Mexico and CARICOM agree new areas for technical cooperation

Photo credit: Pixabay

Alicia Nicholls

Caribbean Community (CARICOM) countries and the Government of Mexico have approved the seventh Mexico-CARICOM Technical Cooperation Programme (2017-2019). This was one of the main outcomes of the Fourth CARICOM-Mexico Summit held this week on October 25, in Belize City, Belize. Hailed as “a new paradigm” in cooperation between CARICOM and the Government of Mexico, the new programme will include both existing and new priority areas for development cooperation which align with those identified in the CARICOM Strategic Plan 2015-2019 and the global development agenda.

Mexico and CARICOM have enjoyed four decades of diplomatic cooperation and friendship.  At the Third Mexico-CARICOM Summit in 2014 President of Mexico, His Excellency Enrique Pena Nieto had pledged his Government’s desire to build on and deepen those ties.

The discussions at  Wednesday’s summit touched on several areas of cooperation, including trade and investment, public health, education, cultural cooperation, technical assistance, and cooperation on the global development agenda. A member country of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Mexico has the world’s eleventh largest economy according to International Monetary Fund (IMF) forecast data for 2017. This makes Mexico a potentially powerful voice and ally on international issues of interest to the Caribbean, including climate action,  de-risking and the need for multilateral financial institutions to revisit graduation criteria for official development assistance.

Disaster risk management was a major focus of the talks, as CARICOM countries and Mexico have both suffered significantly at the hands of natural disasters this year. Powerful hurricanes Irma and Maria caused major loss of life and damage in several Caribbean Islands, most tragically in Barbuda and Dominica. In September as well, Mexico was struck by Hurricane Katia around the same time that it was reeling from two devastatingly strong earthquakes within a two week span which claimed over 200 lives.

In addition to pledging their continued support for the Paris Climate Change Agreement, the CARICOM and Mexico heads of government/State agreed to a Mexico-CARICOM Strategy for Comprehensive Disaster Risk Management which, according to the summit’s official declaration, will comprise the following three main lines of work:

  1. strengthening initiatives already in place
  2. developing a complementary cooperation agenda, such as early warning, awareness raising, emergency response, among others
  3. joint action in multilateral fora and international mobilization to further strengthen and support Caribbean institutional capabilities for disaster risk management

The Mexican Government also made a US14 million grant to the Caribbean Catastrophe Risk Insurance Facility (CCRIF SPC), a regional catastrophe fund formed in 2007 and which has had to pay out about US$50.7 million since the start of the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season alone!

They have also agreed to support the establishment of a hydrometeorological monitoring centre for the Caribbean region and to collaborate to ensure  the success of the CARICOM-hosted International Donor Conference planned for November 21, 2017 at the UN Headquarters, New York. This conference will seek to mobilise assistance for those hurricane-struck Caribbean islands.

The Government of Mexico has also offered 150 scholarships for training Caribbean teachers of Spanish as a second language. This would assist in reducing the language barrier which would be one of the impediments for CARICOM exporters seeking to enter the Mexican market. According to data quoted in the CARICOM press release before the meeting, “between 2012 and 2016, imports from Mexico to CARICOM exceeded exports from CARICOM to Mexico, with Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Belize, Barbados and Guyana being the main importing countries, accounting for 95 % of imports from Mexico between 2014 and 2016”.

The Joint Declaration of the CARICOM-Mexico Summit may be accessed 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.

ACP Trade Ministers demand ‘concrete outcomes’ at upcoming WTO MC11

Alicia Nicholls

Trade ministers and other representatives from the 79-member Africa, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries added their voices to demands for ‘concrete outcomes’ at the upcoming World Trade Organisation’s Eleventh Ministerial Conference (WTO MC11). Preparations for the upcoming WTO MC11 was one of several topics discussed by ACP trade representatives at their 20th ACP Ministerial Trade Committee meeting held in Brussels on 18-19 October last week.

According to the press release from the meeting, the ACP representatives  reiterated the need for a development-friendly and robust MC11 work programme which recognized differences between developed, developing and least developed countries and whose outcomes were aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Reaffirming their commitment to the multilateral trading system, they also called for “inclusiveness, consensus and transparency in all WTO decision-making processes, as well as careful framing of any reform evaluation of the WTO to ensure that the interests of all countries are protected”. Guyana was chosen to be the spokesperson for the ACP Group at the Ministerial which will take place in Buenos Aires December 10-13, 2017.

In a speech delivered at the ACP meeting, the WTO’s Director General, Roberto Azevedo, acknowledged the important role ACP countries have played in shaping the WTO’s work.

Mr. Azevedo gave a brief status report on the WTO’s preparatory work for the upcoming Ministerial Conference, lauding the ACP countries for being at the “forefront” of these discussions. He noted that although there were some positive signs, the many gaps to bridge meant that there was still much work ahead with respect to the negotiations.  He further reiterated that in order to achieve concrete results in Buenos Aires, “more focused engagement and negotiation will be required to quickly identify areas of convergence”.

In the meeting which was chaired by the Hon. Carl Greenidge, Vice President and Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Cooperative Republic of Guyana, ACP trade representatives also focused on several  other topics of importance to ACP countries’ trade, including enhancing trade among ACP countries and trade issues with the European Union (EU).

The ACP press release also notes that ACP representatives have committed to “increased integration, unity and solidarity” among ACP countries, including taking more “joint ACP approaches to trade and development”.

The press release from the ACP can be read here.

The WTO Director-General’s full speech can be read 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.

Caribbean Trade and Development Digest – October 15-21, 2017

Welcome to the Caribbean Trade and Development Digest for the week of October 15-21, 2017! We are pleased to share some of the major trade and development headlines and analysis across the Caribbean region and the World. We hope you enjoy this edition.

REGIONAL

Cuba, T&T trade ties growing, says Cuba ambassador

Trinidad Guardian: Despite the American economic embargo against Cuba, T&T businesses continue to show interest in commercial ties with the island said Cuban Ambassador Guillermo Vázquez Moreno. Read more

(Jamaica) Senate passes law to speed up exports

Jamaica Gleaner: The Senate yesterday passed legislation amending the Processed Food Act and the Processed Food (General) Regulations, 1959, removing the requirement for export certificates to facilitate the implementation of the Automated System for Customs Data (ASYCUDA). Read more

COTED green-lights Agriculture Regional Emergency Response Team

ST Kitts & Nevis Observer: The Council for Trade and Economic Development (COTED) has approved the Regional Agriculture Emergency Response Sub-Committee to provide prompt action to help the agriculture sector in Caribbean Community (CARICOM) member states to rebound after natural disasters. Read more

CARDI ready to take action to rebuild agriculture in Barbuda, Dominica

Caribbean News Now: The Caribbean Agricultural Research and Development Institute (CARDI) has already begun taking action to restore the battered agriculture sectors in Barbuda and Dominica. Read more

UWI launches Centre for Reparations Research

Jamaica Observer: The University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, this week officially launched Centre for Reparation Research at the campus. Read more

Meat safety training for Caribbean countries

Jamaica Observer: A two-day regional training workshop covering hygiene provisions for raw meat, meat preparations and manufactured meat from the time of live animal production up to the point of retail sale, gets underway here on Tuesday. Read more

INTERNATIONAL

ACP trade ministers reaffirm commitment to multilateral trade system

Caribbean News Now: Ministers and senior officials responsible for trade from 79 African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries reaffirmed their strong and resounding commitment to the multilateral trading system, at the conclusion of the 20th ACP Ministerial Trade Committee meeting held in Brussels on 18-19 October. Read more

Ukraine files WTO Complaint over Russia, import, transit restrictions

WTO: Ukraine has requested WTO consultations with Russia regarding Russian measures affecting trade in certain products such as juice, alcoholic beverages, confectionery and wallpaper from Ukraine. The request was circulated to WTO members on 19 October. Read more

Dubai set to host Africa trade summit

The Standard: Dubai will this November host African heads of State and business leaders at a forum to discuss the continent’s economic outlook and investment opportunities for countries in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Read more

Canada ‘extremely worried’ about NAFTA: Ambrose

CTV: Behind the scenes Canadian officials are “extremely worried” about where the North American Free Trade Agreement negotiations are headed, and it’s time to be worried, says Rona Ambrose, a member of Canada’s NAFTA Advisory Council. Read more

UK Trade Secretary Dismisses ‘Nightmare’ of No-deal Brexit

Bloomberg: U.K. International Trade Secretary Liam Fox said leaving the European Union without a deal for future business isn’t a “nightmare scenario” for Britain. Read more

US will not interfere in EU trade with Iran, says Tillerson

Reuters: The United States does not aim to impede European trade and business transactions with Iran despite President Donald Trump’s decision last week to decertify the 2015 nuclear agreement, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told the Wall Street Journal. Read more

‘We need trade deals’: Swedish PM opposes Macron’s call to slow down

The Local: Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven has said he opposes moves by French President Emmanuel Macron to slam the brakes on free trade deals. Read more

New Zealand’s Ardern wants to balance trade pact with housing pledge

Bloomberg: Incoming leader Jacinda Ardern says New Zealand will still seek membership in the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership even as she strives to honor her election campaign pledge to clamp down on foreign property speculators. Read more

Details of a massive trade deal among 11 heavyweight economies may be announced next month

CNBC: Ten months after President Donald Trump abandoned what was pegged as the world’s biggest trade deal, its surviving participants may be close to a new agreement. Read more

US pushes ‘fair trade’ as economic talks with Japan advance

Bloomberg: The Trump administration is advocating for a more balanced trade relationship with Japan as high-level economic talks with the Asian nation advance this week in Washington, according to Vice President Mike Pence. Read more

WTO: On 17 October the WTO issued the panel report in the case brought by Brazil in “Indonesia – Measures Concerning the Importation of Chicken Meat And Chicken Products” (WT/DS484). Read more

Azevedo underlines growing importance of services trade

WTO: Speaking at the Global Services Summit in Washington D.C. on 17 October 2017, Director-General Roberto Azevêdo highlighted that trade in services accounts for almost 50 per cent of world trade today. Read more

Afghanistan and Brazil welcomed as observers to WTO Government Procurement Agreement

WTO: The WTO Committee on Government Procurement agreed on 18 October to grant observer status to Afghanistan and Brazil. Members welcomed Afghanistan’s commitment to seek eventual accession to the Government Procurement Agreement (GPA). Some also expressed hopes that Brazil might, in the future, consider acceding to the Agreement. Read more

Liked this issue? To read past issues of our weekly Caribbean Trade & Development Digest, please visit here. To receive these mailings directly to your inbox, please follow our blog.

 

Caribbean Trade and Development Digest – October 8-14, 2017

Welcome to the Caribbean Trade and Development Digest for the week of October 8-14, 2017! We are pleased to share some of the major trade and development headlines and analysis across the Caribbean region and the World. We hope you enjoy this edition.

REGIONAL

COTED approves of poultry plants to sell products within CARICOM

Jamaica Observer: Nine poultry processing plants in the region have been approved to trade among member states as the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) continues to move steadily towards increasing intra-regional and food security, the Guyana-based CARICOM Secretariat has announced. Read more

Column:Brexit’s Impact on British Overseas Territories

Bernews: An opinion column written by Paul Hare. Read more

CARICOM to push for concessionary funding during meetings with US next week

Jamaica Observer: Caribbean Community (CARICOM) countries will use “important meetings” in the United States next week to push the international community to re-think its policies regarding regional countries that are no longer eligible for concessionary loans and other forms of preferential treatment, St Lucia’s Prime Minister Allan Chastanet said on Friday. Read more

INTERNATIONAL

We’ve got the A-Team of talks, says Liam Fox

Express UK: International Trade Secretary Liam Fox has hit back at claims his negotiators don’t have enough experience to strike deals with the US and other countries post-Brexit, describing them as the “A-Team”. Read more

South Africa committed to enhancing Intra-African trade

allAfrica: President Jacob Zuma says South Africa remains committed to boosting intra-African trade, which will be equitably beneficial for all participating countries. Read more

Mexico, Canada pledge trade unity as NAFTA negotiations continue

The Hill: Mexico and Canada are vowing to continue work on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) after an unproductive fourth round of negotiations in Washington. Read more

Japan exasperated by Trump’s trade policies

Politico: Japanese officials are expressing growing frustration with the Trump administration’s economic policies, vowing to continue striking trade deals with other countries that undercut U.S. agricultural exports rather than seek a new trade agreement with the United States. Read more

Turkey, Indonesia agree to trade talks

Anadolu Agency: Indonesian and Turkish governments on Thursday agreed to start negotiations on the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) in November in an attempt to further strengthen economic cooperation between the two countries. Read more

Pacific Trade Advances without the US

Wall Street Journal: The Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact is regaining momentum despite the Trump Administration’s January decision to withdraw. Representatives of the remaining 11 TPP members met last month in Japan to push for ratification as early as November in the hope that Washington will rejoin. Read more

UK and EU formally inform of post-Brexit tariff quota plan

The Guardian: Britain and the EU have formally informed members of the World Trade Organisation how they plan to split up the EU’s tariff quotas and farm subsidies after Brexit in a plan already rejected by the White House. Read more

WTO DG Azevedo tells ministers more commitment is needed to deliver success at MC11

WTO: At an informal ministerial gathering in Marrakesh on 9-10 October, hosted by Morocco and Argentina, Director-General Roberto Azevêdo told ministers that there were some promising issues on the table, but in all areas there remains a long way to go in order to deliver a successful outcome at the 11th Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires in December. Read more

Qatar escalates UAE trade dispute

Reuters: Qatar has asked the World Trade Organization to set up a dispute panel to adjudicate on its row with the United Arab Emirates, Qatar said in a document published by the WTO on Thursday, escalating a trade complaint it lodged with the WTO in July. Read more

India and EU to look at ways to restart trade pact talks

The Economic Times: India and the European Union plan to take stock of the proposed free trade agreement negotiations next month and explore ways to put in place a framework to resume the stalled talks. Read more

Economist sees merit in Pacific trade deal (PACER Plus)

Radio New Zealand: An economist says the PACER Plus trade agreement still has benefits for smaller Pacific states, despite two of the region’s bigger economies not signing up to the deal. Read more

Pangolin trade forces Ghana to look at new wildlife laws

Sunday Times: Ghana is facing calls to update its laws on wildlife crime after fears the country has become a transit route for the illegal trade in pangolin scales. Read more

Asia-Pacific Services Trade needs more harmonised regulation

Asia Times: Preliminary research has found that it is in the best interest of Asia-Pacific services trade partners in emerging sectors to access the largest possible legal framework, and from within that framework raise the standards of membership in terms of domestic regulation harmonization. Read more

Liked this issue? To read past issues of our weekly Caribbean Trade & Development Digest, please visit here. To receive these mailings directly to your inbox, please follow our blog.

Caribbean leaders place spotlight on climate change at UNGA

“To deny climate change is to deny a truth we have just lived” – The Honourable Roosevelt Skerrit, Prime Minister of the Commonwealth of Dominica

Alicia Nicholls

These powerful words uttered by Prime Minister of Dominica, The Honourable Roosevelt Skerrit were perhaps the most memorable from the United Nations’ General Assembly (UNGA) seventy-second session. It was against the tragic backdrop of the devastation inflicted by Hurricanes Irma and Maria on several Caribbean islands that successive Caribbean leaders made their addresses during the UNGA general debate, highlighting the urgency of the need to address climate change in a meaningful way.

There were many moving addresses, but the most impactful  was the address by Mr Skerrit, whose country was severely battered by the Category 5 power of Hurricane Maria just days before. Reiterating that he was “coming from the front line of the war on climate change”, Mr. Skerrit reminded participants of the horror which Tropical Storm Erika had inflicted on the island back in 2015 and the tragedy currently unfolding due to Hurricane Maria where the confirmed death toll is 27 and several other persons remain missing.

In the space of a couple of hours, Dominica’s iconic mountains, once resplendent in coats of green and through which flowed clear rivers, had turned brown with mud and rubble. Some 95% of homes have reportedly lost their roofs in some places. Every one of the Nature Isle’s 70,000 inhabitants has been affected in some way.

Proclaiming that “Eden is broken”, he declared that Dominica was faced with “an international humanitarian emergency”. A fortnight before Maria hit Dominica, Barbuda, the smaller of the two main islands of the country of Antigua & Barbuda, was hit by Category 5 Hurricane Irma, leading to a complete evacuation of the entire island after the crisis. Hurricane Irma also did not spare Cuba or the island of St. Martin, split between the Kingdom of the Netherlands and the Republic of France.

But besides the human and infrastructural losses, the economic toll will be equally enduring for those countries affected. A recent report estimates that Hurricane Irma caused $45 billion in damage in the Caribbean, with at least $30 billion in Puerto Rico.   With Maria, this toll will be expected to rise. A rapid damage and assessment had found that Tropical Storm Erika in 2015 had inflicted loss and damage on Dominica of US$483 million, equivalent to 90% of the island’s GDP. Hurricane Maria was much worse.

While climate change is not the cause of hurricanes, warmer waters in the Atlantic is believed by scientists to be the cause of stronger, more powerful hurricanes during this hurricane season. Hurricane Irma and Maria both rapidly developed into Category 5 hurricanes and the back to back pummeling of several Caribbean islands by two Category 5 hurricanes in such a short space of time is certainly not an everyday occurence, but one which may become a more frequent reality as global temperatures increase.

It is these realities which led Caribbean countries and other Small Island Developing States (SIDS) to be at the forefront of climate change negotiations which eventually led to the historic Paris Agreement being signed in December, 2015. It is why the decision by US President Donald Trump to declare that the US, the world’s largest polluter, would be pulling out of the Paris Agreement was extremely unfortunate.

As Hurricane Harvey and Irma potently showed in the US states of Texas and Florida, wealthy nations like the US are not immune to the more deadly effects of climate change. However, Caribbean countries, like all SIDS, are poorly equipped, both geographically and economically, to confront these disasters. Their fragile economies are dependent on industries which are among the first economic victims of storm devastation, tourism being the clearest example.

Moreover, their generally high  GDP per capita and “middle income” designation makes most concessionary loans and certain types of development aid beyond their reach due to outdated notions that GDP per capita is a good measure of wealth for countries. This point was raised in the address by Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade of Barbados, Senator the Honourable Maxine McClean. Barbados was spared the devastation of both Hurricanes Irma and Maria and has been among the forefront of relief efforts in Dominica.

As was eloquently put in a recent World Bank blog, hurricanes can seriously turn back the developmental clock. This is certainly the case with Dominica which was still in many ways recovering from Tropical Storm Erika and will face a much longer recovery following Hurricane Maria. It is also the case with the US territories of Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands which are also facing tremendous human suffering after being pounded by both Irma and Maria. Puerto Rico’s economy was already fragile due to the huge debt crisis being faced and is now faced with many places without drinking water or electricity.

Platitudes and best endeavour promises do little to allay the reality that there is little time left to reverse the damage which has been done and reverse course towards more severe temperature increases. The Paris Agreement was an important step but there needs to be stronger commitment, ambition and meaningful action by all nations, especially those which are the most responsible for atmospheric pollution, to take steps to meet and go beyond the greenhouse gas emission reduction targets they set for themselves.

There also needs to be greater support for SIDS which bear a disproportionate brunt of the consequences. The issue of climate finance was raised by Prime Minister Gaston Browne of Antigua & Barbuda, who mentioned debt swaps as a possible option, and the need for greater finance for building resilience, as well as reminded participants of the economic vulnerability of countries which were faced with high debt, large trade deficits and small, undeveloped financial markets.

As Prime Minister of Dominica, Mr. Skerrit rightly stated, “we need action and we need it now”.

Mr. Skerrit’s full speech may be viewed here.

The CTLD Blog extends our heartfelt sympathy to all our Caribbean brothers and sisters affected by the devastation caused by Hurricane Irma and Maria.

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.

 

Caribbean Trade and Development Digest – September 24-October 1, 2017

Source: Pixabay

We’re back! Welcome to the Caribbean Trade and Development Digest for the week of September 24-October 1, 2017! We are pleased to share some of the major trade and development headlines and analysis across the Caribbean region and the World. We hope you enjoy this edition.

REGIONAL NEWS

Online plaforms launched to promote regional trade, business

St Kitts & Nevis Observer: The Caribbean community’s development of a single market and economy has been given a boost with the launch of four new online platforms aimed at promoting trade and improving the ease of doing business. Read more

Services an untapped growth sector

Jamaica Information Service: Head of the Trade Agreements Implementation Unit in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade, Symone Betton-Nayo, says the services sector remains an untapped area that offers tremendous opportunity for Jamaica’s economic growth and development. Read more

INTERNATIONAL NEWS

WTO Chief Warns of Risks to Trade Peace

Financial Times: The head of the World Trade Organization has warned that the Trump administration’s blocking of the appointment of new judges to hear international disputes risks undermining a system that has kept trade wars at bay for more than two decades. Read more

Interview: Pacific Alliance tackles non-tariff trade barriers

Xinhua: Latin America’s Pacific Alliance is looking to do away with non-tariff obstacles to trade between its members Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru, according to a top Peruvian businessman. Read more

Cross-border rail links: the spark to ignite intra-African trade?

International Railway Journal: Trade between African nations is considered one of the continent’s great untapped economic opportunities, but poor cross-border connectivity continues to hinder growth. Keith Barrow reports from Cape Town on the potential role for rail in unleashing intra-African trade. Read more

Philippines revives plan to join Trans-Pacific Partnership

Philstar Global: The Philippines is reviving its plan to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) even as the mega-trade deal pushes through without the US, the Department of Trade and Industry said. Read more

Britain caught in cross fire of trade spat between Boeing and Bombadier

The Globe and Mail: Britain, caught in the crossfire of a damaging trade dispute between airplane makers Boeing Co. and Bombardier Inc., said on Sunday it would fight to protect thousands of jobs put at risk in Northern Ireland. Read more

Ciobo chases Mexico free-trade deal

The Australian: Trade Minister Steven Ciobo will lead a business delegation to ­Mexico to open new opportunities for Australian companies as free-trade talks progress for a new Latin American free-trading bloc.  Read more

The US made the global trade rules it claims are unfair

The South China Morning Post: If trade conflict erupts between China and the United States in the coming year, it will certainly not be for want of both sides trying to keep the peace. Read more

Ireland hopes to boost exports under Japan-EU Agreement

Japan Times: Ireland hopes to boost exports to Japan under an economic partnership pact the European Union and Japan reached a broad agreement on in July, Irish Deputy Prime Minister Frances Fitzgerald said in a recent interview. Read more

Zambia Commerce Minister saddened by low intra-African trade

Lusaka Times: MINISTER of Commerce, Industry and Trade Margaret Mwanakatwe has called for concerted efforts in boosting intra-Africa trade. Read more

Liked this issue? Read past issues of our weekly Caribbean Trade & Development Digest, please visit here. To receive these mailings directly to your inbox, please follow our blog.

Linking Puerto Rico’s Debt Crisis to the US and the WTO

Namit Bafna & Shamy Ravishankar (Guest Contributors)

Puerto Rico, an island the US acquired in 1898 after the Spanish-American War, has lived in legal ambiguity with respect to its relationship with America and its statehood. It was recently declared bankrupt and has demanded that the US bail it out. This article explores if such a demand is well–founded, both in logic and in law.

A general reading of Puerto Rico’s history makes such a demand appear to be a prudent call. However, would this be desirable from the WTO law making perspective? Are bailouts allowed under WTO rules? We explore Puerto Rico’s dilemma through international relations and WTO law.

Understanding Puerto Rico’s Debt

Puerto Rico’s debt is a complex one with multiple types of debts; making it harder to negotiate agreements with various investors. Michael Williams, the Attorney who was handling Puerto Rico’s case states that its $123 billion debt is a consequence of years of economic stagnation and bad policy according to writers like Thomas Heath of the Washington Post. There is a serious need for debt restructuring, with investments needed for upgrading the island’s infrastructure (water works, waste management, and electric supply) as well as in boosting the economy.

Investors bought bonds from one of the eighteen authorised Governmental Agencies under the belief that the mainland Government would do everything necessary to prevent such an awful bailout situation from happening. However, the authorised agencies missed payments to the investors. Its cumulative bond debt is $74 billion. Even with an Oversight Board and PROMESA (Puerto Rico Oversight & Economic Sustainability Act of 2015-2016), it remains unclear how a wholescale economic turnaround can be initiated, with not only settling claims with investors (who will undoubtedly require fees for the Government’s defaulting on payments), but also improving the economy. Puerto Rico also requires funding for its pension commitments ($40 billion debt) and for MEDICAID, so that its social security obligations can also be carried out.

The Island has had a terrible recession since 2006, which has only been worsened by questionable policies of its previous Governments by borrowing more and thereby putting the island into greater debt. In addition to this, the current Government’s negotiation attempts with the aforementioned investors have not helped the situation by producing any concessions in the repayment of money owed to these creditors.

At this juncture, it is unfortunate to note that Puerto Rico has been knocking on Washington’s doors for over two years now, requesting more involvement from the mainland. It has been involved in Congressional Committee hearings and submissions before the United States Supreme Court. This invites the question: If any, what is the extent of Washington’s obligations to Puerto Rico, and in particular to this debt crisis? To ascertain this, we must go back in time and establish the exact nature of their relationship.

The US & Puerto Rico’s Relationship

The United States of America (US) has several categories of land holdings that it acquired over time, none of which are considered “Federal States”. These categories include territories (Guam, American Samoa, and US Virgin Islands), Possessions (which includes Baker, Howland, Midway, Wake, Palmyra, Kingman Reef, Jarvis and Johnston, that are all islands), and finally land holdings that are a Commonwealth (Northern Mariana Islands and Puerto Rico). It is to be noted that the Commonwealth category of land holdings are “insular political communities” that have affiliations with the mainland Government of the US. They are above territories in prestige and status but below the level of states. The Possessions and Territories have low levels of political and legal power on account of their fluctuating populations and not desiring self-determination. An another interesting nuance is the fact that the Commonwealth category of nations works with the US Congress and has an established political system that works for both the Congress and the Commonwealth land holding. However where the territories are concerned, the US Congress as more power to impose measures and in effect rule over the populations on the given territory. Citizens of the territories also cannot vote for the members of the Congress.

Over time the offshore territory policy of the US has varied and has even come before the US Supreme Court. In one case (Puerto Rico v. Sanchez) which went into the question of whether or not double jeopardy was applicable to Puerto Rico, the Judges of the Supreme Court had some interesting ideas of what Puerto Rico really was. If it was considered a Federal State then double jeopardy would not apply because federal proceedings could not disallow a state government to try a person for the same crime. If it wasn’t a Federal State then double jeopardy would disallow the person from being tried twice for the same crime (once by the US and once by Puerto Rico). This is because double jeopardy in the US does not apply where the person is being tried by “separate sovereigns” which in this case would be the State Court and the Federal Court. The counsellor for Puerto Rico suggested that it be given “Semi-sovereign status” so as to avoid the political implications of calling it a sovereign and thereby the 51st Federal State of the US, while also ensuring that Puerto Rico would also be able to prosecute Sanchez. Justice Kennedy then sought clarification on whether this would be an “interim sovereignty”? In the end, however, the Supreme Court held that the sources of power for itself and for the Court in Puerto Rico were the US Constitution because Puerto Rico was not a State and therefore the double jeopardy principle did not apply. This meant that the Court in Puerto Rico could not also prosecute Sanchez.

This reasoning is the strongest for the US Congress to allow the bailing out of Puerto Rico. It has had many occasions to either grant freedom to Puerto Rico or to make it the 51st federal state, as the US Constitution empowers the Congress to deal with matters of allowing a new state to be a part of the federation [Article IV. Section 3. Clause 1]. Given the fact that the US has both promised the United Nations to respect Puerto Rico’s sovereignty in 1953 (after allowing Puerto Rico’s Constitution to come into force in 1952), but also never fully allowed it to be a free independent nation, it would suggest that the US wants continued association with Puerto Rico. The fact that on several occasions, the US Government has rejected even the commonwealth status of Puerto Rico, deeming it as merely a territory, also points towards the same conclusion. The US wants these “land holdings” because it clearly benefits from the culture, natural resources and of course the population, who have served in the US military forces. That being said, the US Government does not want to give it full power that a State has. Regarding the bankruptcy bailout, the current US Administration has said it would not extend a helping hand, to what is undoubtedly (based on facts and legal precedent), a US problem.

The US policy on its offshore holdings seems to be one of granting those populations a “second class citizenship” status. It must be noted that when the US conceived the idea of a commonwealth, it was used to mean that the path to self-determination was automatic. This, however, has not taken place for Puerto Rico. Could this be a new twist to an already floundering and ever changing US policy on its offshore land holdings? Could this be the impetus necessary for the Puerto Ricans to demand freedom over their own affairs and formation of a new country that is divorced from the US?

The WTO perspective!

May be yes! But an underlying problem with bailouts would be that it may not be allowed under the WTO norms. Though bailouts are not anything new and the 2008 financial crisis triggered a few bailouts, every forthcoming bankruptcy should push for a clearer stance of the WTO on whether such bailouts would be considered as a subsidy and thus prohibited under SCM? Is it trade distortive under GATS? Is it time to introduce special WTO rules to deal with economic crises; making state actions non-vulnerable from WTO consequences?

The WTO has a well drafted subsidy discipline under the SCM Agreement. Any financial contribution which provides some benefits to an enterprise or an industry would result in a subsidy. Bailouts being sponsored from public money may attract provisions of GATS as they may provide benefit to the bank and its dependent (read “whole economy” of a major bank). As financing of banks would ultimately assist manufacturers, exporters and other players; they may affect other trading partners by creating artificial competitive processes.

However, as banks provide services, a bigger case forms under the GATS; for affecting competition in banking & financial services and making market competitive artificially. This may violate GATS’ obligation of National Treatment, Most Favoured Nation and Anti–Competitive provisions.

Despite its widespread use as a tool for economic reconstruction, no member state of the WTO has challenged bailouts at the WTO. But even if one appears in future, would it be desirable? As financial crises are unavoidable and it is practically impossible to pin down fault to any one entity, group of entities or even a state – bailouts are inevitable. They are required not just to save the bank but the whole economy. Thus, desirability of an “economic crisis exception” in the SCM and/or GATS should be put on table for member states and WTO expert committees before we witness another Puerto Rico-like situation in some other part of the world.

Conclusion

It is unfortunate that today, much after colonialism and colonialist tendencies have lost international relevance, that Puerto Rico’s relationship with the US is still not well-defined in law. However, for the purpose of alleviating this crisis, this article firmly backs considering Puerto Rico to be an integral part of the US; although it may not be necessary to use the terminology of “federal state”. Puerto Rico must be treated for all intents and purposes as a federal state, that entitles them to federal support and involvement, as was granted when Detroit required an $18 million debt restructuring in 2013. This is because, the US still claims Puerto Rico as a land holding, and the US Congress is still empowered under the US Constitution to manage the same. It may have given Puerto Rico some degree of sovereignty but the fact is that the US still has not granted it independence. By the very fact of this lack of independence from US policies and control, Puerto Rico has a right to seek and get aid from the Federal government.

Even if Bankruptcy is declared and the Federal Government pumps money into the Commonwealth, the question of its legality from WTO perspective still remains unresolved. Nevertheless, the bigger question is would bailouts even be challenged at the WTO? As bailouts are used by every member state to safeguard its economy from financial crisis, it is unlikely that it they will be challenged at the WTO, much like the fossil fuel subsidies.

Namit Bafna is a Corporate Lawyer working in Bangalore. His area of interest includes derivatives & trade law. 

Shamy Ravishankar is a 2015 Felix Scholar, now working as a Human Rights Lawyer. Her areas of interest include environmental law, public international law and of course Human Rights Law. Follow her on twitter: @shamy27 or on her blog: https://theworldweknowsite.wordpress.com/

References:

  1. Mark Joseph Stern, Second-Class Sovereignty, Slate (14 Jan., 2016), available at: http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/supreme_court_dispatches/2016/01/the_supreme_court_considers_puerto_rico_s_sovereignty_in_sanchez_valle.html
  2. Puerto Rico v. Sanchez, https://www.oyez.org/cases/2015/15-108
  3. Puerto Rico Report, The Relationship Between Puerto Rico and the U.S. (27 Feb 2016), available at: http://www.puertoricoreport.com/relationship-puerto-rico-u-s/#.WSAl_uuGPcd
  4. Thomas Heath & Tory Newmyer, Puerto Rico, with $73 billion in debt, forced toward bankruptcy, The Washington Post (3 May 2017), available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/puerto-rico-with-73-billion-in-debt-forced-toward-bankruptcy/2017/05/03/92e39d76-3020-11e7-9534
  5. Jaemin Lee, Beneath the Tip of the Iceberg – Global Financial Crisis, Bank Bailouts and the SCM Agreement, 10 Asian Journal of WTO & International Health Law and Policy (2015)
« Older Entries Recent Entries »