When Hurricane Ivan roared through the Caribbean last week, few could have predicted that the worst was yet to come. Ivan slammed into Grenada as a Category 3 hurricane, leveling 90 percent of the buildings and killing at least 37 people, then buzzed past Jamaica, causing 15 more deaths and leaving virtually the entire island without electricity. Yet before these islands' residents could even begin to count their losses, the rains from Tropical Storm Jeanne swept more than 600 people to their deaths in Haiti.
In response to these humanitarian catastrophes, the Bush administration should seize the opportunity to assist America's struggling neighbors and help bridge the growing geopolitical divide between the United States and the English-speaking Caribbean that has emerged as a major long-term headache for U.S. priorities in the region.
Haiti has been a bone of contention between the Caribbean countries and the United States since the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in February. President Bush had asked the leaders of the Bahamas, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago to help broker a truce between Aristide and his political opponents. When violence erupted, Caribbean leaders were scandalized by Washington's decision to wait until Aristide had to flee the country before agreeing to send peacekeeping troops. Incensed, the Caribbean nations refused to recognize the interim government. The U.S. decision to brush off Caribbean concerns is looking increasingly unwise. Today fewer than half of the authorized 6,700 U.N. troops and only a third of about 1,600 civilian police officers have arrived in Haiti, and the security situation remains precarious.
Now that tragedy has once again struck that country, the Bush administration should provide financing for Caribbean specialists to help respond to flood-ravaged communities, and to pave the way for renewed U.S.-Caribbean cooperation on Haiti. Not only would this be helpful to Haiti, but it might lay the diplomatic foundation for progress on other contentious issues. Although these small, mainly English-speaking countries have a population of only 6 million, together with Haiti they represent a 14-country voting bloc in the 35-member Organization of American States. An effective U.S. response to the region's natural disasters could help forge more productive relations and help counter the regional influence of countries such as Venezuela and Cuba.
Grenada is in desperate need of increased assistance. Yet the Bush administration initially offered only $50,000 in emergency aid to a country we invaded in 1983 to prevent a communist takeover. Although the amount of U.S. aid has rapidly escalated, it is still below the $1 million offered by Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. Similar shortsightedness was evidenced in our first offerings to Jamaica. Venezuela has now prepared naval vessels with food, water, tents and construction materials for both Grenada and Jamaica. Cuba's Fidel Castro is likely to send additional medical and technical support to the battered islands. In the absence of a sustained emergency relief effort by the United States, the Bush administration risks allowing these two countries to increase their growing influence in the Caribbean.
The Chavez government is already wooing these islands with 80,000 barrels per day in premium oil shipments -- in addition to the 53,000 barrels directed toward Cuba. Next comes newly launched PetroCaribe, a joint oil venture designed to develop an integrated energy policy between Venezuela and a dozen Caribbean states, including Cuba, Grenada and Jamaica. Meanwhile, Castro has shrewdly used a broad program of medical diplomacy to curry favor throughout the Caribbean and Central America. Cuban doctors have become a staple of medical care in the region.
The United States is already a step behind in confronting the political fallout from this hurricane season, but it's not too late. By increasing the financial and technical resources to aid reconstruction in Grenada and Jamaica and jump-starting U.S.-Caribbean cooperation in Haiti, the Bush administration can show its concern for the poor island nations that constitute our "third border." While intensified hurricane relief should be provided for humanitarian reasons, the United States could also receive an important political bonus. It should act now to prevent the Caribbean from drifting further into the arms of Cuba and Venezuela -- and to ensure that the slow response to these devastating storms does not become the latest symptom of U.S. disengagement.
The writer is director of Caribbean programs at the Inter-American Dialogue.