October 3, 2023

The US 2020 Presidential Elections: What’s at stake for the Caribbean?

Photo source: Pixabay

Alicia Nicholls

On November 3, the American electorate, including Caribbean-Americans, will officially cast its vote for the next President of the United States (US). The choice is between the incumbent far right Republican president and businessman, Donald Trump, and the more centrist Democratic nominee and former Vice President (VP) in the Obama Administration, Joe Biden. Quoting data from the US Elections Project, a Reuters report of October 6, 2020 revealed that some four million Americans have already voted early, reportedly “more than 50 times the 75,000 at this time in 2016”.

The Caribbean never features as a major foreign policy topic in US presidential campaigns, although the Venezuela crisis and China’s growing influence in the region have caused some disquiet in Washington in recent years. But while the Caribbean has ebbed and flowed in its geopolitical significance to US policymakers, we in the region are frequently glued to our television sets, or in this era, smart devices, whenever US presidential election season comes around. Quite simply, we have a vested interest in who determines US government policy making. This is because our northernly neighbour is not just a super power, the region’s largest trading partner, a provider of development assistance and our most important tourism source market. The US is also the home to the region’s largest diaspora and the main source of remittance flows to the region. Indeed, this time around, Caribbean people have another reason to be invested in this election cycle; Joe Biden’s VP nominee, current US Senator for California, Kamala Harris, is of Jamaican and Indian ancestry.

Let me state upfront that this article is in no way intended to influence the voter choice of any reader and does not represent an official endorsement of any candidate. Instead, it aims to academically discuss some of the major issues on the ballot in this election which directly or indirectly affect Caribbean countries and the Caribbean diaspora living in the US. It seeks to do so by critically examining the policy positions of the two major party candidates, Trump and Biden, on these issues.

The candidates’ positions vs Caribbean countries’ interests

President Trump and former VP Joe Biden generally differ significantly in their stated approaches to issues such as foreign policy, trade, climate policy, immigration, race relations, economic policy and Cuba relations – issues of importance to the Caribbean. Both candidates’ positions can be discerned not just from their campaign promises but their records; Trump as the incumbent and Biden on his experience as President Obama’s VP and as a former long-time US Senator for Delaware.

Foreign Policy and Trade Policy

With respect to foreign and trade policy, President Trump has been dogged in his nativist, unilateral, neorealist and neomercantilist ‘America first’ outlook. His record includes escalating trade tensions with China, antagonizing traditional US allies, withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), renegotiation of trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement (now the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement) and the Korea-US FTA (KORUS). He also formally announced the US’ withdrawal from the World Health Organization (WHO) in the middle of a global pandemic, withdrew from the Iran Nuclear Deal, and repeatedly threatened to withdraw from the World Trade Organization (WTO) over its alleged lenient trade treatment of China. The Trump Administration’s blockage of (re)appointments of members (judges) to the WTO’s Appellate Body over longstanding US concerns with that body’s operation has led to the body’s paralysis after it no longer had a quorum needed to hear an appeal. This led some WTO Members to sign on to a temporary solution – the Multi-party Interim Appeal Arrangement (MPIA) to which the US has not committed.  

It is, therefore, fortuitous for the region that the Trump Administration, which has insisted on reciprocity in its trade dealings with States, opted to successfully apply for another WTO waiver for the Caribbean Basin Initiative – the unilateral preferences scheme allowing duty free access to the US market for most Caribbean goods. The Caribbean Basin Trade Partnership Act (CBTPA), one of the CBI’s constituent Acts, appears on track for renewal after expiring on September 30, 2020. The Administration’s seeming support of this programme may be because the Caribbean has a large trade deficit with the US, posing no real threat to US jobs, and the programme is viewed as beneficial to US industry. Moreover, the Trump Administration has provided some technical and financial assistance to Caribbean governments in the fight against COVID-19, and the significant oil finds in Guyana have influenced deeper US government and private sector engagement with that country.

Joe Biden, who represents a more traditional outward-looking US foreign policy orientation has extolled multilateralism, vowing that under his presidency the US would, inter alia, rejoin the Paris Agreement to which it had originally committed under his Obama/Biden administration. Biden’s views on trade, however, appear inward looking, appealing to the crucial voting bloc of blue collar workers who feel jilted by globalization. Political exigencies mean that there will likely not be the wide open-armed embrace of free trade under the Biden administration, evidenced by his pledge to prioritise nearshoring of supply chains and expansion of the ‘Buy America’ initiative. Without doubt, however, his trade policies will be more predictable and stable than his opponent’s, providing greater certainty for trading partners. Biden has also been more supportive of the WTO. This aligns with the interest of Caribbean countries which, despite its flaws, are major supporters of retaining the WTO’s two tiered dispute settlement system and of the rules-based multilateral trading system, more broadly.

Climate Change

This brings us to another fundamental issue for the Caribbean – the candidates’ views on climate change which presents an existential threat for our Caribbean small island developing States (SIDS). President Trump continues to deny the existence of anthropogenic (man-made) climate change despite, inter alia, a record-setting Atlantic Hurricane Season this year, and has rolled back many of the pro-environment policies enacted by his predecessors. Biden, by contrast, has a dedicated Biden Plan for Climate Change in which he pledges to ensure the US ‘achieves a 100% clean energy economy and reaches net-zero emissions no later than 2050’ and to address the disproportionate impact of climate change on vulnerable communities and investment in clean energy.

Immigration Policy

Another ‘big-ticket’ item for the region is the US’ immigration policy. In 2017, some 4.4 million Caribbean immigrants lived in the US, according to the Migrant Policy Institute. Although this point is almost never raised, US-Caribbean migration is not one-way, as there are American immigrants living in Caribbean countries as well. Americans also reportedly comprise the majority of applicants under Barbados’ digital nomad visa programme – the Barbados Welcome Stamp.

Despite two of his three wives being immigrants themselves and his mother having been an immigrant from Scotland, President Trump has taken a virulent anti-immigrant stance exemplified by the infamous ‘Muslim ban’, the inhumane child separation policy at the US-Mexico border and making legal migration to the US more difficult.

In contrast, Biden in his Immigration Plan has pledged a ‘fair and humane immigration system’ in which he promises to undo his predecessor’s harmful policies; modernize America’s immigration system; reassert America’s commitment to asylum-seekers and refugees; tackle the root causes of irregular migration and implement effective border screening. The proof, of course, will be in the implementation.

Race Relations

Additionally, as a region whose population is predominantly non-white, the deteriorating race relations, the rise in hate groups and institutionalized racism in the US will be of concern to the Caribbean. Widespread protests over longstanding police brutality and racial injustice came to a head this year when a video circulated showed a white police officer kneeling on the neck of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, for several minutes causing his death. This was preceded by the police killing of an innocent black woman, Breonna Taylor, in her apartment pursuant to a no-knock warrant issued for the wrong residence. Police violence is not foreign to the Caribbean community living in the US as Botham Jean, a St. Lucian expat working at international accounting firm PWC in Dallas, Texas was shot and killed in 2018 in his own apartment by an off-duty police officer who claimed to have walked into the wrong apartment and thought he was an intruder. Jean’s killer was found guilty of murder but was sentenced to only ten years’ imprisonment and is currently appealing her sentence. While President Trump has been lukewarm in his condemnation of these incidents and downplayed the existence of institutionalized racism, Joe Biden has released plans for promoting racial justice and other issues affecting the black, native American and other marginalized communities. 

Economic Policy

Due to the US’ economic and commercial importance in the region, the health of the US economy has direct implications for the Caribbean. President Trump campaigned on ‘bringing back American jobs’ and his first term economic plan has largely focused on tax cuts and less successfully, aggressive trade policies, raising tariffs and demanding that American multinational national enterprises (MNEs) reshore jobs from China and other countries back to the US. However, President Trump has seen slippage in his once strong public support on his handling of the economy, particularly in light of his questionable handling so far of the COVID-19 outbreak. The US Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) reported that the US’ real gross domestic product (GDP) decreased at an annual rate of 31.4 percent in the second quarter of 2020.

Biden’s economic recovery plan, though not perfect, proposes expanding ‘Buy America’ campaigns, prioritizes support for small businesses, greater research and development, widening access to health care and education, improving America’s infrastructure, promoting clean energy and racial equity. Some of these proposals, which aim to create jobs and stimulate economic activity, will include spending increases adding to the US deficit and tax hikes for the wealthy, and are unlikely to be passed if Republicans control the Congress.  

Handling of COVID-19

The US government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic will be another area of concern for the region. As at October 9, 2020, the US had recorded some 214,000 COVID-19 fatalities and 7.5 million positive cases. Minority communities, which include some Caribbean diaspora communities, have been among the most affected by the outbreak. Moreover, Caribbean countries dependent on US tourist arrivals have had to play the delicate balance of encouraging US tourism while trying to protect their own citizens from the risk of COVID-19. President Trump has downplayed the virus and frequently derided mask-wearing, even after he and many of his White House staffers contracted the virus. His approach has instead focused on promoting unproven treatments.

Biden, who has publicly supported mask-wearing, has proposed a seven-point COVID-19 plan focuses, inter alia, on testing and contact tracing, improving access to personal protective equipment (PPE), implementing national masks mandates and equitable distribution of equipment, treatments and vaccines.

Cuba relations

Caribbean countries have long criticized the US’ illegal and unjustified economic and trade embargo against that hispanophone nation. CARICOM has a Trade and Economic Cooperation Agreement with Cuba and the détente in US-Cuba relations under the Obama administration made trade between Cuba and the Caribbean logistically and politically easier. President Trump, however, has taken a hardline stance against Cuba, reinstituting many of the restrictions which had been rolled back during his predecessor’s second term in office.

Biden has called for a ‘new Cuba policy’ and while he has not given specifics, probably in an effort not to alienate Cuba-American voters in Florida, he has criticized President Trump’s policy towards that country as ‘not working’. However, it is unlikely that even if he wanted, Biden would be able to end the embargo without a Democratic-controlled Congress. Three Republican Senators introduced a bill threatening Caribbean countries which accepted medical assistance from Cuba as part of their efforts to fight the COVID-19 outbreak.  

Other issues

Of caution, however, is that Caribbean countries should consider the harsh stance President Obama took against Caribbean international financial centers (IFCs), branding them repeatedly as ‘tax havens’. It is unclear whether Biden would continue such an approach. It was also under the Obama Administration that saw the implementation of the extraterritorial Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) entering into effect in 2014 which, simply put, coerced countries to sign agreements in which they committed their financial institutions to report on the assets held by US account holders in an effort to combat tax evasion by US taxpayers.

President Obama’s initiatives in the region also focused primarily on security issues than economic development issues.  And while he signed the US-Caribbean Strategic Engagement Act of 2016 months into his final term, President Obama’s administration continued the US’ failure to amicably resolve the US-Antigua gambling dispute years after the twin-island State won its case against the US at the WTO. It remains to be seen what will be Biden’s approach to US-Caribbean relations.

No normal election

This is by no means a ‘normal’ US election. First, President Trump has constantly undermined confidence in the electoral process through unfounded allegations of ‘rampant’ voter fraud and a ‘rigged election’. Second, this election will be occurring in the middle of a pandemic and it is unlikely that the projected winner will be known on election night as has been traditionally the case. COVID-19 fears might also dampen voter turnout on Election Day. Third, although early voting turnout has been high, there have been reports of voter intimidation,  interference with the US Postal service, attempts to purge voter rolls in certain ‘red States’, all of which can negatively impact voter turn-out, especially among minorities. Fourth, similar to the ‘lock her up’ chants he encouraged during the 2016 campaign, President Trump has again called for his Attorney-General to indict and arrest his opponent, Joe Biden, as well as other prominent democrats. Fifth, President Trump has repeatedly refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses the election, and coupled with his claims of voter fraud, may lead to heightened civil unrest. Therefore, while Biden has been leading in national polls for some time, his win cannot be taken as a foregone conclusion.

In conclusion

This article sought to show that the outcome of this high-stakes US presidential election will have non-negligible implications for US government policy making on issues consequential for Caribbean countries. While it is herein argued that the policy positions espoused by the democratic nominee appear generally better aligned with Caribbean interests, this is not to suggest, for reasons already stated, that a Biden win will automatically be a net positive for the Caribbean. Assuming a Biden victory and a peaceful transfer of power in January 2021, the extent to which Biden can advance his legislative agenda will be largely determined by whether Democrats retain their majority in the House of Representatives and can also flip the currently Republican-controlled Senate. A hostile Congress can thwart any President’s legislative agenda.  Moreover, while it is hoped that Senator Harris’ Caribbean ancestry will have a positive influence on a Biden Administration’s policy towards the Caribbean, the primary focus of the Administration will understandably be on rescuing the US economy and bringing the COVID-19 outbreak under control. Regional governments will likely still have to lobby the Administration and work with congressional allies on advancing the issues of concern to our countries. That said, a Biden Administration would, hopefully, signal the return to some semblance of stability and predictability to US policy after what could only be described as a chaotic and strange last four years.

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. All views herein expressed are her personal views and should not be attributed to any institution with which she may from time to time be affiliated. You can read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.


The Caribbean Trade Law and Development Blog is owned and was founded by Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc. (Hons), M.Sc. (Dist.), LL.B. (Hons), a Caribbean-based trade and development consultant. She writes and presents regularly on trade and development matters affecting the Caribbean and other small states. You can follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw. All views expressed on this Blog are Alicia's personal views and do NOT necessarily reflect the views of any institution or entity with which she may from time to time be affiliated.

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