The Washington Diplomat / June 2007
By Larry Luxner
When it comes to regional blocs, the Caribbean Community isn't exactly a heavy hitter.
Twelve of Caricom's 15 member nations have populations of under a million, and five of them — Grenada, Dominica, Antigua & Barbuda, St. Kitts & Nevis and Montserrat — are home to fewer than 100,000 people each. Together, the five microstates could fit neatly into Montgomery County, Md., with plenty of room to spare.
In terms of economic influence, Caricom's total GDP of $64 billion pales in comparison to that of NAFTA ($15 trillion); the European Union ($12 trillion), the African Union ($2 trillion) or even the Central American Common Market ($159 billion).
For many decision-makers in the Washington establishment, these tropical islands don't even show up on the radar screen — and frankly, their ambassadors are getting tired of being pushed around or simply ignored.
Hence the upcoming Conference on the Caribbean, a three-day extravaganza in Washington set for June 19-21, featuring a series of events in five locations including an unprecedented meeting between President Bush and all Caricom heads of state.
The event is expected to draw over 1,000 people to its separate fora on private-sector initiatves and the Caribbean diaspora. Its chief organizer is Ambassador Ellsworth John, whose 150-square-mile country — St. Vincent and the Grenadines — currently occupies the rotating six-month presidency of Caricom.
"It is noteworthy that the U.S. has agreed to this conference on the Caribbean," John told the Washington Diplomat in an interview last month. "Not only will the president be available to meet with us, but also the secretary of state, education and homeland security — and the U.S. trade representative — so that we can establish lines of communication, and start focusing on how the Caribbean and the United States can collaborate towards a common vision for the region."
"We are all working together to ensure that this conference is successful," he said, explaining that the event "came out of a dialogue we had in the Bahamas last year with Secretary of State [Condoleezza] Rice."
John, 50, has been in Washington for 14 years — the last six as St. Vincent's ambassador to both the United States and the Organization of American States. He also serves concurrently as ambassador to Venezuela, Costa Rica, Mexico, Peru and Nicaragua.
The diplomat did undergraduate work at New York's Baruch College, has a master's degree in information systems and is now completing another master's in public policy through the University of London.
"Despite our small size and population, the Caribbean is establishing itself as an economic union through the Single Market and Economy, in order to make ourselves competitive in this global environment," he said. "Our message to any American company looking for a home is, the Caribbean is the place for you."
Formed in 1973 by the four English-speaking nations of Barbados, Jamaica, Guyana and Trinidad & Tobago, Caricom has become somewhat multilingual with the recent entry of Dutch-speaking Suriname — located in northern South America — as well as Haiti, whose French- and Creole-speaking inhabitants occupy the western third of the island of Hispaniola.
In fact, Haiti's 8.7 million inhabitants account for well over half of Caricom's total population of 14.6 million, far eclipsing that of more prosperous Jamaica (population 2.8 million) and Trinidad & Tobago (1.1 million).
Besides Suriname, Caricom's non-island members include Belize, the only English-speaking nation in Central America, and Guyana, the only English-speaking nation in South America — and home to Caricom's headquarters.
Caricom also has five associate members, all of them very wealthy British colonies: Anguilla, Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands and the Turks & Caicos Islands. Yet its membership roster does not include Spanish-speaking Cuba (population 11.8 million), Puerto Rico (4.0 million) or the Dominican Republic (9.3 million).
During our interview, John took pains to emphasize the region's historic ties with Washington, yet he couldn't hide the numerous disputes that have lately stained that relationship.
"The United States is the country where most of our citizens migrate to. Therefore, we have a bond with this country that is unbreakable," said John, estimating there are at least five million Jamaicans, Haitians, Trinidadians and other Caribbean nationals living on the U.S. mainland. "Regardless of what governments we have in the various islands or who controls Congress, we are natural friends with the United States."
Nevertheless, he added, "we have had differences on several issues including Iraq, Haiti and other things which have negatively affected our relationship."
Not a single Caricom member state sent troops to Iraq, John pointed out.
"None of them felt there was enough justification to go to war in Iraq, and we were not among the 'coalition of the willing.' The climate in Washington was that if you're not with us, then you're against us. So the tendency was to strengthen relationships with countries that supported the war in Iraq. Subsequent events have supported our position."
Haiti has proven to be even more contentious, with several Caribbean heads of state still fuming over the Bush administration's role in ousting former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide from office in late 2004.
"On the issue of Haiti, we had proposed a series of events to take place that would lead to completion of Aristide's term in office, in which power would be shared," said John. "We were willing to work with the United States and Haiti's friends to see if we could tone down the temperature in Haiti. But the way Aristide was removed from office — although it's stated that he resigned — made us nervous, because he was an elected leader, and no one in the Caribbean wanted to see an elected leader removed from office."
"We think elections are one of the major pillars of democracy, and any removal of a duly elected leader is a threat to the democratic forces in this hemisphere. It was difficult for the Caribbean to accept a government that was imposed and not elected. So we differed from the United States on that issue and suspended Haiti."
Caricom later restored Haiti to full membership upon the inauguration of René Préval as president, but the issue has smoldered ever since.
"Haiti is still very much an issue, and we hope it will not go away," John told the Diplomat. "Caricom would like to work hand-in-hand with donor countries to ensure that long-term institutional capacity is built in Haiti, so that Haiti can move on. That's why it's still on the front-burner for us."
Another contentious issue is that of the International Criminal Court.
"The United States wanted exemption for their soldiers from prosecution. Most of the Caribbean countries had refused to agree to that, and what the U.S. did was to pull military support from those countries. St. Vincent was one of those countries that held out to the end."
Even more galling for John and his fellow Caricom ambassadors is a proposal in Congress co-sponsored by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Michigan) and presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama (D-Illinois). The so-called "Stop Tax Haven Abuse Act" seeks to "restrict the use of offshore tax havens and abusive tax shelters to inappropriately avoid federal taxation."
In introducing the bill — which specifically blacklists 34 offshore jurisdictions including the Bahamas, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands and the British Virgin Islands — Obama said "this is a basic issue of fairness. We need to crack down on individuals and businesses that abuse tax laws so those who work hard and play by the rules aren't disadvantaged."
Nonsense, says John — especially after action was taken following an earlier blacklisting by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
"It's a false perception," he said. "All the countries that were on the OECD blacklist have put measures in place to protect U.S. interests to a large extent, and to prevent money laundering and the perception of the region as a tax haven. That's why all of our islands were removed from the list."
He added; "We're trying to build up our financial services sector, but at every opportunity, both the Bush administration and Congress have been talking about Caricom countries as tax havens, and that's not true."
It also upsets John that the United States has been deporting thousands of criminals back to the Caribbean without consulting the countries in question. This, he said, has led to a wave of violent crime, particularly in countries like Jamaica and Guyana.
"The U.S. has a deportee policy which we feel has a major impact on our crime situation. We've had people living in the U.S. since they were children, who are now in their 40s and being deported back home. They have no links to the Caribbean whatsoever. The U.S. would say there are no statistics to support a relationship between those deportees and the crime situation in our countries, but it has to be more than a coincidence."
He added: "Before, we had mainly crimes of passion. Now we have drive-by shootings, with guns being used as the weapons of choice."
The country which John represents, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, is typical of most Eastern Caribbean states. Consisting of 32 islands; its 120,000 inhabitants live on only six of those islands, the largest being St. Vincent itself.
"In St. Vincent, tourism has just recently eclipsed agriculture as the No. 1 source of foreign exchange," he explained. "But that doesn't mean we're abandoning agriculture as one of the mainstays of our economy. We are blessed in that we have fertile soil. We have a volcano, and for a long time we've been a breadbasket of the Caribbean."
One thing that sets St. Vincent apart from its neighbors is its recognition of Taiwan rather than mainland China. Only four other Caricom member states — Belize, Haiti, St. Kitts and St. Lucia — have diplomatic relations with Taiwan. In fact, St. Lucia infuriated Beijing in April after it severed its 10-year relations with the Communists and restored ties with Taiwan.
To Washington's dismay, all Caricom member states seem to enjoy warm relations with Hugo Chávez, particularly since the Venezuelan president's recent creation of the Petrocaribe initiative, which provides petroleum to Caribbean countries at subsidized prices.
"If oil goes over a certain price, we don't have to immediately pay that amount. Venezuela also said we can pay what we owe through other means like goods and services, such as bananas," he said.
"I don't think there's any government in the region that dislikes Chávez. We are too small to get in the middle of wars between countries that are bigger than us. We can end up being collateral casualties as a result."
Caricom nations also enjoy warm ties with Cuba's Fidel Castro, who has provided scholarships for thousands of young people to study medicine in Havana. Cuba has also sent thousands of doctors to the region and performed eye surgery for people in a dozen Caribbean countries who couldn't otherwise afford such surgery.
But on this subject, John declined to say too much.
"We support lifting the embargo, and in a number of areas we work closely with Cuba, mainly health and education. For many of us, the relationship is strong. That does not in any way diminish our relations with the U.S.," he told the Diplomat. "But since both Cuba and the United States are friends of ours, we must be very careful about this."
Since the demise of the Reagan-era Caribbean Basin Initiative, some Caribbean islands worry about preferential treatment in the U.S. market for their chief products. That concern increased last year with passage of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), which many see as direct competition to the much smaller economies of the Caribbean.
"We have just established a US-Caricom Trade & Economic Council, an interaction that takes place between our ministries of trade and the USTR," said John. "We are not looking for parity with CAFTA. We do not think trade agreements should be a cookie-cutter arrangement. These issues are special and unique to our region because of our size, and therefore any relationship that is establshed will have to deal with those issues."
In the long run, said the ambassador, the most important thing is that Caricom nations don't want to be forgotten as bigger issues like Iraq and the worldwide fight against terrorism take priority.
"Quite frankly, we have the biggest, wealthiest country and the poorest country, both in this hemisphere," he noted. "In the global scheme of things, the United States should be thinking about its regional groupings first — and not so much its relationship with the Middle East, Latin America or China. The focus should be on consolidating our hemisphere. The Caribbean is an integral part of this hemisphere, and we feel the dialogue must be focused on what we need to make this hemisphere competitive as a region."