On the Caribbean, 20/20 Blindness

By Johanna Mendelson Forman
Special to washingtonpost.com's Think Tank Town
Friday, June 22, 2007; 12:00 AM

This week leaders of 14 Caribbean countries will meet in Washington, D.C. to discuss the future of the region and its relationship with the United States. For U.S. leaders, the Caribbean 20/20 Vision conference is a low priority on the foreign policy agenda.

The media silence on this event underscores the lack of understanding that exists about the region. Although the Caribbean states vary in size, (most are small), wealth and population, we underestimate the region's geopolitical potential. These states represent votes at the United Nations and the Organization of American States (OAS), and make it possible for the U.S. to advance its agenda in multilateral organizations. And the Diaspora population that resides in the U.S. provides sizeable portions of national GDPs in the form of remittances.

Since 2001, when the United States and our Western Hemisphere neighbors declared the Caribbean our "third border," U.S. policy toward the region has been limited to fighting drug traffickers and preventing terrorists from advancing to U.S. shores. (Note the capture of would-be bombers of New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, who hailed from Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana, happened because there was excellent cooperation with Caribbean law enforcement officials.) Yet the U.S. does little to recognize the importance of countries at our third border as both a potential for energy independence as well as a geopolitical area that brings with it a large voting block in multilateral organizations like the UN and OAS.

The last seven years have failed to generate a coherent policy to manage our relationships with the Caribbean, having handed the Haiti mess off to the UN and Brazil. Only in March, 2007 did President George W. Bush pay some attention to Latin America on a whistle-stop tour that yielded a memorandum of understanding on biofuels with Brazil, but little hard cash to help give the leaders of the region a reason to change their minds about the loss of an ally and friend.

The Caribbean is a region where broad policy issues on energy security, climate change and international trade and development converge. The small island states could help reduce U.S. dependency on foreign oil through the development of biofuels for export and their own use. The transformation of the Caribbean to an energy powerhouse could also create new jobs, reduce the exodus of poor islanders to the U.S., and generate a whole new group of trading partners who would seek these energy crops for their own needs.

But our third border also carries great risks. In addition to the narco-trafficking and other illicit trade that pours through the region, the Caribbean sits in the path of most Atlantic hurricanes. And if climate change predictions are accurate, the 60 percent of the Caribbean population who live on the coast will be at even greater risk to the growing severity of weather patterns. The resulting humanitarian crisis that could be generated from environmental refugees is coming, and no one in our emergency planning sector, save U.S. Southern Command, is really prepared to deal with this matter. The state of Florida, the southern most tip of the continental U.S, is also at risk as the closest safe haven for people of the Caribbean fleeing environmental devastation.

U.S. effectiveness as a good neighbor in the Caribbean could help erase the sense of betrayal that many of the Caribbean states felt after the U.S. intervened in Haiti for a second time in 2004. Our actions not only created ill will among Caribbean Community states, but it also reduced our effectiveness in the corridors of multilateral institutions like the OAS and the UN, where the U.S. had counted on the Caribbean to help support U.S. interests through their votes.

If the United States is to once again rely on the support of these small island states, it will have to demonstrate that it takes its commitment to the third border seriously by crafting a policy that addresses regional concerns: stimulating trade and development, reducing poverty, stabilizing Haiti and mitigating climate change through expanding renewable energy resources. Only by putting greater emphasis on a collaborative approach to the complex policy issues of security and development in the Caribbean will the U.S. once again be able to regain its legitimacy as a trusted actor and ally.

Johanna Mendelson Forman is a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) is a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions; accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in these publications should be understood to be solely those of the authors.

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