There have been strong calls for the private sector in the Caribbean to become more actively engaged in lobbying and other efforts to enhance the region’s relations with the United States, notwithstanding President Donald Trump’s announced America first policy. The calls came during a session Friday morning at the 41st annual Conference on the Caribbean and Latin America which focused on the Outlook and Opportunities for US/Regional Cooperation.
The calls came from both government and private sector officials who shared the view that the US remains the major trading partner with the Caribbean region and enjoys a significant trade surplus, which in the case of one Caricom member state, Barbados, stood at half a billion US dollars in 2015. Participants in the discussion agreed that there should be more regional private sector engagement in the efforts to take advantage of the provisions of the new US Caribbean Strategic Engagement Act which was signed into law last December by then President Barack Obama. The Act mandates the United States State Department and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to consult with stakeholders in the region and the diaspora with a view to identifying priorities and programmes in several areas including sustainable development, trade, investment, security, health and education, among others.
Barbados Ambassador to the United States Selwin Hart, one of the lead speakers at the session debunked suggestions that the Caribbean Community (Caricom) was to blame for the lack of action within the region which would inspire the private sector to be more engaged and proactive in lobbying for better relations, including trade arrangements with other countries and regions of the world.
“I would not blame Caricom as a region. We have and continue to make meaningful progress in several areas. I have seen a report which points to some 450 changes which have been made to laws and regulations in various countries within Caricom to facilitate the free movement of capital and people so as to make us more internationally competitive,” Ambassador Hart said, adding that the Caribbean private sector and the wider society need to remain optimistic about the Caribbean “where particularly our young people have been competing and winning in areas such as the creative industries and entertainment among other initiatives.”
Hart did agree that at times, and on some issues, individual Caribbean governments lack the political will to act, and “I would say here is where in some cases politicians need to get out of the way.” But on the issue of enhancing US/Caribbean relations Hart said that there is need for an institutional arrangement involving both the US and Caribbean government and private sector leaders which would provide for at least annual consultations, such as the Caribbean has with other countries and regions of the world.
Jennifer Nugent-Hill, Director, Government and Community Affairs at West Palm Beach headquartered Tropical Shipping accused the private sector in the Caribbean of becoming “selfish and self-centred” noting that since the passage of the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI) many years ago, the region’s private sector had become complacent although there “are several new issues which impact them and on which they should become engaged.”
Nugent-Hill, who is also a director of the Washington DC based Caribbean Central American Action (CCAA) which put on the conference which ended yesterday, identified resilience planning for natural disasters and de-risking as issues “which impact the people of the region and “the private sector needs to join with governments and organizations like CCAA which are mounting strenuous efforts to address these issues.”
“The Caribbean private sector must become fully engaged. Without a strong private sector there will be no governments,” Nugent-Hill stressed while pointing out companies like Tropical Shipping which serve the Caribbean has been consistently engaged over the years in promoting the cause of the Caribbean region.