Obama’s election: what’s in it for us?

The obvious fascination among Caricom citizens with the US election, as reflected in editorials in regional newspapers including our own, cannot but lead us to further contemplate what promise President Obama’s re-election holds for us. The President raised our hopes, or some might say reinforced our naivety, with his early visit to Trinidad & Tobago for the Fourth Summit of the Americas in April 2009, even though we knew that any president, elected relatively soon before the planned Summit, would have had to attend. And in a sense, just the mere visibility created by his visit would have been presumed to be welcomed by us, focused as most Caricom states are on advancing our tourism industries.

In the course of time, as economic recession gripped the country, we could see that the President was having to focus on looking inwards rather than systematically outwards, as far as Latin America and the Caribbean was concerned, except in relation to the US’s previous focus on the movement of narcotics. In regard to Latin America, the American preoccupation was with ensuring that in the wider economic negotiations going on at the WTO level, countries like Brazil and Argentina, described as rising contenders were kept in line, to the extent possible, with US views on adherence to the WTO objectives. And from our point of view, the sequel to this strategy has been the news last week that, at that level, a satisfactory arrangement on the so-called “banana dispute” with the European Union of well over a decade, had been achieved in accordance with the Latins’ objectives.

For the Caricom countries, that news was not something that we could congratulate our new-found partners in the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) on. But the Latins would probably argue that last week’s decision was a logical conclusion to the process of international economic liberalization, not initiated by themselves. And they would note Mexico’s early entry into NAFTA in accordance with those trends.

Today Mexico is recognized as a major exporter to the US, a role which, though on a much lesser scale, Jamaica in particular had hoped to achieve, and which for a short time seemed to be within its grasp by adhering to the terms of the Caribbean Basin Initiative of 1983. Ironically, it was Mexico’s adherence to NAFTA that soon minimized Jamaica’s access as a viable competitor in the American market.

Our major benefit from the US-Caricom relationship over the last few years has been a further consolidation of the American interest in clearing the ground (the Caribbean Sea) as far as the movement of narcotics through our territories is concerned with the establishment of the Caricom Basin Security Initiative (CBSI), a promise of the Fifth Summit of the Americas. The debate on the narcotics issue at the 6th Summit of the Americas in April of this year in Cartegena, Colombia, a major funnel of narcotics through the Caribbean, showed that the Latin Americans’ concern had been extended to the issue of the decriminalization of narcotic drugs as an instrument of control, a position supported by some Caricom states, but which proved resolutely unacceptable to President Obama at Cartagena.

But we, of course, are well aware that an emphasis on decriminalization would have to be accompanied by substantial technical and economic assistance to entities such as ours, even with relatively small populations. This issue is one which will be pursued by the Latins, and which it is in our interest to pursue simultaneously with the efforts of the Caricom Implementation Agency for Crime and Security (IMPACS) which would itself seem to be in need of repair or readjustment.

From our perspective, the issue of the effects of narcotics use on the young, can be associated with a focus on the methods of education which need to be substantially updated in Caricom to take advantage of the rapid development of internet technologies as learning tools at all levels of education. Recent discussions on the cost of higher education in Barbados and Jamaica, and President Ramotar’s own references to it at the recent UG graduation ceremonies, highlight the challenge which our higher education institutions are having, and will continue to have, in terms of accommodating to alternative, technologically changing, methods of education. And it is clear, as a recent discussion by Time magazine reporting extensively on this has indicated, that changes at the tertiary level will have to filter down to the low levels of education.

But even in Caricom, it is unlikely that we, on our own (much less as separate states), can persuade the United States to respond positively to any major initiative in this respect. The challenge suggests, and can extend to other spheres, that we need to take our wider institutional relationships with the Latin American states more seriously, and seek specific alliances with them that can be advanced at the wider hemispheric levels in which the United States is involved. It is time to cease treating our relationships with the Latin American states as mere diplomatic arrangements, or single-country initiatives, and to specify the concrete arenas where they can be of practical use to us, even as we seek the wider assistance of a United States likely to be concerned with focusing on its domestic problems and on the major adjustments which it has to make to the new challenges from around the globe.

Is it too much to ask our governments to pursue our relationships with the other hemispheric states on the basis of regional (that is Caricom/Cariforum) institutional arrangements, pertaining to selected subject areas, so that their weight can be brought to bear not only on the US per se, but also on the US as it functions in the larger development institutions (World Bank, IMF and the OAS)? And can this not be done in such a way that it attracts other major emerging states whose competition the US is more and more finding itself having to deal with?

A presumption of such an approach would, of course, entail substantial preparatory work, utilizing, among other institutions, our Caribbean Development Bank, and through cooperation with the Latins, the Inter-American Development Bank system, which has, pushed by Brazil in particular, supported the direction of structural and physical integration as bases for strengthening individual economies in Latin American and the Caribbean.

This is not work for shouting on the rooftops, but pursuing on the basis of finding new platforms for our economic and other diplomacy in the hemisphere, at a time when the US is likely to be turning inwards to resolve its own problems, during this and succeeding administrations.

We therefore need to find alternative methods of influencing the American colossus. We cannot wait for it to approach us on issues, like that of narcotics, which occasionally become of substantial interest to itself, and therefore the prime interest for their periodic interest in ourselves. But this approach, too, implies a new collective diplomacy orientation to regionalism and regional integration on our part.  Are we up to it?

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