Category Archives: Elections

PM May calls snap election: Pros and Cons

Alicia Nicholls

United Kingdom (UK) Prime Minister, Theresa May, has today ‘reluctantly’ announced that Britons could be going to the polls in a general election on June 8, 2017, three years shy of the due date of May 2020.

The UK has a parliamentary system of government. Since 2011, parliamentary elections are fixed for every five years pursuant to the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act. However, early general parliamentary elections may be called before the five year period, inter alia, where two-thirds of the House of Commons (including vacant seats) vote in favour of same. In the UK parliamentary system (also known as the ‘Westminster System’) and in most British-inherited parliamentary systems like those in the Caribbean, the Prime Minister is not directly elected. In practice, though, it is the person who leads the party which wins the majority of seats in the House of Commons who becomes the Prime Minister.

The announcement of an early poll is surprising for two main reasons (1) it comes after months of denials by Mrs. May that she would be calling an early election, and (2) it also comes less than a month after the May Government made the UK’s notification under Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union (Lisbon Treaty) of its intention to withdraw from the EU.

Pros

So what are the upsides? Firstly, it is likely that in light of the disarray of the Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party, the Prime Minister is anticipating a stronger Conservative working majority in Parliament, reducing the likelihood of the final Brexit deal being voted against.

The Tories currently have a 17-seat working government majority in the House of Commons following the 2015 poll, which is a slim majority when one considers that there is a total of 650 seats in the House of Commons. After all, what Prime Minister would not want a more comfortable majority at home when facing difficult negotiations with the EU for the next (at least) two years? Prime Minister May said as much in her statement when she noted that “Division in Westminster will risk our ability to make a success of Brexit and it will cause damaging uncertainty and instability to the country”, and warned that “If we do not hold a general election now, [Opposition Party] political game-playing will continue.”

Polls already show a Tory sweep, but let us also remember polls had predicted a “No” win in the Brexit referendum.

Secondly, it should be recalled that Mrs. May became Prime Minister in July 2016 not through leading the party in a general election, but after then Prime Minister David Cameron resigned following his Brexit defeat.  If Mrs May leads the Conservative Party to victory in the June 8, 2017 poll, she would have:

(i) won a ‘direct mandate’ from the British people to pursue her own domestic agenda, which frees her from pursuing some of the policies promised by the then Cameron-led government.

(ii) This mandate, she would hope, would help quell the dissenting factions in her own party who disagree with her handling of Brexit thus far.

(ii) She would not be legally required to call another general election until June 2022, by which time the messiness of Brexit would be largely past (hopefully). Recall that Brexit negotiations could be extended up to 4 years, at which time the May Government would not wish to negotiating a final deal with the EU-27 while having to worry about an election at home which could be lost due to an unpopular final deal.

A third pro is likely economic. Although predictions of a British recession following the Brexit vote have not come to past, there is no telling what would happen to the British economy once the Brexit negotiations are underway. It makes more sense for Mrs. May to seek an election now than wait until things take a turn for the negative.

Cons

Firstly, on the flipside, calling a snap election after having made the Brexit notification and ahead of the negotiations with the Europeans risks adding even more uncertainty to an already uncertain political climate.

Secondly, although polls favour a Tory win, what happens if the polls are wrong and the Tories lose to an anti-Brexit Labour?  Or what if Labour and the Liberal Democrats expand their number of seats, further reducing the already slim Tory majority?

Thirdly, she risks dealing with ‘voter fatigue’.

Calling the election at this time is a risky move but one, which like all high risks, could have big rewards if the May-led Tories win and expand their mandate. In anticipation of a Tory win, markets took the news of the snap election quite enthusiastically. Sterling appreciated  against the US dollar to 1.26. However, it is also potentially a big gamble and the decision to hold the poll after triggering Article 50 is curious. It will be up to British voters to decide whether to reward or reject the gamble.

What is next?

When the House of Commons meets, they will need to deliberate and vote (as required under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act) on whether they are in favour of an early election. A two-thirds majority will be needed. For his part, Labour leader Mr. Corbyn has supported the decision to go to the polls in his statement released on his official Facebook page following the Prime Minister’s announcement.

For Prime Minister May’s full statement, please see here.

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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What may a Trump presidency mean for future US-Caribbean relations?

Alicia Nicholls

In what for many pollsters and poll watchers was an astounding turn of events reminiscent of the June 23rd Brexit vote decision in the United Kingdom (UK), the American people have chosen the Republican presidential nominee, Mr. Donald J. Trump, to become their 45th president. Mr. Trump, a billionaire real estate developer who has never held elective office, beat veteran campaigner and Washington establishment favourite, former Secretary of State, Mrs. Hillary Clinton despite late polls predicting a slim victory for Mrs. Clinton.  In addition to winning the White House, the Republicans have also retained control of both houses of Congress.

The merits and demerits of a Trump presidency will dominate news headlines for the next few days and perhaps years. However, we in the Caribbean must now pivot from our fascination with what was a surprising conclusion to the US Presidential Election campaign of 2016, to consider what will be the possible implications of a Trump presidency for future US-Caribbean relations.

Many may wonder why we in the Caribbean, like other parts of the world, so keenly follow the US presidential elections. After all, unlike Mexico, Syria, Russia and Iran, Caribbean countries did not feature in any of the major foreign or economic policy discussions, and the region has lost much of its geostrategic importance to Washington since the end of the Cold War.

The reasons why the US elections matter to us are simple. Firstly, the US is a major trading partner for many Caribbean countries, a provider of foreign aid and a foreign policy ally. Secondly, for several Caribbean countries, the US is also the largest source market for tourist arrivals.  Thirdly, the US is home to the largest population of persons of Caribbean descent living outside of the Caribbean.  As such, any change in US foreign, economic and commercial policy will have implications for the small open economies of the Caribbean region.

Trade Policy

A central plank of now President-elect Trump’s campaign to “Make America Great Again” is to “negotiate fair trade deals that create American jobs, increase American wages, and reduce America’s trade deficit”.It is expected that there will be dramatic changes to US trade policy under a Trump Presidency towards a more zero-sum, protectionist approach. This will have implications for US-Caribbean trade relations, which have not always been smooth.

Outside of the Dominican Republic which is a party to the US-Central America and Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR), Caribbean States do not have a free trade agreement with the US. Most Anglophone Caribbean countries, however, benefit from unilateral access to the US market for most goods under the Caribbean Basin Initiative, a legacy from the Reagan era. The preferences extended under CBERA are non-reciprocal; Caribbean countries do not have to confer reciprocal access to US originating goods. They are also unilateral which means preferences can also be unilaterally revoked by the US. Some Caribbean countries also benefit from the United States’ Generalised System of Preferences (GSP), another unilateral, non-reciprocal regime.

It is unclear what would be the future of these unilateral non-reciprocal preference schemes under a Trump presidency. Perhaps one saving grace is that these programmes are generally seen to be a benefit to US manufacturing and jobs, 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”.

On a more sober note, US-Caribbean trade relations have encountered many bumps over the years, including the famous bananas wars in which the US and Latin American countries successfully challenged the European Union’s preference regime for bananas from African, Caribbean & Pacific (ACP) countries in the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

More recently, Antigua & Barbuda challenged the US’ restriction on the cross-border supply of online gambling services from Antigua & Barbuda in the World Trade Organisation’s dispute settlement mechanism. After the US lost its appeal and failed to comply with the Appellate Body’s ruling, Antigua & Barbuda was authorised to retaliate through the suspension of concessions and obligations to the United States in respect of intellectual property rights. However, to this day Antigua & Barbuda has not received any compensation from the US following the rulings.

There has been little progress on either the US-Antigua gambling dispute or on the rum dispute which Caribbean states have been hesitant to take to the WTO. It remains to be seen whether any progress will be made under a President Trump whose only stated concern in regards to trade relations is for “American jobs, wages and trade deficit” and who has hinted at withdrawing the US from the WTO.

Immigration and Race Relations

Much of Mr. Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric has been against Mexicans, as exemplified by his promise to build a wall along the US’ border with Mexico. The Caribbean diaspora in the US, however, may be impacted by his immigration policies as well. In an interesting article on Caribbean migration to the US, Zong and Batalova noted that “the United States is the top destination for Caribbean emigrants, accounting for more than 60 percent of the 6 million Caribbean emigrants worldwide”.

Immigration has for quite some time been a touchy subject in US-Caribbean relations, mainly in regards to the mass deportation of those Caribbean nationals who have committed crimes in the US. The main argument advanced by Caribbean governments is that many of the deportees were socialised in the US and are sent back to the Caribbean after serving time in US prisons as hardened criminals. They also argue that these deportees have little to no cultural or familial ties to the Caribbean which makes their integration into Caribbean society difficult. Such deportations have been blamed by regional politicians for the increase in criminality in the region.

Mr. Trump’s 10-point plan for immigration, includes not only increasing the deportation of criminals, but establishing immigration controls, ensuring that open jobs are offered to American workers first, banning immigration from certain countries, ending sanctuary cities and reforming legal migration. Not only will those living illegally be affected, but there may be implications for that vast majority of Caribbean immigrants living legally and making a solid contribution to US society. He has spoken of a “complete and total shutdown of Muslims entering the US”. What does that mean for the Muslim minority in some Caribbean countries who may wish to visit or migrate to the US?

A less discussed issue is that of Trump’s possible impact on race relations in the United States. Most Caribbean immigrants are either mainly black or Latino so this dovetails with the immigration issue. Mr. Trump has had a checkered past on race issues, including, inter alia, calling Mexican immigrants “rapists”, supporting the Birther Movement which sought to discredit America’s first African-American president (President Obama) as a foreigner, and being prosecuted by the US Justice Department along with his father for refusing to rent to black tenants during his early years. To what extent can a Trump presidency, whose open endorsement by the KKK and other white nationalists raised concerns, begin to mend race relations? For instance, what will be his future policies on stop and frisk and on police brutality against minorities, particularly against African-American males?

Climate Change

Climate change is an existential issue for the world, and particularly for small island developing states in the Caribbean, which, despite their negligible contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions, have been the most vulnerable to the adverse and deadly effects of climate change.  As I indicated in a previous article on this subject, the election of Mr. Trump, a climate change sceptic, will be weighing on the minds of officials at the climate talks in Marrakech, Morroco over the next weeks.

Mr. Trump, has famously called climate change a “Chinese hoax” and has gone as far as threatened to cancel the Paris Agreement. Although it would take about four years before the US can formally withdraw from the Paris Agreement, in the intervening time President Trump can still undo the US’ progress on climate change action by overturning the executive actions President Obama has implemented to fight climate change, cancelling funding for clean energy initiatives, and reducing and eliminating aid to developing countries for climate change adaptation and mitigation.

It also means that there may be little to no US support for global climate change action, a frightening prospect if the international community is to meet the Paris Agreement’s goal of “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius”.

Foreign Aid

According to a 2016 report “US Foreign Assistance to Latin America and the Caribbean: Recent Trends and FY2016 Appropriations”, since 1946, the LAC region has received more than $160 billion of assistance (in constant 2013 dollars. This aid has included assistance in fighting crime and drugs trafficking, as well as for climate change mitigation and adaptation.  However, foreign aid saw spending cuts under President Obama as the US sought to rein in its budget deficits.

Mr. Trump has not said much in his campaign plans on his views towards foreign aid, though one can conclude that his more inward looking policies would suggest that he will probably be in favour of less aid for the region if this is not in sync with his wider foreign policy goals. It will be left to be seen the extent to which the LAC region will continue to receive aid under a Trump presidency and what would be the aid priorities.

Withdrawal of Correspondent Banking

Indigenous banks in the Caribbean have been seeing the restriction or termination of correspondent banking relationships by international banks, many of which are US-based. Caribbean governments have been engaging in high-level advocacy and have targeted relevant US departments. There has so far been limited success. To what extent will Mr. Trump and his future Secretary State and Treasury Secretary be concerned with the problems of Caribbean economies which face exclusion from the global trade and financial system if this issue goes on unabated?

Cuba-US Relations

President Obama’s presidency saw a rapprochement in US-Cuba relations. Since the early 1960s, successive US governments have imposed an illegal economic, commercial and financial embargo on Cuba which is not only contrary to international law but has hindered the country’s economy development.  In December 2014 US Mr. Obama outlined a new direction to normalise Cuba-US relations. Efforts at normalisation since 2014 have included, inter alia, the removal of Cuba from the US State Sponsors of Terrorism List in May 2015, the re-opening of embassies in July 2015 and the progressive relaxation of some sanctions.

The prospect of normalisation of US-Cuba relations appears bleak now as President-elect Trump has consistently supported the embargo against Cuba. However, it remains to be seen whether he will reverse some of the executive actions President Obama has made and whether he will impose additional sanctions.

So what does this mean for future US-Caribbean relations?

The American people have made their choice and while it may not have been an internationally popular one, what is done is done. What Caribbean leaders need to consider going forward is what will be the priorities for them in regards to their relations with the Trump White House. And how will they create constructive dialogue and meaningful action on issues such as the on-going gambling and rum trade disputes, security, deportations, correspondent banking and climate change?

It is no secret that since the end of the Cold War the Caribbean has lost much of its geostrategic significance to Washington. However, the geographic proximity of the Caribbean as the US’ “backyard” means that US-Caribbean cooperation remains crucial to US national security on issues of mutual interest such as drug enforcement, transnational organised crime, money laundering and terrorist financing. In June 2016  H.R. 4939 – United States-Caribbean Strategic Engagement Act of 2016, a bi-partisan bill sponsored by New York Representative Eliot Engel (Democrat) passed without objection in the House and was referred to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. The objective of the law 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”. What will be the future of this initiative?

What is clear is that there needs to be constructive dialogue and re-engagement with the US. How successful will this be under a Trump presidency is anyone’s guess. His campaign rhetoric appears to foreshadow a future US foreign policy that will be a lot more isolationist, inward-looking and protectionist than seen in recent times. With a Republican majority in Congress, Mr. Trump will likely have unfettered power to push through his agenda, however good or bad.

On the flip side, it is entirely possible that Mr. Trump may soften his stance on some of his most contentious issues. For instance, in his victory speech he adopted a more conciliatory tone both towards to his opponent Mrs. Clinton and towards the international community, stating “All people and all other nations. We will seek common ground, not hostility; partnership, not conflict.” Another thing is that Mr. Trump’s policy proposals have been generally vague on specifics. There are many unknowns at this stage. We also have no idea as yet, besides speculation, on who will be the members of his cabinet, including key posts such as Secretary of State and Treasury Secretary. It is also unclear where Mr. Trump stands on some issues with importance to the region, including on offshore financial centres and the withdrawal of correspondent banking.

While President-elect Trump’s campaign proposals and rhetoric give us much food for thought, there remains much uncertainty about what a Trump presidency may actually portend for the region. What is certain, however, is that there will likely be a new tone set for US-Caribbean relations going forward. Caribbean leaders will need to be pro-active, united and strategic as they seek to engage constructively with what will be at least a four-year Trump administration when Mr. Trump assumes 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.

Climate Change, the US Elections and Small Island Developing States’ Survival

Alicia Nicholls

We are the first generation to be able to end poverty, and the last generation that can take steps to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Future generations will judge us harshly if we fail to uphold our moral and historical responsibilities.” – Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary General of the United Nations.

In a step that was both historic and symbolic, the Presidents of the United States (US) and China last week ratified the Paris Agreement ahead of the on-going G20 summit in Hangzhou, China. This single showing of solidarity by the world’s two largest industrialised powers was welcomed news for the small island developing states (SIDS) such as those in the Caribbean, Pacific and the Africa, Indian Ocean, Mediterranean and South China Sea (AIMS) states. Through the 44-member Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), SIDS  pushed not only for the conclusion of the Paris Agreement but insisted on the inclusion of language in the Agreement in which parties endeavored to “pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels” (Article 2(a) of the Paris Agreement).

SIDS are the least culpable but most physically and economically vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change. Rising sea levels have dislocated coastal communities and threaten the territorial integrity of the Pacific states of Kiribati and the Marshall Islands. Earlier this year, Cyclone Winston caused US1.4billion in damage, with the highest economic and human toll in Fiji, while Tropical Storm Erika in 2015 cost the Caribbean state of Dominica nearly half of its GDP. However, as the story of a remote Alaskan village which has voted to relocate from their ancestral home because of sea level rise shows, climate change is not a SIDS’ problem alone. It is a cross-cutting global issue which has implications not just for the global environment but for human health, security, sustainable development and economic growth.

So what does all of this have to do with the upcoming election for the 45th President of the US? Well, if one considers the wide disparity in climate change rhetoric and policy proposals between the two major candidates running for the Oval Office, it is pellucid that the election of either Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Trump is the difference between strong US support for reducing GHG emissions and leading the global fight against climate change on the one hand, and on the other, a reversal of the gains that have been hard fought for. In other words, the future of SIDS’ survival could depend on the outcome of the US election.

Current US climate change policy

Current US policy supports global climate change efforts. US President Obama’s three-pronged Climate Action Plan commits to cutting carbon pollution in America, preparing the US for the impacts of climate change, and critically for the Paris Agreement, leading international efforts to address Global Climate Change. This is a policy position which Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, has pledged to honour should she be elected to office by the American people this November.

The Paris Agreement was concluded in December 2015 at the end of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Twenty-first session of the Conference of the Parties (COP21). Since the Agreement’s opening for signature in April 2016, over 180 states have signed. However, as of September 3, only 26 states so far (representing 39% of global emissions) have ratified it. The recent ratification by the US and China, which together account for about nearly 40% of GHG emissions, is a significant step towards the threshold needed for the Agreement to come into effect; ratification by at least 55 countries which contribute to 55% of global GHG emissions. According to a White House press release on the US-China Climate Change cooperation outcomes, the two countries “committed to working bilaterally and with other countries to advance the post-Paris negotiation process and to achieve successful outcomes this year in related multilateral fora”.

Climate Change Platforms of Candidates 

While a four-way race in theory, the candidates of the two major parties, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, still have a large lead ahead of the two other candidates (Jill Stein of the Green Party and Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party). Perhaps never before has there been such wide disparity in the positions of two US presidential candidates on the issue of climate change. The democratic candidate, former US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, has vowed to “take on the threat of climate change and make America the world’s clean energy superpower”. Some of her major policy initiatives to this end are: launching a $60 billion Clean Energy Challenge, investing in clean energy production and infrastructure, cutting methane emissions across the economy and prioritising environmental and climate justice, inter alia.

This stands in stark contrast to the stated position of Republican candidate, billionaire real estate mogul Donald Trump, who, inter alia, tweeted in November 2012 that “the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive”. He later said he was joking. Unfortunately, for the world, and especially for SIDS, climate change is no joking matter.

While Trump’s skepticism on the anthropogenic nature of climate change is not dissimilar to that of most Congressional Republicans, a Sierra Club report has rightly stated that “if elected, Trump would be the only world leader to deny the science of climate change.” He has also denounced the Paris Agreement as a bad deal for America, ascertaining it “gives foreign bureaucrats control over how much energy we use right here in America”, a claim soundly and poignantly rejected by the US special envoy for climate change (2009-2016) in a Washington Post op-ed. Mr. Trump first asserted he would renegotiate the Agreement and later stated that he would ‘cancel‘ the US’ participation in it. He has railed against environmental regulations. His proposals to reverse President Obama’s climate change initiatives, abolish the US Environmental Protection Agency, save the coal industry and continue subsidies to the oil and gas industry would jeopardise the US’s current emission reduction targets.

Implications for SIDS of US Climate Policy Change

Should a President Trump, if elected, implement his stated policies, not only will there be a 360 degree reversal of the US’ current commitment to meeting its emission-reduction targets, but an end to US cooperation or support for the global climate change agenda. If this happens, there will be little the world could do,besides raise universal condemnation. This is because one weakness of the Paris Agreement is that there is no binding enforcement mechanism in the agreement to force compliance of countries to the emissions limits they set for themselves. Already, there is skepticism that the current “nationally determined contributions” are not ambitious enough to conform with the Agreement’s goal of “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels” (Article 2(a) of the Paris Agreement).

Secondly, should the US withdraw from the Agreement or renege on its commitments, some other high emitters may feel less of a moral imperative to follow through with their own commitments or may withdraw as well.

Thirdly, climate change finance is important for SIDS’ adaptation to, and mitigation of, the effects of climate change. Under Article 9 of the Paris Agreement developed country members are obligated to provide “financial resources to assist developing country Parties with respect to both mitigation and adaptation in continuation of their existing obligations under the Convention”.

Caribbean countries  and several other vulnerable states around the world have benefited significantly over the years from the US Department of International Aid (USAID)’s projects which aim to build countries’ resilience to climate change. Climate change was one of the Obama Administration’s priorities for DA funding with $310.3 million in funding requested for Global Climate Change in the FY2017 Budget Request. The future of USAID aid flows to developing countries for climate change adaptation is bleak if current US policy towards climate change action changes under a Trump administration.

What then for SIDS?

The aim of this article is NOT to be an endorsement of either of the two major candidates running for the upcoming US Presidential election, neither is it an attempt to influence the American people’s decision. The US election is a democratic choice for the American people and only they can decide which of the four candidates’ platform better serves their interests. What this article attempts to do is to discuss and show the wide policy differences which exist between the two candidates of the major parties on climate change, and argues that any negative change in current US climate change policy will have far-reaching implications for the global climate change fight.

There are a few nuggets of hope, however.  Because of Article 28 of the Paris Agreement, a President Trump would have to wait at least three years from the date the Agreement has entered into force in the US before he could notify his intention to withdraw the US from the Agreement and it would take another year for such withdrawal to come into effect.Any US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement is unlikely to be a popular move among Americans. Recent US polling data show there is grassroots support for Climate Change. Action. This includes not just environmental lobbies but the ordinary man on the street. There would also be universal condemnation by other major countries.

SIDS may have a few allies in the fight within the US. Outside of federal action, some states, like Oregon, have quite robust climate change initiatives. Moreover, faced with pressure from more discerning and environmentally-aware consumers, more businesses and large corporations are forced to demonstrate their use of energy-friendly processes and products.

Despite this, however, besides lobbying and moral suasion by other countries, there is little SIDS  can realistically do to change US climate change policy should there be a reversal. The vote for US president is a decision only the US electorate can make. However, for SIDS it could be a matter of survival.

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.

2015 Year in Review for Caribbean Region: Triumph, Tragedy and Hope

Alicia Nicholls

2015 has been a year of both triumph and tragedy for the countries which make up the Caribbean region. This article reviews some of the major political, diplomatic and socio-economic challenges and gains experienced by the Region in 2015, many of which would have been covered on this blog throughout the year. It also speaks to the prospects for 2016.

Political/Diplomatic issues

General elections led to changes of government in St. Kitts & Nevis, Guyana and Trinidad & Tobago, while voters in the British Virgin Islands, Belize and St. Vincent and the Grenadines bestowed the incumbent governments with a fresh mandate.  In October Haiti held its first round of presidential elections, as well as local elections and the second round of legislative elections. The second round of presidential voting which was slated to occur on December 27, was postponed indefinitely in December.

On the international stage, the election of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Canada was widely welcomed in the Caribbean Region as possibly heralding a new era in Caribbean-Canadian relations. However, the electoral defeat of President Nicolas Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) in the Venezuelan legislative elections in December has caused concern in the Caribbean about the future of Petrocaribe, a legacy of the late President Hugo Chavez under which Venezuela provides oil to participant Caribbean States on preferential terms.

In international diplomacy, the Region had two major triumphs. The first was the historic election of Dominica-born Baroness Patricia Scotland as the first female Secretary-General of the Commonwealth of Nations.  The second was the conclusion by 196 parties of an international climate change agreement in Paris, which though not perfect, paid consideration to the interests and needs of small states.

The catastrophic human and economic devastation inflicted by Tropical Storm Erika in Dominica in August and Hurricane Joaquin in the Bahamas in September-October, and the prolonged drought and water shortages being experienced across the Region are sharp reminders that climate change is an existential threat to the Region’s survival. Access to climate change finance will be critical in financing Caribbean countries’ mitigation and adaptation strategies. Despite the triumph of small states at Paris, this is only just the beginning and a major hurdle will be the ratification of the Agreement by all parties, critically the US.

Caribbean low tax jurisdictions’ battle against the tax haven smear made by metropolitan countries continued in 2015 after several Caribbean countries were included in blacklists by the European Union and the District of Columbia. At the 8th meeting of the OECD’s Global Forum on Transparency and Exchange of Information for Tax Purposes held in Barbados in October, there was acknowledgement made that the Global Forum was the “key global body competent to assess jurisdictions as regards their cooperation on matters of transparency and exchange of information for tax purposes”. However, the fight is not over.

On the international front, the border disputes between Guyana and Venezuela and Belize and Guatemala remain unresolved.  The Guyana-Venezuela dispute came to a boiling point after the announcement that Exxon Mobil Corp had discovered large oil and gas deposits in waters of the disputed region pursuant to a contract made with the Government of Guyana. While CARICOM countries have pledged their support of Guyana’s sovereignty, Venezuela’s more aggressive diplomatic engagement of the region in recent months has raised questions about where CARICOM states’ loyalties will truly reside; with a fellow CARICOM state or with a major financier. To further complicate matters, Suriname, a fellow CARICOM State, has restated its claim to a portion of Guyana’s territory. Indeed, the expeditious and peaceful settlement of both disputes will be important for the economic future of Guyana.

While the US embargo of Cuba remains despite an overwhelming United Nations vote (191 to 2) yet again in favour of ending it, the United States and Cuba made significant advancements in 2015 in the quest towards “normalization” of relations. These included the easing of several travel and trade restrictions, the mutual re-opening of embassies in August and the announcement in December of an agreement to resume commercial flights between Cuba and US for the first time in more than half a century. The future resumption of air links between Cuba and the US is a welcomed development and instead of simply fearing the impact this will have on their US arrivals, Caribbean States should see this as an impetus to increase their marketing efforts in the US market and to improve the competitiveness of their tourism product.

Socio-economic issues

Lower oil and commodities prices have had a mixed impact on the region. They have been a blessing for services-based, import-dependent Caribbean countries struggling to overcome the lingering effects of the global economic crisis on their economies by slightly reducing their import bills and narrowing their current account deficits somewhat. For commodities exporting Caribbean states, however, the impact has been negative. Low oil prices have had a deleterious impact on the Trinidad & Tobago economy which is dependent on the export of oil and petrochemicals and was recently confirmed to be in recession after four consecutive quarters of negative growth.

The tourism industry, the lead economic driver for most Caribbean countries, saw a strong rebound in 2015 with several Caribbean countries, including Barbados, registering record long-stay and cruise ship arrivals, buoyed by increased airlift and cruise callings and stronger demand from major source markets and lower fuel prices.

However, the Caribbean continues to confront an uncertain global trade and economic climate. As recently as December, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Christine Lagarde, was quoted as stating that global growth for 2016 will be “disappointing” and “uneven”. Another arena Caribbean countries must watch is the troubled Canadian economy and the depreciation of the Canadian dollar as Canada is one of the major tourism source markets for Caribbean countries and an important market for Caribbean exports.

According to an Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) report released in December, Caribbean exports are estimated to decline 23% in 2015, with Trinidad & Tobago accounting for the bulk of the decline. A bright spark is that St. Lucia, Grenada and Guyana signed on to the World Trade Organisation (WTO)’s Trade Facilitation Agreement, joining Trinidad & Tobago and Belize. The on-going reforms being made by these countries pursuant to the Trade Facilitation Agreement should help facilitate and increase the flow of trade in these countries. Barbados, Guyana and Haiti underwent their WTO trade policy reviews in 2015.

The Caribbean region continues to be one of the most indebted regions in the world. Aside from high debt to GDP ratios, several Caribbean countries continue to face high fiscal deficits, wide current account deficits and sluggish GDP growth. Regional governments will have to continue measures to lower their debt, broaden their exports and lower their import bills.

In September, the world agreed to the 2030 agenda for sustainable development in the form of the 17 ambitious sustainable development goals and their 169 targets. A critical factor for achieving these goals will be access to financing for development. Caribbean countries already face several challenges in accessing development finance owing to declining inflows of official development assistance, unpredictable foreign direct investment inflows and limited access to concessionary loans due to their high GDI per capita. Caribbean States should continue to vocalize their objection to the use of GNI/GDP per capita as the sole criterion for determining a country’s eligibility for concessionary loans.

The alarming rise in crime across the Region remains an issue which Caribbean countries must tackle with alacrity not just for the safety of their nationals but for the preservation of the Region’s reputation as a safe haven in a world increasingly overshadowed by terrorist threats. 2015 was a year marked by an escalation in terrorism, with deadly attacks in Egypt, Kenya, Paris and Beirut capturing international headlines. Moreover, the news of recruitment of some Caribbean nationals by ISIL (Daesh as ISIL calls itself in Arabic) is an issue which Caribbean States must confront.

The growing threat of terrorism has caused some concern about the security and robustness of the Economic Citizenship Programmes offered by some Caribbean countries. St. Kitts & Nevis revamped its programme and in light of the Paris attacks, the Kittitian Government announced in December that Syrian nationals will be immediately suspended from its programme. However, the fact that St. Lucia has forged ahead with the establishment of its own programme, accepting applications from January 1st 2016, shows that some regional governments strongly believe the gains outweigh any potential risks.

High unemployment and youth unemployment rates continue to be major social issues threatening the sustainability of the Region, with consequential implications for crime and poverty reduction and political engagement.

Prospects for 2016

Without doubt there are several issues and challenges which confronted the Region in 2015 and will continue to do so in 2016. Moreover, since the “pause” taken years ago, CARICOM continues to face the threat of regional stagnation and fragmentation. While Dominica must be applauded for signing on the appellate jurisdiction of the Caribbean Court of Justice, it is only the fourth out of fifteen  CARICOM States to have done so nearly fifteen years after the Court’s establishment.

However, in spite of these challenges the Caribbean Region has several factors still going in its favour, including high levels of human development, well-educated populations, political stability and a large diaspora. These are factors which it should continue to leverage but should not take for granted. No doubt a critical success factor will be the ability of regional governments, individually and together, to formulate effective and innovative solutions to the challenges faced, working towards the achievement of the SDGs, and their ability to mobilize domestic and international resources to finance these solutions. Let us also hope that 2016 will be the year where there will be a greater emphasis on increasing the pace of implementation of the Community Strategic Plan 2015-2019. The unity displayed by CARICOM during the Paris negotiations should be a reminder that the Caribbean is at its strongest when united.

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. Please note that the views expressed in this article are solely hers. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

Barbados is not immune to the anti-incumbent fever sweeping the region

Alicia Nicholls

Another one bites the dust!  The Peoples National Party (PNP) has won the Jamaica elections, defeating the incumbent Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) by 41-22 seats. Former Prime Minister, Portia Simpson-Miller, has gotten the nod of approval from the Jamaican people and adds another female face to the CARICOM Heads of Government.

There is no doubt that by tomorrow this latest defeat of another one-term incumbent government in the region is going to set the call-in programmes in Barbados ablaze, and everyone with an opinion is going to be speculating on what if anything this latest defeat means for the current Democratic Labour Party (DLP) administration. My take on it is that Barbados is not immune to the anti-incumbent fever stirring in the region.

Indeed,these are interesting times in our political landscape. I do not even plan on delving into the letter debacle or so-called attempted coup within the DLP, which to my mind was completely blown out of proportion. Putting that aside, strong parallels have been drawn by many political pundits between the election in St Lucia and what they believe to be similar political conditions in Barbados. In the St. Lucia election, the one-term Stephenson King administration was defeated by the St. Lucia Labour Party led by then former Prime Minister Kenny Anthony. Like Mr. King in St. Lucia after the death of Prime Minister John Compton, Prime Minister Freundel Stuart assumed office following the unfortunate death in office of Prime Minister David Thompson from pancreatic cancer last year. Although the circumstances of Mr. Andrew Holness’ rise to power in Jamaica differs from in St Lucia and Barbados, many will rightly see the Jamaica election as further cause for the DLP to be worried.

It is worth noting that at the time when Mr. Stuart became Prime Minister, some learned pundits argued that Mr. Stuart should have sought his ‘own mandate’ from the people. I disagreed with that argument then and still do for two main reasons. First, as prime  ministers are not directly elected, mandates are given to a party, not to a party leader. The Barbadian electorate gave a mandate to the DLP in 2008, which logically extends to Mr. Stuart whether or not he was  party leader at the time. Second, elections are expensive undertakings and I do not think spending money on another election so soon after the last would have been justified, especially in these harsh economic times.

What the elections in St. Lucia and now Jamaica make clear is that no government is immune to the anti-incumbent fever sweeping through the region. In two-party systems like ours in most of the Commonwealth Caribbean, third parties have little if any chance of winning or making a real impact on election results. Therefore, voters like myself are stuck with and taking a hard look at the limited political options before us. If this Government wants to inoculate itself from the anti-incumbent fever and the one-term plague, it has to listen to the people. It is not just about colourful manifestos and pretty campaign speeches. We want real ideas and a clear and cogent vision and plan of action for fostering development and prosperity for all Barbadians. As far as I am concerned, in these upcoming elections, whenever they are called, both political parties (DLP and BLP) have to come good if either gets my vote.

Alicia Nicholls is a trade policy specialist and law student at the University of the West Indies. You can contact her by email and  follow her on Twitter at @licylaw.

Jamaicans go to the polls tomorrow

Alicia Nicholls

It is election season in the Caribbean! Just a few weeks ago both Guyana and St. Lucia went to the polls, the first time two countries in the Caribbean held elections on the same day. Here in Barbados our elections are not constitutionally due until January 2013, although the Prime Minister can call elections any time before that.  Tomorrow (December 29th), it is Jamaica’s turn.

Like most Commonwealth Caribbean countries, Jamaica has a two-party system: the incumbent Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) led by the current Prime Minister, Mr. Andrew Holness, and the Opposition, the People’s National Party, led by former Prime Minister, Mrs. Portia Simpson-Miller. This election brings some interesting dynamics.  The 39-year old Mr. Holness, who formerly served as that country’s Minister of Education,  is not only the youngest person to ever lead Jamaica, but he only took office in  October of this year after the sudden resignation of then Prime Minister, Mr. Bruce Golding. This election also comes on the heels of the election in St Lucia in which the Stephenson King-led United Workers’ Party government was voted out of office in favour of the return of the St Lucia Labour Party, led by former (and now current) Prime Minister, Mr. Kenny Anthony.

From their rhetoric, both the JLP and PNP appear confident of a victory for their respective side in tomorrow’s polls. Although the Gleaner political team has predicted that the incumbent JLP will win 34 of the 63 seats, many argue that the polls are too close to predict a winner.

Elections are always a big thing in the Caribbean, but in these current  economic times they take on even greater importance. Whichever party comes to power will have to find a way of dealing with that country’s rising  unemployment and sluggish economic growth. What we Caribbean people want from our leaders is not rhetoric or empty promises, but solutions to pull our economies out of the doldrums and set us on a path to development and prosperity for all.

Here’s wishing all Jamaicans a peaceful and productive elections process tomorrow and may the better party win!

Alicia Nicholls is a trade policy analyst and law student at the University of the West Indies. You can follow her on Twitter at @licylaw or email her.