International relations in the Caribbean are going through a time of historic change and transition. Since the arrival of the European conquerors, and certainly during the course of the nations’ development, the Caribbean has been the scene of conflicts between international powers. These conflicts began during the struggles among the great imperial powers of Europe until the 19th century and continued in the 20th century with the entrance of United States imperialism and the tensions unleashed by the Cold War. With the end of the Cold War, but most of all because of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, for the first time in modern history the Caribbean is not the setting for or involved in a conflict among the major powers. In this sense, the countries in the region have been rebuilding their place in the international system, in terms of their interests, their ties among themselves and their relationships with old (the United Kingdom, the United States) and new (Brazil, Venezuela) powers.
The countries of the Caribbean are important proponents of regional integration. In fact, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) is the most advanced project of integration in the hemisphere, with a variety of regional and supranational institutions that are fully functional, such as the University of the West Indies (UWI) and the Caribbean Court of Justice. A subgroup of the CARICOM countries formed the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) and its members have made progress on coordination of a series of national polices, including a common currency and central bank. These countries are in the middle of a process of increasing their integration by creating a common market and economy (CSME). This long-running project has revived controversies about the inequalities among member countries, about the free movement of people (and the difficulty of regulating what that leads to), and issues of regional government and giving up sovereignty.
This group of countries, along with the Dominican Republic, signed the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) in 2008 with the European Union, the first such agreement for the European organization. The agreement establishes reciprocal free trade and replaces the Lomé Convention that had governed the Caribbean’s economic relationship with the European Union.
The Dominican Republic has also sought to insert itself into international relations in several ways, mainly in trade. It has simultaneously pursued agreements with both the Caribbean and Central America. In the former, it has formally requested membership in CARICOM, while simultaneously participating in trade negotiations with Europe through the CARIFORUM group. In the case of Central America, the Dominican Republic is an active member of various mechanisms for regional integration on the isthmus, including the Central American Integration System (SICA, for its Spanish acronym) and the Central American Parliament and other regional authorities. Under the leadership of President Leonel Fernández, the Dominican Republic’s profile has significantly increased in other spheres such that the country has come to be a reliable mediator in some of the most difficult international dilemmas in the Caribbean region, especially during the 2009 coup against President Manuel Zelaya in Honduras and in various disputes between President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and former President álvaro Uribe of Colombia, in the framework of the Rio Group. After the earthquake in Haiti, the Dominican Republic played a leading role as a base of operations for massive movements of personnel and aid and reconstruction operations, as well as serving as a strategic and logistical planning center for rebuilding the neighboring country.
The transition of power from Fidel to Raúl Castro in Cuba led to new developments and new international ties by Cuba, mainly for the purpose of attracting capital and investments in strategic areas such as energy and tourism. Many leaders in the hemisphere have visited Cuba in the last two years, in large measure as a signal to the Obama administration of the importance of a new United States policy toward Cuba as a condition for developing a better relationship between the United States and Latin America. The Caribbean stands out among this new group of leaders: the first leader to visit the new Cuban president was the prime minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Ralph Goncalves; the Jamaican government of Bruce Golding was the first to sign a cooperation treaty with the government of Raúl Castro. At the same time, Cuba remains an important source of medical support for the western Caribbean and Haiti, though its tourism development directly competes with this important sector in these countries.
While the government of Raúl Castro has embarked on a series of economic reforms — such as the dismissal of 500,000 state workers and giving the private sector permission to enter numerous minor occupations that formerly were the exclusive power of the state — and some political reforms — such as the liberation of political prisoners — there still has not been a significant change in the relationship between the United States and Cuba. The issue continues to be a source of tension in the region. Advances made during the Obama administration, such as greater flexibility in providing permission for Cuban-Americans to travel to the island, and other measures of cooperation, may be limited after the Republican Party’s victory in the Congressional elections of November, 2010, in which it took control of the lower house of Congress.
New actors are playing important roles in international relations in the Caribbean. The international mission of the United Nations in Haiti — MINUSTAH — is led by Brazil, and Argentina and Chile, among other countries, are important components. In addition to negotiations with Cuba on issues such as ethanol and oil exploration in the Gulf of Mexico, as well as the development of cooperation protocols with Guyana and CARICOM, Brazil is gradually showing greater interest in the Caribbean region and projecting itself as an emerging power in the international arena. With the launch of Petrocaribe and the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA, for its Spanish acronym), Venezuela has demonstrated a kind of return to the Caribbean interests after a time in which its presence in the region was both intermittent and inconsistent. All of the countries of the Caribbean except Trinidad and Tobago have signed the Petrocaribe treaty. Half of the ALBA members are Caribbean countries (Cuba, Dominica, St. Vincent and the Grenadines). ALBA has played a role in the reconstruction of Haiti, especially in terms of medical aid, led mainly by Cuba, following that country’s established diplomatic foreign policy.
Security threats are changing rapidly in the Caribbean and it is here that we see one of the most complicated aspects of the region’s international relations. Military conflicts among the states in the region are increasingly less likely. With the exception of the borders between Guyana and Venezuela, and between Belize and Guatemala, most of the territorial disagreements between Caribbean countries have been resolved peacefully. In 2009 and 2010, Barbados and Trinidad, and Trinidad and Grenada, signed agreements on their maritime borders. The disputes between Guyana and Suriname over their territorial waters and oil exploration were also resolved diplomatically.
The rapid advance of organized crime and drug trafficking, however, has increased the level of violence in countries such as Jamaica, Trinidad, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. Due to the weakness of the Caribbean states, organized crime has used its economic resources to penetrate public and private spheres, particularly in the smaller nations. In some cases, such as in Jamaica, organized crime has replaced state authority in some locations and jurisdictions.
Because this issue is of great importance to the United States, it has opened a new phase in relations between the Caribbean and its neighbor to the north, albeit one made more complicated by the variety of interests and abilities in confronting the common threat. The recently created Caribbean Basin Security Initiative proposed by the Obama administration commits a limited amount of resources to the fight against organized crime in the Caribbean, as well as providing a forum for cooperation and coordination between the United States and the region. Cases such as the extradition of Jamaican drug trafficker Dudus Coke to the United States, at an important cost in terms of violence and lives lost, in addition to having implications for the stability of the government of Prime Minister Golding, underline the dangers that organized crime present to the ability to govern and to the security of all of the countries of the Caribbean.
Author: Grupo Editorial EPRL
Published: July 23, 2012.
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