US policy towards the Caribbean will be unchanged whoever wins the presidency

A week ago, before Hurricane Sandy rampaged across the Caribbean, up the US  east coast and through New York, a wide variety of opinion polls showed a virtual dead heat in the US presidential race; or at least a result that was too close to call. As this is being written, however, there are signs that the mood may be moving in favour of a second term for President Obama. The President’s response to Hurricane Sandy, it seems, may have improved his electoral prospects over those of his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney.

Even then, there remains continuing uncertainty about how the popular vote will translate in the US electoral college which determines the final outcome, and it is not impossible that some hard to predict event may still turn voters thinking against the incumbent.

Clearly the Caribbean and Latin America, like Europe, would feel more comfortable with President Obama in the White House for a second term. His world view accords more closely with that of the region and he has shown a genuine interest in dialogue, as has his Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton.

Despite this, should Mr Romney win, and Cuba apart, it is unlikely that his administration’s approach to the Caribbean will be significantly different to that of President Obama other, that is, than where regional issues touch on changed strategic concerns relating to trade policy, China, and the Middle East.

Neither candidate spent any time commenting on the Caribbean during the electoral campaign. What is surprising, however, is that both were virtually silent on the subject of Latin America given the increasing importance of the Latin vote in the US and the growing importance of hemispheric issues of longer term significance to Washington, such as future relations with Brazil and Mexico.

In the candidates’ foreign policy debate only Mr Romney mentioned the hemisphere, speaking about the trade opportunity that Latin America presented. “We’re all focused on China. Latin America is a huge opportunity for us,” Mr Romney said. President Obama, however, chose to move the focus of the debate on to other issues.

Even then, most US commentators saw this as an attempt to improve Governor Romney’s standing among Latin American voters in the US who continued to react negatively to his anti-immigration rhetoric during the primaries. While his position has since softened, the two candidates have significantly different approaches. President Obama is promising rapid reform of immigration policy while Mr Romney is suggesting he will have undocumented migrants voluntarily return to their countries of origin and then to apply to enter legally.

-As far as the Caribbean is concerned the only significant immediate difference in US policy under a Romney administration may be in respect of Cuba. Here Mr Romney’s electoral rhetoric and specificity suggests that he sees Cuba as an opportunity to demonstrate at low cost, his right wing credentials. He has said he will break sharply with President Obama’s strategy and not make the unilateral concessions of the kind that he alleges were made by the present administration. Instead, he seems to want to revert to a policy that involves reinstating restrictions on travel and remittances; stronger enforcement of the Helms-Burton and other anti-Cuban legislation and regulations; programmes that more actively ‘support democracy’; greater funding for US information programmes and so on.

How realistic any of this is remains to be seen, given that most Cuban Americans welcome President Obama’s easing of travel restrictions, there are a range of functional exchanges between Cuba and the US on matters of common concern, Cuba itself has new potentially challenging policies on migration likely to require dialogue, and policies on isolation have conspicuously failed in the past.

Were Mr Romney to win, his much tougher approach towards China might result in longer-term consideration being given in Washington to China’s growing presence in the Caribbean Basin. It is clear that should he become President, Governor Romney is intent on an early confrontation at the World Trade Organisation with Beijing over what he describes as Chinese ‘currency manipulation’ to achieve trade advantage. He also has deep concerns about China’s growing naval strength. However, how much this is simply a part of a process of rebalancing or a demonstration of US will to China’s new leadership is unclear.

Even then, it is not certain how ideologically driven Mr Romney might be in practice. His recent decision to appoint Robert Zoellick to lead his national security transition planning is a case in point. Mr Zoellick, a former President of the World Bank and United States Trade Representative, is a moderate, not inclined to the harsher language used on the campaign trail.  Moreover, there are signs that Governor Romney’s transition team have, away from the media glare, taken steps that suggest someone who as president might be more cautious and pragmatic than his public political persona suggests, establishing policy and delivery systems more closely aligned with the conservative management approach of large corporations.

What all this may mean is that at the level of the president, whoever wins on November 6, US policy towards the Caribbean will remain largely unchanged, that the region will remain a small element of broader US strategic thinking, and will continue mainly to be the subject in its design and application to decisions taken in key Departments by political appointees at the level of Under Secretary.

This means that pressure on offshore financial centres will continue; the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act will not go away; co-operation on counter narcotics and security issues will remain central to the relationship; US energy policy will continue to require safe transit across the Caribbean Basin for supplies from Brazil, Mexico and Colombia; the enlarged Panama Canal will remain a strategic interest; trade policy will emerge from its present limbo and be redesigned to suit US domestic concerns; and foreign policy on the Middle East, especially in relation to Iran, will raise significant questions for Latin America and the Caribbean.

All of which suggests that the most pressing aspect of Caribbean thinking about the US relationship going forwards whoever wins, will be for the region to consider how its voice might be better heard in Washington and whether, as some suggest, new alliances with Latin America might support the region’s ability to drive home its concerns in Washington.

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