Opinion December 16, 2016 | 2:30 pm

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Action needed to guide US regional priorities

On December 13, the US Congress sent to PresidentObama The United States-Caribbean Strategic Engagement Act of 2016 forsignature into law.

This extraordinarily importantdevelopment comes just as a new US administration is about to take office. Uniquelyit offers the Caribbean, unlike any other part of the world, a legislativelybinding timetable within which the US government must come up with a clear planas to how it intends developing a programme of support for the region.

The challenge now for Governments,regional institutions and the private sector, is to come together to make surethat key figures in Congress, senior officials – particularly in the State Departmentand USAID – and the incoming members of President-elect Trump’s team, haveguidance on what the region requires.

The legislation was sponsored jointly bythe ranking member of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee, Eliot Engel, aDemocrat, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican and a former Chair of thecommittee. It requires the StateDepartment and USAID to identify in 180 days after its signing into law, USpolicy priorities for a multi-year approach towards the Caribbean.

While some in the Caribbean had beensceptical about the legislation, because there is no funding attached, theenthusiasm with which it was passed makes the political point in Washington ata critical juncture, that the Caribbean has to matter to the next USAdministration.

To put this into perspective, it is thefirst piece of original bi-partisan pan-Caribbean legislation since theCaribbean Basin Initiative was enacted in 1983.

Speaking about the significance of whathas been agreed, Mr Engel said: “This bill will prioritise our partnership withthe sub-region for many years to come. It is long past time to have amulti-year strategy that will allow us to increase engagement with theCaribbean, especially when it comes to energy and security” …. “With constantcrises around the globe that demand US attention, we must not lose sight of ourlong-term interests close to home”.

Mrs Ros-Lehtinen said that sending thelegislation to the President emphasised Congress’ view that the US muststrengthen its relationship with the Caribbean so that the US was viewed as areliable partner and there was ‘push back’ against the negative influence ofVenezuela. She also noted that thelegislation offered the opportunity to work proactively and collaborativelywith Caribbean nations in the areas of security, trade, illicit trafficking,and energy, as well as advancing US national security interests.

While some in the Caribbean may not see hemisphericpolitical dynamics in the same way, the bill provides a unique opening at justthe moment when relationships are undergoing radical change globally, and a newteam will direct US policy.

They include the Chief Executive of ExxonMobil, Rex Tillerson, who has been proposed as US Secretary of State; Fox News’National Security Analyst, KT McFarland, who will be the Deputy NationalSecurity Adviser; and the former Head of Southern Command, the retired MarineCorps General, John Kelly, who has been nominated to be the future Head ofHomeland Security.

Mr Tillerson, despite his reported closeconnections to the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, is widely regarded as apragmatist. At Exxon, he has taken a positive interest in Guyana, Suriname andTrinidad, and is believed to have been following closely the negotiationsbetween Cuba, Mexico and the United States over the unclear boundaries of theWestern Polygon in the Gulf of Mexico said to have sizable oil and gas deposits.He is also clear that climate change is a result of human activity, and supportedthe recent Paris Agreement on Climate Change. However, he is no friend ofVenezuela whose former President, the late Hugo Chavez, expropriated Exxon’sassets.

Mrs McFarland, whose appointment does notneed Senate confirmation, has previously made clear that she takes a positiveif transactional view of détente with Cuba. Writing in December 2014 for FoxNews’ ‘Opinion’ section, she said the US ‘cannot allow its adversaries to onceagain dominate Cuba …. whichever major power helps Cuba enter the modern worldwill have enormous power there for a generation. That major power needs to beus’.

General Kelly’s appointment as head ofHomeland Security brings to the post someone with well-known and strong viewson the importance of the Caribbean. As the former head of US Southern Command,he has previously been vocal on many regional issues including narcoticstrafficking, organised crime, terrorism, migration, and the need for dialogueand stability in the Caribbean region. He has been critical of US disengagementfrom the Central American and Caribbean region, while previously welcomingCuban participation in regional counter-narcotics discussions.

What these and other nominations and thepassing into law of the Caribbean Strategic Engagement Act add up to, is an opportunity that requires seizing without delay.

Sally Yearwood, the Executive Director of CaribbeanCentral American Action in Washington, the not for profit organisation thatpromotes private sector development in the region, believes that it is now vitalthe Caribbean responds positively.

She notes that the incoming Administrationwill have a wide range of pressing global policy issues to work on during itsfirst year. “HR 4939 (the new bill) has done the extraordinary job of placingthe Caribbean squarely onto the short-term agenda. The work now for governments, civil society,and the private sector in the Caribbean, is to engage with Congress and theAdministration to ensure that shared priorities are reflected in the strategy”,she observes.

Some regional organisations like theCaribbean Hotels and Tourism Association (CHTA), Chambers of Commerce andothers private sector bodies have already made clear the importance they attachto the legislation. It is now up to Governments, political parties affiliatedto the Republican Party, regional organisations, and others to work withfriends in Washington to rapidly develop a coherent regional response.

David Jessop is a consultant to theCaribbean Council and can be contacted at

[email protected]

Previous columns can be found at www.caribbean-council.org

December 16th, 2016

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