President Barack Obama’s commitment to what he called the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative, given during the Fifth Summit of the Americas in April this year in Trinidad and Tobago, comes at an interesting time.
Obama’s initiative follows President Bill Clinton’s robust engagement at the meeting with heads of state and government of the Caribbean states in Bridgetown, Barbados in May 1997. The Bridgetown Declaration of Principles which the heads adopted pledged to strengthen security and other forms of cooperation.
President George Bush then had a comparatively light encounter with selected Caribbean Community heads at a breakfast meeting in New York in September 2003. This took place the day prior to the 58th Session of the United Nations General Assembly and was hardly a setting for serious strategising.
Much has changed in the Caribbean since Clinton’s initiative twelve years ago. Most important has been the election of Hugo Chávez to the presidency of Venezuela and his campaign of opposition to the USA that rivals in rhetoric only that of Cuba’s Fidel Castro over the last half-century. In the wake of the failed golpe in April 2002, Chávez intensified his quest for foreign allies and fostered the spread of his concept of ‘Bolivarianism’ to Bolivia, Ecuador and Honduras, much to the chagrin of the USA and its main South American ally, Colombia. Some Caricom states have been seduced by Chavismo just as many were by Fidelismo decades ago.
The ostensible objective of Obama’s proposed initiative was stated as the US Government’s desire “to go beyond traditional patterns of bilateral relations and make important steps towards a more regionally-focused framework of cooperation, collaboration and partnership to effectively confront the challenges and maximise the available capabilities, capacity and resources within the partnership.”
Thinly financed with only US$45 M, the initiative is still to define a role for Caricom. It will be difficult, however, to separate it from the USA-Colombia agreement over which South American presidents in UNASUR have been in a tizzy.
Obama’s Caribbean Basin Security Initiative, CBSI, said to be a copy of the ‘Merida Initiative’ – USA’s security cooperation agreement with Mexico and Central America – claims to recognise that narco-trafficking, gun-running, money-laundering and other transnational crimes in the Caribbean have intensified. But the USA-Colombia agreement – the full title of which is the Supplemental Agreement for Cooperation, Technical Assistance and Security, SACTA – has caused consternation in Venezuela.
Venezuela, with the longest Caribbean coastline of any state, feels that SACTA and CBSI are pincers to encircle the country and smother Bolivarianism. Two of the Colombian installations which will be available to the USA under the agreement are located in the Caribbean coastal region – the military port in Cartagena and the air base in Malambo. Chávez has stated plainly that US access to the bases was “a threat” to his country and that Colombia was conducting “a war policy.” He added in his customary hyperbolic fashion that “the winds of war” were beginning to blow across the region and that the agreement “could generate a war in South America.”
The deployment of 650 military personnel during the US Southern Command-sponsored Operation Southern Partner and Operation Continuing Promise in Guyana in July-September, albeit on humanitarian missions, and the annual UK- and USA-sponsored Exercise Tradewinds military exercises involving fifteen Caribbean Basin states have also been interpreted as part of that encirclement.
The near simultaneous appearance of the CBSI and SACTA seems to suggest that the USA’s strategic interests have gone beyond the ‘war on drugs.’ Caricom should therefore pay close attention to the consequences of these agreements for its relations with Colombia and Venezuela. Neighbours are forever.