Johanna Mendelson Forman is a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and was previously Senior Program Officer for Peace, Security and Human Rights at the UN Foundation. She post below is a version written specifically for The Washington Note and is a shorter version of this article that just ran in The Washington Post’s “Think Tank Town” column. (This article was written ‘before’ the June 19-21 conference and is written with that tense.)
This week [June 19-21] leaders of 14 Caribbean countries will meet in Washington, D.C. to discuss the future of the region and its relationship with the U.S.
For U.S. leaders the Caribbean 20/20 Vision conference is low priority on the foreign policy agenda for officials too busy with the Middle East and a war in Iraq. (We understand that the meeting of Caribbean Heads of State with President George Bush will be little more than a photo op, and the one with Secretary Condoleezza Rice keeps getting switched due to other more pressing concerns!)
And the media silence on this event only underscores the lack of understanding that exists about a 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 UN, the OAS, and make it possible for the U.S. to advance its agenda in multilateral organizations.
The last seven years have failed to generate a coherent policy to manage our relationships with the Caribbean. U.S. policy toward the region has been limited to fighting drug traffickers and preventing terrorists from advancing to U.S. shores. (Note that the capture of alleged JFK bombers who hailed from Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana happened because there was excellent law enforcement cooperation with the Caribbean states.)
We handed the Haiti mess off to the UN in 2004, with Brazil leading the peace keeping operation there. Only in March 2007 did President George Bush look south when he traveled to Latin America on a whistle-stop tour that yielded little more than a memorandum of understanding on biofuels with Brazil on renewable energy, and agreements about technical cooperation in support of three Caribbean and one Central American nation gaining greater energy independence.
U.S. effectiveness as a good neighbor in the Caribbean could help overcome a 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 the CARICOM 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 U.S. 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 by seriously crafting a policy that addresses the regional concerns: stimulating trade and development, reducing poverty, stabilizing Haiti, supporting the U.S.-based Diaspora, and mitigating climate change through expanding renewable energy resources.
Only by putting greater emphasis on a collaborative approach to the multiple and complex policy issues in the Caribbean will the U.S. once again be able to regain its legitimacy as a trusted actor and ally.
— Johanna Mendelson Forman