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Caribbean & Central America - February 2020

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REGION: US accused of 'divide and rule'

A year ago, in January 2019, a split within the Caribbean Community (Caricom), and between leading Caricom members and the US, developed over policy towards Venezuela. A row over the visit this January to Jamaica by US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo shows that the split has not yet been healed.

On 10 January 2019, the Organisation of American States (OAS) voted that Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro should no longer be recognised as president. Among the 19 OAS countries voting in favour of this move were Caricom members Jamaica, St Lucia, the Bahamas, and Guyana. On 23 January 2019, the president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, declared himself president of Venezuela and this was promptly recognised by the OAS.

This led Caricom to issue a statement on 24 January urging countries to respect the principal of non-interference. It then remonstrated with OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro in a letter dated 31 January. The letter was signed by Caricom chairman Timothy Harris, the prime minister of St Kitts & Nevis. He wrote to Almagro saying: “The Heads of Government consider it imperative that you publicly clarify that you did not speak on behalf of all member states. We are aware this is not the only occasion on which you have made public utterances in the name of the [OAS] without authority. This type of unilateral action by a head of an international organisation, whose membership comprises sovereign states, is a clear departure from normal practice and cause for great concern.”

Two months later, the split within Caricom widened further when Jamaica’s Prime Minister Andrew Holness, Bahamas’ Prime Minister Hubert Minnis, Dominican Republic President Danilo Medina, Haiti’s President Jovenel Moïse, and St Lucia’s Prime Minister Allen Chastanet met US President Donald Trump on 21 March to discuss policy towards Venezuela, or rather to endorse US policy towards Venezuela.

This meeting prompted a strong reaction from St Vincent & the Grenadines’ prime minister Ralph Gonsalves. Speaking the following day, Gonsalves made the point that this was in no way a Caricom delegation. He said that neither the chairman - St Kitts & Nevis Prime Minister Timothy Harris - nor members of the Caricom advisory committee, comprising Barbados’ Prime Minister Mia Mottley, Trinidad’s Prime Minister Keith Rowley, or Gonsalves himself, had been invited to the meeting.

Gonsalves characterised US policy towards Venezuela as a “creeping coup”, and he then castigated the errant Caricom members by saying that it is not because of the subsidised Venezuelan ‘Petrocaribe’ oil scheme that Caricom is supporting the principles of “non-intervention and non-interference and no threats of force or sanctions” but because of “high principle and our commitment to international law”.

In a final plea to his fellow Caricom members, Gonsalves said: “I just want to keep Caricom viable”; and in a final dig at the Trump administration he said: “I don’t have to try and make the Caricom civilisation great again. We are an alive civilisation of legitimacy. We have a history of achievement and we have a trajectory of ennoblement. We are not better than anybody, and nobody is better than us, and you must not try to divide us.”

Gonsalves said: “None of those persons was invited, and for it to be a true Caricom representation you must at least have the chairman…It cuts across the agreement mechanisms that we have put in place.”

Pompeo’s visit

Now all this has blown up again with Pompeo’s visit to the region, and in particular with his selected invitations to regional leaders to a meeting in Jamaica on 21 January at which policy towards Venezuela was to be discussed.

In addition to Jamaica, the invitation list included Barbados, The Bahamas, Belize, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Trinidad & Tobago, St Kitts & Nevis, and St Lucia. However, three days before the scheduled meeting, Prime Minister Mia Mottley of Barbados, who is also the chairman of Caricom, declared: “As chairman of Caricom, it is impossible for me to agree that my foreign minister should attend a meeting with anyone to which members of Caricom are not invited. If some are invited and not all, then it is an attempt to divide the region.”

Mottley immediately found support from Trinidad’s Prime Minister Keith Rowley, who said: “PM Mottley has the full support of the government and the people of Trinidad & Tobago in outlining our principles and vision of Caribbean unity. In the expectation of Caribbean unity, the prime minister of Barbados speaks for Trinidad & Tobago.”

Mottley also received support from Antigua & Barbuda, St Vincent & the Grenadines, and Grenada. Antigua’s Foreign Minister Chet Greene said: “We are very much in support of, and identify with, the sentiments expressed by the Caricom Chair, PM Mottley of Barbados. As a government we stand in support of this position.”

All of this forced Pompeo on the defensive, and he had to deny at a press conference in Kingston that the US was seeking to divide Caricom – “not yesterday, not today, not tomorrow”, he said, adding that it was natural for there to be occasional differences between members of Caricom and the US.

Nevertheless, Pompeo gave little ground, strongly reiterating the US’s position on Venezuela, security issues in the region, and the dangers of relying too much on Chinese investment.

On Venezuela, Pompeo was full of praise for the OAS and its support for Guaidó, but it is unlikely that he will make much progress in peeling away more Caricom members from the official position of non-interference. At the July 2019 Caricom summit meeting in St Lucia, despite the fact that Jamaica, St Lucia, the Bahamas, and Guyana had supported the OAS’s recognition of Guaidó in January 2019, the group reiterated its position on non-interference in Venezuela’s internal affairs and agreed “that mediation-related activities would continue to be pursued by the prime ministers of St Kitts & Nevis, Barbados, and Trinidad & Tobago”.

On the security question, Pompeo said: “Isis fighters…have come from Trinidad & Tobago. Hezbollah has tentacles all over South America. [Colombian guerrillas from] Farc [Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia] and the ELN [Ejército de Liberación Nacional] take refuge today in Venezuela. The manmade crisis Maduro has caused in Venezuela has driven an unprecedented migration crisis. Nearly 5m Venezuelans have fled his tyranny. Cuba and Russia continue to meddle in nations’ sovereign affairs, while trying to destabilize democracies. And of course, there are the drug cartels that we deal with, and the human trafficking, and arms trafficking, and the cybercrime that come alongside of them”.

“This is very different than the times of the Cold War…The bad guys are more sophisticated, and more ruthless. And our nations have an obligation, therefore, for our very people, to work in the interest of our shared security much more closely. That’s what we’re already doing in the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative, now its 10th year, a decade on. We’re having incredible success seizing drug shipments. We’re helping kids stay away from crime. And we stand ready, America stands ready to keep doing those good things in partnership with countries in the region. “Let’s keep moving forward on those closer ties…”

The China question

Another clear focus of Pompeo’s trip was to warn the Caribbean about getting too close to China, but this issue raises some interesting anomalies. For instance, the Dominican Republic (which attended the meeting in Kingston) switched its allegiance from Taiwan to mainland China in May 2018. St Vincent & the Grenadines, on the other hand, which was not asked to the meeting, is one of the holdouts still supporting Taiwan. Of those invited to the meeting in Kingston, Belize, Haiti, St Kitts & Nevis, and St Lucia still recognise Taiwan.

In May 2018, Trinidad became the first Caribbean country to sign up for China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Other Caribbean countries that have been welcoming China’s advances include The Bahamas, Jamaica, Guyana, Barbados, Grenada, and Suriname. Jamaica, Pompeo’s host, signed up to the BRI in April 2019.

Pompeo based his warnings on China on the proposition that China does not have the Caribbean’s best interests at heart, and that its business practices were threatening to the rule of law. He said: “It’s tempting to accept easy money from places like China. But what good is it if it feeds corruption and undermines your rule of law? What good are those investments if in fact they ruin your environment and don’t create jobs for your people?”

The “better alternative” that Pompeo proposed was to stay committed to the West. He argued: “Western firms, American firms, operate according to values proven to produce good deals and quality work, the work that we do in democracies, things like transparent contracts, the respect for the rule of law, honest straightforward accounting practices.”

He returned to this point in a later press conference, warning that Western companies may not be prepared to operate in “places where there’s not rule of law, where there will be competitors that are permitted to participate in the economic ecosystem [and] who are doing so in ways that are outside of the law…”

Warming to his theme, Pompeo added: “If you’re somebody who’s deciding whether to invest in a particular country, if that country’s permitting some other nation to show up and do deals, either through bribery or non-transparency, or with state-sponsored enterprises that are competing unfairly that they can’t possibly compete with, the chance of getting good money, money that’s coming in for the right reasons, is decreased.”

However, it wasn’t just unfair business practices by China and Chinese companies that Pompeo warned about, he also warned against Chinese investments that were being made for more than for “economic purposes”. He warned that “we all owe it to the people of our nations to make sure that when foreign direct investment is taking place, that it’s coming truly for the right reasons – that it’s not coming for a national security reason to put at risk the privacy of the citizens of Jamaica, right; it’s not coming to have a political outcome; that it’s truly an economically based [investment]…”

The US-Jamaica security partnership

But if Pompeo was keen to warn his hosts about the danger that China’s investments could be “coming for a national security reason”, he was equally keen to emphasise that the US’s own relationship with Jamaica was firmly based on “national security” calculations. This was spelt out in a fact sheet put out by the US State Department to coincide with Pompeo’s arrival in Jamaica (see box next page).

Jamaica and the US cooperation

Entitled “Jamaica and the United States: A Model for Partnership in The Caribbean”, the fact sheet highlighted, inter alia, the following:

  • Over the past six months, the US and Jamaica finalized four key security-related agreements to expand our joint capabilities to combat transnational crime, illicit trade, and aviation safety.
  • The US State Department and US Agency for International Development (USAID) are working together to professionalize law enforcement and strengthen counter-narcotics, rule of law, child trafficking, and anti-corruption efforts.
  • The US is helping Jamaica enhance its marine domain awareness and intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance capacities, including through an advisor program for Jamaica’s Maritime Patrol Aircraft.
  • Both countries are advancing cybersecurity, including hosting the inaugural Cyber Capacity Building Workshop for the Caribbean and Latin America – the first of its kind for the region – and through the development of an innovative cyber security degree program with the Caribbean Military Academy and Arizona State University.
  • Together, at the OAS, the two countries have “consistently advanced policies in support of human rights and democracy in the region wherever threatened, including in Venezuela and Nicaragua”.
  • US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness launched the US-Jamaica Energy Infrastructure Finance Working Group in November 2018 to expand energy supply and generation, transmission and grid solutions, and energy investment.
  • In December 2019, Jamaica was one of the first four countries to join the Growth in the Americas Initiative, to accelerate private sector led economic growth in energy and infrastructure projects.
  • The US Department of the Treasury is establishing a resident advisor to assist the Ministry of Finance with the tendering and financing of large infrastructure projects, such as the proposed Government Oval project.
  • In consonance with the US Caribbean Resilience Partnership, the US is working with Jamaica to strengthen cooperation and advance resilience to withstand the impacts of natural disasters, climate change, and extreme weather events by leveraging Caribbean and American innovation and expertise.
  • In October and December 2019, the Partnership announced approximately US$19.5m in support of these objectives throughout the region.
  • The US is providing US$5m to support Disaster Risk Financing, which will make Jamaica more prepared for natural disasters and save lives.