosperity, energy, education, and health as the pillars of engagement.
In addition to foreign assistance, U.S.-Caribbean trade is another area which has received bipartisan support. The region continues to benefit from the U.S. trade preference program collectively known as the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI) via the Caribbean Basin Economic Recovery Act (CBERA) of 1983 which provides duty-free access to the U.S. market for certain goods. In February 2019, U.S. Representatives Terri Sewell (D-AL) and Brad Wenstrup (R-OH) introduced a bipartisan bill H.R. 991 to extend certain provisions of CBERA until September 2030 since the Caribbean Basin Trade Partnership Act (CBTPA) was due to expire in 2020. The bill H.R. 991 was passed in the U.S. Senate without objections. Given the bipartisan support given to matters pertaining to the Caribbean, the U.S.-Caribbean relationship should remain unchanged no matter who controls Congress.
President Trump’s Engagement with the Caribbean
Under President Trump, there was more continuity than change in America’s foreign policy in the English-speaking Caribbean. The Trump administration continued to deepen U.S. engagement in the region through the pillars of the Caribbean 2020 Strategy. Diplomatic efforts and foreign assistance levels however varied among the countries. As shown in Figure 1, over the period 2001 to 2019, the top recipient of U.S. foreign assistance was Jamaica which received a total of around USD$570 million. Guyana, The Bahamas, and Belize were also significant recipients of U.S. foreign aid, each receiving a total of around USD$272 million, USD$138 million, and USD$120 million respectively between 2001 and 2019. U.S. foreign assistance to the other Caribbean countries was significantly lower. It is therefore not surprising that Jamaica, The Bahamas, and Guyana voted for the OAS resolution to not recognize the legitimacy of Nicolas Maduro’s new term as of the January 2019. According to the State Department’s 2019 Report to Congress on the U.S.–Caribbean 2020 Strategy, the United States seeks “to balance our efforts to solidify relations in service of long-term U.S. interests with calibrated engagement considering where regional foreign policy positions are at odds with our own priorities, as in Venezuela.” The Bahamas, Jamaica, St. Lucia, Haiti and the Dominican Republic were hosted by President Trump in Florida in March 2019—all five countries voted for the OAS resolution. Jamaica also hosted a meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in January 2020 where some, but not all, CARICOM members were invited.
Specifically, in the areas of health, security, and humanitarian assistance, President Trump continued engagement activities. In the area of health, the Trump administration continued funding the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) which was started under President George W. Bush and continued under President Obama. Guyana, Jamaica and the Bahamas benefited from PEPFAR funding under the Trump administration. Under the security pillar, Jamaica received aid from the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI) and the Bahamas continued to benefit from the longstanding counter-narcotics cooperation, Operation Bahamas Turks and Caicos (OPBAT). The Bahamas also received humanitarian assistance for hurricane affected populations. If President Trump returns to office, there will be a continuity in foreign aid under the pillars of Caribbean 2020.
Figure 1: Total U.S. Foreign Aid to the English-speaking Caribbean (2001-2019)
Source: Compiled from USAID Foreign Aid Explorer
A Biden Victory
Preliminary results show Biden ahead of Trump in electoral votes bringing him close to winning the presidency. Victory however has not yet been declared as votes are still being counted and the Trump campaign has indicated that they will request a recount in swing states. Court battles also seem likely before the race is decided. If Joe Biden becomes the 46th President of the United States, how will U.S. foreign policy toward the Caribbean change? I will argue that change will take the form of style rather than substance. According to the Biden-Harris campaign, as president, Biden will “elevate diplomacy” and “restore and reimagine partnerships”. All Caribbean heads of state will have the opportunity to meet the new U.S. president at the Ninth Summit of the Americas scheduled to be held in the United States in 2021 as Biden plans to use the opportunity to “rebuild strong hemispheric ties.” Joe Biden will no doubt change the tone of U.S. relations with Latin America and the Caribbean.
In terms of substance, Biden will now have to address China’s growing footprint in the Caribbean after President Trump made countering China’s influence in the region a foreign policy priority which cannot be ignored. The Biden administration will also have to find a way to bring Caribbean countries on board with America’s approach to Venezuela given that the region remains divided on the legitimacy of the Venezuelan presidency. Given Biden’s prioritization of climate change, the Caribbean may receive more funding for renewable energy projects. Generally, however, strategic engagement with the Caribbean will continue under the pillars of the Caribbean 2020 Strategy. A Trump or Biden victory will therefore not make any significant difference for America’s relations with the English-speaking Caribbean.
Samantha S.S. Chaitram is the author of “American Foreign Policy in the English-speaking Caribbean: From the Eighteenth to the Twenty-first Century” published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2020.