Race for the White House and US-Caribbean Relations

Alicia Nicholls

US presidential election campaigns are keenly followed in the Caribbean not just for the riveting debates and endless intrigue, but for the important consequences which any change in US domestic and foreign policy will portend for the region. The US is not just the largest trading partner for many Caribbean countries and a valued ally. It is a major tourism source market and is also home to a large and growing Caribbean diaspora.

As of writing, the US presidential race has narrowed down to billionaire business mogul Donald Trump as the presumptive nominee for the Republicans. Former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, appears to be mathematically on track to securing the Democratic nomination, despite a continued spirited fight by Vermont senator, Bernie Sanders.

More so  than in any other election season in recent memory, trade policy has been a hot button topic in both the Democratic and Republican presidential primaries. Echoing sentiments long held by some Americans who are fed up with what they see as America getting a raw deal from free trade, the talking points of the presidential candidates have adopted a more protectionist and anti-trade tone than has been seen in recent election cycles. Strong criticisms are being leveled at the recently signed but not yet ratified Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement with Pacific-Rim countries, as well as the longstanding tri-nation North American Free Trade Area (NAFTA) with Canada and Mexico.

Feeding into the populist, anti-establishment anger, candidates of both major parties have raised concern about the US’ large trade deficits with Mexico and China, the offshoring of US companies to countries with lower labour and production costs, and the consequential loss of American manufacturing jobs. The presumptive Republican nominee, known for his hardline positions on immigration and trade, colourfully equated the US’ deficit with China to rape.

As small island developing states, Caribbean countries have long posited that trade must be fair, foster sustainable development, and not be to the detriment of the local jobs and industries. However, the current tone of the US presidential campaign equates fair trade with trade which supports only US interests. It is maybe fortunate for the region that the Caribbean has not featured in any of the foreign policy discussions or debates during either the Democratic or Republican Primaries, although discussions around tax havens in light of the Panama Papers will have implications for the offshore financial centres in the Region. Anti-immigration rhetoric on the Republic side, while aimed primarily at the anti-immigration lobby’s favourite “villains” like Mexican and Muslim immigrants, could have implications for Caribbean migration to the US as well.

It would be naïve to think that any country would put another’s ahead of the needs of its own people. However, the current “America first” rhetoric raises issues of the future of unilateral preferential arrangements like the Caribbean Basin Initiative which provide beneficiary countries duty-free access to the US market for most originating goods, without the beneficiary country having to confer reciprocal access to US originating goods. Seventeen Caribbean countries and dependencies currently benefit from such status. Perhaps one saving grace is that the programme is seen to be a benefit to the US and the region has a trade deficit with the US. According to the Report to Congress released in December 2015, “[t]he value of U.S. exports to CBERA beneficiary countries grew 2.5 percent in 2014, exceeding the growth rate for total global U.S. exports, which grew 2.1 percent”.

The anti-trade, “America first” message which pervades the current US presidential election campaign brings into question whether there will be any resolution in sight to the long-running US-Caribbean rum dispute. Caribbean rum producing countries have long raised concerns about subsidies given by the US federal government to rum producers in its territories, namely Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. The cover-over programme allows tax revenues raised by the Federal Government from the excise tax on both local and foreign produced rums to be transferred to the “location of production”, that is, the Puerto Rico and US Virgin Islands. The treasuries of both territories depend heavily on these subsidies for revenue to support investments in infrastructure, education and health and it is no surprise that both territories have increased rum production in order to increase their share of these revenues.

However, Caribbean rum producers like Barbados have argued these subsidies amount to unfair competition, by making Caribbean rums less competitive in the US market. The loss of market share not only means the loss of foreign exchange flows to cash-strapped Caribbean countries and a weaker current account position, but it also threatens jobs in the rum sector in Caribbean countries. So far there has not been any real progress on this issue and it is not pessimistic to think that this may very well go the same way as the US-Antigua Gambling case went after the US failed to comply with the World Trade Organisation’s rulings – nowhere.

An issue which is not directly trade-related but which would also have an impact on US-Caribbean trade, investment and remittance flows is that of the loss of correspondent banking relationships due to de-risking practices by US-based banks. Fears of harsh sanctions by US regulators has led several US banks to abandon the risk-based approach by avoiding risk altogether and terminate correspondent banking relationships with banks and money transfer providers in the region. It is an issue which CARICOM, in conjunction with the Caribbean Association of Banks, has been raising at the bilateral, and increasingly the hemispheric and multilateral level. Last week, St. Kitts & Nevis Prime Minister Dr. Timothy Harris led a delegation which raised the issue again with officials from the US State and Treasury Departments at a consultation in Washington DC.

Another key issue is that of climate change. Climate change is a threat to the world, but is an existential threat to the small island developing states of the Caribbean which bear the brunt of the adverse impacts. President Obama’s stance and support for tackling climate change may not be replicated by his successor. As one of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases (GHG), US emission cuts and whether it ratifies the Paris Agreement will have important implications for whether the target of temperature increases of no more than 1.5 degrees or 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels is met.

Historically seen as the US’ backyard, the Caribbean has lost much of its geostrategic importance to US administrations in recent years. Conflicts in the Middle East, Africa, as well as tensions with Russia and China have occupied US foreign engagement. It has opened the door for greater engagement by the Caribbean with China which has expanded its influence in the region. However, there are issues on which the US and Caribbean still share common concerns, including issues of security, energy, combating drug and human trafficking, to name a few. At the U.S.-Caribbean-Central American Energy Summit in Washington DC, chaired by Vice President Joe Biden, the US reaffirmed its commitment to regional energy integration with the Caribbean and Central America.

There does appear to be another nugget of hope. On April 20th, H.R. 4939 – United States-Caribbean Strategic Engagement Act of 2016, a bi-partisan bill sponsored by New York Representative Eliot Engel (Democrat)  won the unanimous consent of the House Foreign Committee. The objective of the bill is “to increase engagement with the governments of the Caribbean region, the Caribbean diaspora community in the United States, and the private sector and civil society in both the United States and the Caribbean, and for other purposes”.

Though still in need of debate and approval by both Houses of Congress, the bill could be a catalyst for constructive re-engagement of US-Caribbean relations. Some of the objectives include increasing US-Caribbean diplomatic relations and economic cooperation, supporting regional economic, political and security integration efforts in the Caribbean, encouraging sustainable economic development , reducing crime and improving energy security, inter alia. Section 3 of the draft Bill provides that a multi-year strategy for US engagement with the Caribbean must be submitted no later than 180 days after the Act’s enactment. Whether this new re-engagement with the Caribbean will fit within the foreign policy agenda of the next president will have to be seen.

The US relationship with the Caribbean is a valued relationship with ties which go beyond trade. Despite these bonds, there is indeed need for deeper constructive dialogue, engagement and cooperation with the US on a number of pressing issues which have sustainable development and macroeconomic implications for the Caribbean. The Caribbean region does have supporters in the DC Beltway. These include members of the Caribbean diaspora who have ascended to positions of influence in Congress and which have been instrumental in lobbying the US government on issues of concern to the region. However, like everything else, the future tone of US-Caribbean trade relations, will depend heavily on who takes the presidential oath of office in January 2017.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B. is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

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