Regional divisions emerge after Trump meets with five Caribbean leaders

A 22 March meeting between President Trump and the leaders of Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, The Bahamas, Haiti, and St Lucia has divided CARICOM, exposing deep divisions and resulting in harsh words of criticism from some nations not invited.

At the meeting, Trump affirmed his commitment to regional economic growth, his support for the five invited countries and his intention of strengthening relations with them. He also indicated his intention to assist them in return for their support for US policy towards Venezuela and its self-declared President Juan Guaidó.

Discussions specifically centred on helping build their resilience to natural hazards, security cooperation, and encouraging investment. Following the meeting the White House said that a high-level delegation from the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), the US development lender, would visit the five nations in the following 90 days. US officials also indicated that in 2019 “priority status” will be given to the five nations without giving further details. The meeting also focused on a number of issues raised by the five leaders including energy supply, hemispheric security, issues relating to banking, and the negative impact of travel advisories on the region’s tourism economies. The five leaders met prior to the meeting with Trump with US National Security Adviser, John Bolton.

Following the meeting Jamaica’s Prime Minister, Andrew Holness, told journalists “The message from this meeting is that the United States wants to encourage and promote stronger relationships with the region. It’s absolutely important that it’s not just talk – that there will be real investment,” he said. He subsequently noted that the meeting “was promising as we anticipate further discussions on energy trade, security and issues to do with peace and stability within the region.”

In a separate statement Jamaica’s Foreign Minister, Kamina Johnson Smith, made clear that the only country that is part of the Lima group supporting Juan Guaidó present at the meeting was St Lucia. She said that that Jamaica has not recognised him as president of Venezuela.

Also speaking following the meeting, the Dominican President, Danilo Medina said that he was pleased in the interest the US President had shown in Caribbean countries and the Dominican Republic in particular. He said the situation in Venezuela was not the central issue of the talks.

Medina said he took advantage of the opportunity to make several requests. He asked for the elimination of the tariffs on steel exports to Puerto Rico;  requested that DR based companies be allowed to export boots for the military to the US, tariff-free; proposed that a low interest and long-term financing fund be created that could be accessed in the case of a natural disaster; and asked the US travel advisory alert on visiting the Dominican Republic to be revised. He. said the issue of China’s advance in the Caribbean was not brought up.

Some regional leaders express anger

However, the Prime Ministers of Antigua, Gaston Browne, and the Prime Minister of St Vincent, Ralph Gonsalves expressed anger at the meeting.

Writing on his Facebook page Browne questioned whether the visit represented diplomacy or bribery. “I feel embarrassed for those weak-minded leaders who allowed themselves to be used by carrying out the agenda of others,” Browne wrote.

Noting that “CARICOM must continue its sustaining position by standing on principle without inducements or fear of reprisals, he indicated that in his view “there are some who are determined to undermine CARICOM’s solidarity and to relegate the region to an object of history”.

Also taking issue was Prime Minister Gonsalves, who told the media that the meeting cut across the agreed mechanisms CARICOM has in place and was “troubling”.

Indicating that the four CARICOM Prime Minister were only speaking for themselves he said: “the region must be aware of the mischief that some persons may be up to seek to divide us in a manner which we ought not to be divided and therefore reduce the extent of the efficacy of our work”.

Trinidad’s Prime Minister, Keith Rowley, was also among those who spoke out about not being invited, urging Trinidadians to take pride in the country’s stance on the crisis in Venezuela.

A new approach by Washington

Before the meeting White House briefings had suggested that the discussion would centre on Venezuela and China’s role in the region. However, such issues had previously been discussed bilaterally, and the principal purpose, as the Caribbean leaders present and President Trump indicated just before the meeting began, was how the US might respond now and in the future in exchange for their support in relation to Venezuela.

The underlying message being delivered formally and informally by Washington is that in future, the Trump Administration will respond to the Caribbean in a manner that discriminates in favour of those nations seen as being supportive. In doing so regional dialogue and multilateralism will largely be dispensed with, and Washington will enhance bilaterally its investment, energy, security and other hemispheric strategies with those that are like minded. The approach mirrors US policy in but with the unique twist that in the western hemisphere the Monroe doctrine applies.

CARICOM leaders at their recent inter-sessional summit said they were prepared to mediate in Venezuela to bring about a peaceful resolution to the crisis. Subsequently a teleconference took place via a video link with Venezuela’s self-declared president through the Montevideo Mechanism which proposed several calibrated steps agreed by Mexico, Uruguay and all CARICOM members.

 This is a lead article from Caribbean Insight, The Caribbean Council’s flagship fortnightly publication. From The Bahamas to French Guiana, each edition consists of country-by-country analysis of the leading news stories of consequence, distilling business and political developments across the Caribbean into a single must-read publication. Please follow the links on the right-hand side of this page to subscribe, or access a free trial.