Twenty-three heads of government and the representatives of eight other countries of the Americas gathered in Los Angeles, California, United States (US) on June 6-10, 2022 for the Ninth Summit of the Americas (CRS 2022). It was the first time the US has hosted since the inaugural 1994 Summit in Miami, Florida. The Summit of the Americas is a hemispheric summit at which leaders of the Americas gather every three years to discuss cooperation on issues of hemispheric importance. The Summit has also been the setting against which US Presidents have tended to launch major Caribbean-specific partnership initiatives, such as the Third Border Initiative (TBI) revealed by President George W. Bush at the Third Summit of the Americas in 2001 and the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI) announced by President Barack Obama at the Fifth Summit of the Americas in 2009.
The 2022 Summit outcomes have elicited differentiated reactions from commentators depending on their success metrics. Those focusing on a geopolitical perspective have generally panned it as a diplomatic failure for the Biden Administration (Norton 2022), a squandered opportunity (Newman 2022) and a sign of America’s declining hemispheric influence (Barry 2022).
This article assesses the summit from a Caribbean perspective. Specifically, it looks at to what extent do the Summit’s outcomes provide meaningful initiatives for deepening US-Caribbean partnership on issues of importance to the Caribbean and in a mutually beneficial way. It is argued that while not particularly groundbreaking, there are some noteworthy outcomes from the Summit. However, the success of the initiatives announced will be dependent on several factors discussed in this article.
The Ninth Summit was postponed by one year due to the on-going novel coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. The Summit’s theme “Building a Sustainable, Resilient, and Equitable Future” recognizes the numerous challenges facing countries in the hemisphere, chief of which include climate change, COVID-19 and the economic fall-out from the Russia-Ukraine conflict and the consequent escalated Western sanctions on Russia.
The lead up to the Summit stimulated an inordinate amount of controversy not so much for its agenda, but US President Joseph Biden’s refusal to invite the leaders of three countries – Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela – which the US regards as authoritarian. This exclusionary policy sparked a backlash as several countries threatened to boycott the Summit. Some leaders, including most notably Mexico’s President Lopez Obrador, decided not to attend and instead sent lower-level delegations.
Caribbean country leaders also expressed misgivings about this exclusionary policy both privately and in their speeches. In fact, CARICOM Heads in the communique emanating from their recently held 43rd Regular Meeting emphasised “the importance of an inclusive Summit with the full participation of all countries of the Americas”.
Ultimately, St Vincent & the Grenadines was the only CARICOM Member which boycotted the conference. A total CARICOM boycott would not have been in the region’s best interest as the Summit provided an opportune forum in which Caribbean leaders could meet face to face with US leadership to ventilate and obtain high-level commitments on issues of specific interest to Caribbean States. Generally speaking, topics of specific interest to the Caribbean rarely make it on the agenda of these Summits and in this case, the Ninth Summit was an exception. In his op-ed after the Summit, Antigua & Barbuda’s Ambassador to the US, Sir Ronald Sanders, noted that Caribbean leaders (including the Dominican Republic) were successful in their insistence on meeting not just with the Vice President Kamala Harris, as was originally planned, but with President Biden himself. This meeting, according to Sir Ronald, was very productive and CARICOM Heads in their communique also welcomed the exchange with the US President to address some of their concerns. The read-out from the meeting referenced the proposed launch of a Caribbean Zero Hunger Plan to promote nutrition security in the Caribbean, while President Biden has also pledged US$28 million in new food security assistance to the region.
It was, therefore, interesting that CARICOM Heads of Government also expressed concern that the outcome of the Summit “did not adequately reflect issues of significance to the Community”. These issues, they noted, include post-pandemic recovery, climate financing, debt and debt financing, energy and food security, access to financing and firearms entering the CARICOM Region. It could be that this statement in their communique was meant to reiterate that while Caribbean leaders are happy with the opportunity to raise these issues, they want to ensure there is meaningful follow-up action.
Indeed, one particular area in dire need of action and which was raised in the bilateral meeting between Caribbean leaders and the US President and Vice President is the illegal flow of firearms into the Caribbean from the US. While Caribbean countries do not manufacture guns and have strict laws on gun ownership, the flow of illegal firearms into the region, particularly from the US, remains a driver for the escalating gun violence and crime plaguing Caribbean states. The readout from the joint meeting reveals a disappointingly limited and vague approach which simply proposes the development of national action plans to counter firearms trafficking and which would “help the US more effectively tailor support to CARICOM Member Countries”.
The outcomes of the Summit consist of several declarations and statements touching principally on areas of health, climate change, economic recovery, governance and migration. For example, leaders agreed to reach consensus on an Action Plan for Health and Resilience in the Americas to be implemented by 2030.
Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection
The most detailed outcome, and likely because illegal immigration is a ‘hot button’ topic in the US, is the negotiated side agreement called the Los Angeles Declaration on Migration. Over 100 million people have been forcibly displaced globally with one in every 78 people on earth being a displaced person, according to the UNHCR. In this hemisphere alone, for example, over 6 million Venezuelan refugees and migrants have fled the political and economic turmoil in their homeland and some 80% of them have settled in countries in the LAC region, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). Trinidad & Tobago, which is at its nearest is just 11km from the Venezuelan mainland, has up to January 2022 been host to some 28,500 Venezuelan migrants. Data from the Government of Panama estimates that 130,000 migrants passed through the highly dangerous Darien Gap in 2021 on their way to the US and many were asylum seekers from Haiti and Cuba. Therefore, the decision to exclude Cuba, which is one of the largest sources of irregular emigration to the US, was a short-sighted one on the Biden administration’s part as solving the migration crisis would also require cooperation with the Cuban government.
The Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection recognises that irregular migration is a hemisphere-wide problem and tackling it should be the shared responsibility of source, transit and destination countries and solving the crisis also involves addressing the root causes or push factors which lead people to emigrate. Under the agreement, both the US and several other countries adopted specific commitments to ensuring legal pathways for immigration and fostering greater protections for migrants. However, only twenty countries have signed the Declaration so far and of those from CARICOM are Barbados, Belize, Guyana, Jamaica and Haiti. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, when asked about only twenty countries signing on so far, was confident that more countries would sign on.
Americas Partnership for Economic Prosperity (APEP)
The Summit’s main economic initiative, the Americas Partnership for Economic Prosperity, is the sister plan to the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) President Biden launched at a meeting of a dozen initial partners in the Indo-Pacific region in Tokyo Japan in May 2022. The five-pronged APEP framework would be based on reinvigorating regional economic institutions and mobilizing investment, making more resilient supply chains, updating the basic bargain, creating clean energy jobs and advancing decarbonization and biodiversity, and ensuring sustainable and inclusive trade. Many of these pillars are in consonance with the goals outlined under the prosperity pillar of the US Strategy for Engagement in the Caribbean formulated pursuant to the US-Caribbean Strategic Engagement Act of 2016, a legacy of the Obama Administration of which President Biden was then Vice President. However, the APEP consists primarily of aspirational goals rather than binding commitments, and is disappointingly vague with little specifics on timelines and how these goals would be achieved.
U.S.-Caribbean Partnership to Address the Climate Crisis 2030 (PACC 2030)
Perhaps the most substantive outcome for the Caribbean was the Partnership to Address the Climate Crisis 2030 (PACC 2030) launched by Vice President Kamala Harris. PACC 2030 recognises that Caribbean small States are at the frontlines of the adverse impacts of climate change and the need for the region to build resilience as the adverse effects of global warming accelerate. While this might seem obvious, US government recognition of this immutable fact cannot be taken for granted. The previous US administration, headed by a climate change denier president, heralded a 180-degree reversal in the US’ foreign policy position on climate change. Similar to the Biden administration’s rejoining the Paris Agreement after the Trump administration left it, the PACC initiative therefore is a welcomed signal and acknowledgement that this current US administration has returned to the longstanding US position of recognising climate change as a global and hemispheric crisis and priority.
The PACC framework has two strategic objectives: strengthening energy security and promoting adaptation resilience. It also names four pillars for achieving these objectives: improving access to development financing, facilitating clean energy project development and investment to attract private investment in clean energy infrastructure and adaptation.
The framework contains some noteworthy commitments. The US has committed to partnering with Caribbean countries and regional institutions to promote stable access to clean energy resources and resilient energy infrastructure. It also speaks to climate finance, such as a promise to develop bankable infrastructure projects, enhancing local capacity building and deepening collaboration with Caribbean partners. The US International Development Finance Corporation will be charged with exploring ways to increase access to DFC financing for climate and clean energy projects in underserved countries. Critically on the issue of inadequate criteria for accessing concessional finance, the US government has committed to advocate for improving access to international financing mechanisms to unlock additional financing for infrastructure projects.
Laudable as many of the commitments might be, they are non-binding and best endeavour in general and little will come from them without the required follow-through by both the US and Caribbean governments, as well as the meaningful involvement of the private sector, the diaspora and civil society. It is, therefore, notable that following the summit, CARICOM and Dominican Republic leaders accepted a US proposal to establish three US-Caribbean joint committees to address US-Caribbean cooperation on three fronts: finance, energy and food security. In their communique, the Heads of Government revealed that the CARICOM chairs for the committees would be as follows: Prime Minister of Barbados, Honourable Mia Amor Mottley, for the Finance Committee; President of Guyana, His Excellency Mohamed Irfaan Ali, for the Food Security Committee; and Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Dr. the Honourable Keith Rowley, for the Energy Security Committee. It is still unknown who will be the US co-chairs of these committees.
The Heads of Government also noted the CARICOM Secretariat’s submission to the US of an initial list of CARICOM’s “near-term energy security, food security, and development/debt finance priorities” as advanced by the Co-Chairs of the respective Committees. It is not known publicly what is on this initial list and it is unclear why this should be treated as a confidential issue since matters of regional concern affect us all.
There are some principal challenges for regional leaders to implement the commitments made at the summit. One is that the statements are non-binding and best endeavour non- time-bound commitments and are largely aspirational goals which need to be translated into concrete policy actions. A second is that there is the need for funding mechanisms for these proposals. Of some concern is that there was neither representation from the US Department of the Treasury nor the United States Trade Representative (USTR)’s office at the Summit, two agencies which would be central to the success of these initiatives.
Congressional action will also be needed to pass legislation to translate the initiatives into law and approve the funds necessary for financing the programmes emanating from these initiatives. Encouragingly, a congressional delegation from both houses, including Speaker Pelosi, attended the Summit and held a press briefing thereafter. Moreover, US Virgin Islands Representative in the US House of Representatives, Stacey Plaskett, introduced a non-binding resolution (H.Res 1168) “reaffirming the economic partnership between the United States and the Caribbean nations and recognizing the need to strengthen trade and investment between the United States and the Caribbean nations, our “Third Border”. Among other things, the draft resolution calls on the President to “prioritize and implement trade programs with the Caribbean region that promote sustainable and resilient economic development”.
A third and not insignificant issue is the increasing polarisation and volatility in the US political landscape and whether the panoply of domestic issues facing the current Biden administration will truly allow for deeper hemispheric engagement. US foreign policy under the last administration had adopted a more insular “America first’ disposition, with limited hemispheric engagement, a rejection of multilateralism and a denial of climate change. While the Biden administration has reverted to the status quo on many of these issues, it has evinced very little appetite for the once longstanding US embrace of free trade. No doubt this more protectionist US posture is influenced by the groundswell of anti-trade sentiment among a politically important segment of the US electorate. The success and longevity of the 2022 Summit initiatives will, therefore, likely depend on the outcome of the presidential election of 2024.
The Summit of the Americas, while hailed as a failure by some and a success by others, cannot be seen in such absolutist terms. While the outcomes were not particularly earth shattering, there are some good initiatives that once fleshed out, well-funded and executed can lead to mutually beneficial outcomes for both the US and Caribbean countries.
Alicia D. Nicholls, B.Sc.,, M.Sc., LL.B is an international trade specialist who specializes in foreign investment law and policy, global financial regulation and international business. She is the founder of the Caribbean Trade Law & Development Blog (www.caribbeantradelaw.com) and was one of the panelists at a recently held Global Americans and Caribbean Policy Consortium Webinar on the Summit whose recording may be accessed here.