CARICOM/US Relations: Overlooking Our Connections

As is now customary, June was declared Caribbean American Heritage Month in the USA to celebrate the contribution of Caribbean migrants to American society.

The month is being commemorated, this year, within the COVID-19 pandemic and amid widespread protests against police excesses and racism in the USA. Also shadowed by COVID-19, people in the Caribbean have joined others around the world in signaling support for the peaceful US protests, while also acknowledging the Caribbean’s own struggles with police excesses, and race and class prejudice within the region.

It should be recalled that the region’s close relationship with the United States date back to the early 17th Century. Reference is made to the Jamaica Gleaner article of June 12, 2019 titled “US/CARICOM Relations: a Chequered Trade History.” Nationals of Jamaica and other then British West Indian (BWI) territories began to immigrate to the USA in larger numbers after the American Civil War (1861-1865) which resulted in the emancipation of 4 million enslaved people of African descent, thirty years after the abolition of slavery in the BWI.

The US also began a policy of recruiting agricultural workers from the BWI. This immigration policy continued in spite of the US’ “apartheid or Jim Crow” system which officially ended almost 100 years later. Throughout the years, many persons of Caribbean heritage were active participants in the US civil rights movement and still continue to be.

Interestingly, there are some voices the question Caribbean interest in US affairs. But, we should not feel constrained to research and comment on events in the USA.

Various US Administrations have designated the Caribbean as its Third Border and, as should be known, the US economy is intertwined with the Caribbean.

What happens in the US invariably impacts CARICOM countries because it is still a development partner. There is cooperation through the US/Caribbean Strategic Engagement Act and other instruments; and the US is the Caribbean’s principal trading partner.

In 2018, CARICOM countries imported goods valuing US$9.4 billion and exported US$3.5 billion resulting in a US trade surplus US$5.9 billion.

Of course, the US is a main source of tourist arrivals into the region. In 2018, over 6 million visitors came to the Caribbean from the US, with tourism earnings exceeding US$10 billion.

The US is also home to well over three million persons from CARICOM countries, making it a major source of financial remittances to the Caribbean, and for diaspora engagement; the travel destination in 2018 for 1.79 million nationals from all Caribbean countries for tourism, business, health and education services; a source of financial services and investments, and a center of multilateral institutions.

These are reasons enough for CARICOM nationals to be interested in and have opinions on various events unfolding in the USA which impact the Caribbean’s interests.

 The Caribbean region is most dependent on tourism. In some Caribbean countries, tourism accounts for about 50 percent of  Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  Most of the visitors, as previously indicated, arrive from the USA by air or sea. When COVID-19 halted tourism it blatantly highlighted the Caribbean’s dependence on that sector as unemployment increased and foreign exchange inflows declined. Now Caribbean governments are under pressure to open their borders to visitors to revive their economies.

As borders open, however, it’s important for the region to be aware of the situation in the USA where there are over 2 million cases of COVID-19, and with most cities lifting lock-down restrictions along with widespread and sustained racial protests, there could be an early spike in cases. It is therefore essential that the US take responsibility to successfully contain this virus.

Like elsewhere, the US economy has been seriously affected by the pandemic. Over 42 million people are currently claiming unemployment benefits. And while latest employment figures have shown improvement, the data need to improve at consistent levels in the immediate future. Also, consumer spending declined by 13.6 per cent, which means consumer confidence has to improve significantly to make a Caribbean vacation a priority.

Recovery of the Caribbean travel industry is critical, but with continued economic uncertainty in the US, it would not be surprising if the flow of visitors to the Caribbean is below expectations for the rest of 2020.  

Regarding the Caribbean’s trade with the USA, the advantageous Caribbean Basin Trade Partnership Act (CBPTA) will expire in September. The re-submitted Extension Bill has been in the US Congress, House and Senate, since February 2019.  There’s hope it will be adopted, but it should be considered that the Congress is preoccupied with COVID-19 problems, its economic repercussions, and protests against racial injustices. Moreover, it cannot be forgotten this is also an election year.

It’s for all the above reasons, and more, why the governments and people in the Caribbean need to take account of their  connections with the USA which consistently impact Caribbean economies and personal lives.

  • By Elizabeth Morgan, a writer for CMC, and specialist in international trade policy and international politics.


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