During this month, I was invited to deliver a lecture at the Royal College of Defence Studies in London to 85 high-ranking military officers from Europe, North America, Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Middle-East on the subject of US relations with its Central American and Caribbean neighbours.
Royal College of Defence Studies in London
In preparing the lecture, a comment on the Caribbean’s weakness and lack of capacity to command international attention preyed on my mind.
The comment was made by my friend and colleague, David Jessop, of the Caribbean Council for Europe. In his weekly column, he said this: “Taken at face value the region has a very weak hand. The Caribbean does not have conflicts that threaten to escalate into global confrontations; thankfully it has neither nuclear weapons nor terrorism, nor does it have a significant military presence or the economic ability to change global financial or trade flows. In short it has little that would make bigger, wealthier and more influential states take notice”.
There is much merit in Jessop’s observation, and I used it as a point of departure for the lecture to these seasoned military officers.
During the Cold war – particularly with Soviet troops and military hardware in Cuba - the Caribbean was strategically important to the US because much of its oil requirements had to transit Caribbean waters, and the Caribbean was an important passageway for US military supplies to Western Europe.
But with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the retreat of communism, the Caribbean and Central America slipped down the pole of American priorities.
The preoccupation of the government of George W Bush between 2001 and 2008 with American involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq caused Central America and the Caribbean to fall even further away from American attention except for issues related to drug trafficking, and illegal migration.
George Bush boasting that it was "Mission Accomplished" in Iraq
Since the mid-1990s, US aid to the Caribbean and Central America dwindled, preferential access for Caribbean and Central American goods to the US market eroded, and there was no longer any pressure by the US on Europe to help the region by paying preferential prices for its commodities especially bananas and sugar.
In this context, Caribbean and Central American economies declined, and their already bad situation worsened in the present global recession.
The IMF World Economic Outlook, published in April 2009, suggests that Latin American economies will contract by 1.5 percent in 2009 before recovering in 2010. But, the likelihood of a start of recovery by many Caribbean economies, which are dependent on tourism and financial services, is very unlikely until 2011, even if the economies of the US and Europe pull out of recession this year.
It is in this milieu that the Caribbean and Central America face the greatest destabilising force – drug trafficking and its attendant crime including illegal arms smuggling and distribution, robberies and executions.
The US government could make an enormous contribution to resolving this huge problem by passing legislation and implementing machinery to control arms smuggling; by reviewing the practice of deporting convicted felons to their countries of origin; and by adopting measures to stop legal sale of assault weapons.
Mexican Miliitary arrest Drug Leader
Beyond this, the United States should take the lead in organising collaborative arrangements with Europe and Latin America and the Caribbean to establish a comprehensive anti-narcotics programme that addresses both supply and demand. If this is not done, the problem of drug-trafficking and its attendant high crime will continue to plague Central America and the Caribbean with a terrible destabilising effect on the small economies that are least able to cope.
The most worrying problem for the US in Central America and the Caribbean should be their economic situation, for conditions of economic decline lead to social and political unease, and instability.
It is simply a fact that, with few exceptions, Central American and Caribbean governments have either limited or no capacity to finance policies to address shocks to their economies such as the effect of the current global recession. In the Caribbean particularly, small or poor populations do not produce sufficient savings; there is not enough access to credit, and budgets are already in deficit or pretty close to it. In these circumstances, governments have no room to pay for the size of stimulus programmes that are required to improve these economies.
The US could be enormously helpful to these countries if it led the way in encouraging the international and hemispheric financial institutions to provide them with funds on far less onerous conditions than they have in the past.
As an example, the US should use its influence with other countries who govern the World Bank to reverse the graduation of many of these countries from access to concessionary financing. At the moment, they do not have access to such funds because they are regarded as middle-income countries with no regard for the high costs which their smallness and remoteness imposes upon them.
Of critical importance is help with the debt of these countries. Much of their debt, apart from those who owe Venezuela for oil as part of PetroCaribe, is commercial debt, though their official debt is also high. Some effort should be made to help these countries to reschedule debt to all sources on a payment scheme that should include some forgiveness and a realistic repayment scheme.
In this regard, the IMF could play an important role in providing financing that (a) is not necessarily linked to the countries’ Special Drawing Rights; and (b) is not subject to the usual prescription of raising taxes, reducing public sector spending; freezing wages, and repaying foreign debt.
If governments in the industrialised world could bail out some companies and financial institutions on the basis that their economies could not allow these firms to collapse, surely this is also a basis for arguing that the collapse of states should be avoided.
But, I suspect the region will continue to be ignored, and, sadly, it will take chaos or grave upheaval before it is paid attention.