The United States is enduring a period of intense internal struggle. As these battles wage on, one naturally questions the level of engagement the new Biden Administration will have with the English-speaking Caribbean given the domestic issues he faces. We turned to Dr. Samantha S.S. Chaitram for answers. She is one of the region’s foremost experts on geopolitics and diplomacy and the author of “American Foreign Policy in the English-speaking Caribbean: From the Eighteenth to the Twenty-first Century” published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2020. Our questions for Dr. Chaitram:
First, tell us more about your work, “American Foreign Policy in the English-speaking Caribbean”. What motivated you to pursue this research?
In 2012 I was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to pursue a PhD in International Studies at the University of Miami. As a national from Trinidad and Tobago studying in the United States, I realized that many Americans knew very little about the history of the English-speaking Caribbean. Intellectual discussions in Miami focused principally on Latin America, and scholarship on American foreign policy in the Anglophone Caribbean was scant compared to studies on the Hispanic and Francophone Caribbean.
There was also this perception among some academics that the Caribbean was unimportant to the United States, a view I did not share, having experienced firsthand American diplomacy in the Caribbean through the Fulbright program. I therefore set out to historically trace U.S. interest and policy over four centuries in four countries – The Bahamas, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Guyana. I hope the book will bring a greater understanding of the English-speaking Caribbean and the history of U.S. -Caribbean foreign relations.
What lessons or insights did your research produced that is meaningful in today’s geopolitical environment?
The main insight that my research produced is that bipartisan congressional policy has driven U.S. strategy in the English-speaking Caribbean during the 21st century. Political ideology did not play a role in determining U.S. policy in the region. The main drivers of U.S. engagement in the Caribbean over four centuries were U.S. security and economic interests. In a politically divided environment in the United States, the English-speaking Caribbean is one area where policymakers can find common ground.
As we begin to prepare for a Biden presidency, what priorities do you believe Caribbean leaders should be focused on in terms of driving better cooperation with the United States?
Joe Biden is no stranger to the Caribbean. As Vice President, during his visit to Trinidad and Tobago in June 2014, Biden announced the launching of the Caribbean Energy Security Initiative (CESI). Subsequently, in January 2015 the Caribbean Energy Security Summit was held in Washington D.C. to advance energy cooperation with Caribbean Heads of Government. At the upcoming 9th Summit of the Americas scheduled to be held in 2021 in the United States, Caribbean leaders will have the opportunity to meet Biden again in person and push for deeper cooperation in clean energy sources and funding for renewable energy projects to help reduce electricity costs in the Caribbean and reduce greenhouse gases.
the diplomatic approach adopted by the Trump administration to meet with a few Caribbean countries rather than with CARICOM as a bloc gave the impression of American attempts to divide the region
The main issue which can hinder cooperation between the United States and the Caribbean is the Venezuelan crisis. It has already caused diplomatic tensions between the United States and Trinidad and Tobago. While the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) as a bloc has agreed that the best option for Venezuela is through peaceful dialogue and non-intervention, Caribbean states remain divided on the legitimacy of the Venezuelan presidency. Caribbean countries which continue to recognize Nicolas Maduro as Venezuela’s President cannot continue to ignore the crimes against humanity which were facilitated by the Maduro regime, especially since Trinidad and Tobago was instrumental in establishing the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Given that Trump’s strategy failed to bring about regime change in Venezuela, it is yet to be seen how the Biden administration would approach the crisis. In addition to enhanced diplomatic efforts with Venezuela, I anticipate targeted sanctions for human rights violations and corruption to continue under a Biden presidency as was done under the Obama administration. Caribbean leaders who wish to drive deeper cooperation with the United States should recognize that the U.S. government considers regional foreign policy positions which are at odds with U.S. interests in determining U.S. foreign aid allocations.
China continues to remain very engaged in the Caribbean. During the Biden presidency, what policy measures do you anticipate being applied to assert the economic interests of the United States?
China’s engagement in the Caribbean was largely ignored by the Obama-Biden administration. It was President Trump who made countering China’s influence in the Caribbean a foreign policy priority. Caribbean nations continue to embrace Chinese engagement despite warnings from the United States. To compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, I anticipate the Biden administration continuing to provide an alternative to China’s state-led programs through the International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) which advances private-sector-led development for American businesses wanting to invest in countries of strategic importance to the United States.
We continue to see promising signs around the development of technology skills in various nations in the Caribbean. This progress is encouraging but what role might the United States play in accelerating this trend?
Through the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the United States can prioritize technology, by making available scholarships and professional exchange programs for both students and professionals seeking to enhance technology skills at institutions of technology in the United States.
Now that the election is over and reflecting on the term of Donald Trump, what were some of the positives and negatives in regard to US-Caribbean nation relations during the last four years?
Trade: the region will continue to benefit from U.S. trade preferences since the bipartisan bill H.R. 991 was passed in U.S. Senate to extend certain provisions of the Caribbean Basin Economic Recovery Act (CBERA) which provides duty-free access to the U.S. market for certain goods until September 2030.
U.S. foreign assistance: Trump administration implemented the Caribbean 2020 Strategy which resulted in continuity in U.S. policy of engagement especially under the pillars of security, health and humanitarian assistance.
Diplomacy: the diplomatic approach adopted by the Trump administration to meet with a few Caribbean countries rather than with CARICOM as a bloc gave the impression of American attempts to divide the region. Secretary Pompeo however stated that there was no attempt from the United States to divide CARICOM.