In Jamaica, Obama seeks to reassert U.S. leadership in Caribbean

KINGSTON, Jamaica, (Reuters) – President Barack Obama arrived in Jamaica yesterday to attend a Caribbean summit seeking to reassert U.S. leadership in the region at time when oil-producing Venezuela’s economic clout may be receding.

U.S. President Barack Obama (C, back to camera) gets a hug from Jamaica's Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller as he arrives aboard Air Force One at Norman Manley International Airport in Kingston, Jamaica April 8, 2015.  Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. President Barack Obama (C, back to camera) gets a hug from Jamaica’s Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller as he arrives aboard Air Force One at Norman Manley International Airport in Kingston, Jamaica April 8, 2015.
Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

As the first U.S. president to visit Kingston since Ronald Reagan in 1982, Obama faces the challenge of convincing Caribbean island leaders that Washington is genuinely re-engaging after a long period of perceived neglect of its smaller, poorer neighbors.

Obama arrived in the middle of Jamaica’s Carnival week but will have little time to take in the revelry during a 24-hour visit expected to be dominated by discussions on energy, security and trade with the 15-member Caribbean Community, or Caricom.

Some analysts say a key reason why Washington is suddenly paying attention to the Caribbean Basin is that it wants to wean the islands off dependence on cut-rate Venezuelan oil that Caracas has long used to wield influence in the region.

Most Caricom members participate in Venezuela’s discounted Petrocaribe oil program, but Caracas now finds itself in growing economic distress due to low oil prices.” As Petrocaribe is unraveling, the U.S. is taking advantage,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington. “The Caribbean islands have to look elsewhere for energy.”

The Obama administration launched the Caribbean Security Energy Initiative last year, and in January Vice President Joe Biden hosted Caribbean leaders in Washington to discuss alternative energy sources such as wind and solar.

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