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Obama comes calling

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The Caribbean, the English-speaking nations in particular, has long been a close ally of the United States, identifies with that country’s aspirations and has been generally supportive of its ‘Big Brother’ to the north, even to the extent of supporting a military invasion of one of its own islands.{{more}}

That closeness and warmth have not always been reciprocated, though. In fact it seems as though the Caribbean is generally taken for granted, save and except when the USA considers that its interests are threatened or the Caribbean is getting “out of line.” Thus it was that the heady revolutionary times of the late seventies and early nineties brought about the Caribbean Basin Initiative and renewed interests in the economic fortunes of Caribbean nations.

In recent times, although US-Caribbean relations have continued to be quite cordial, there has not been the level of US development assistance to the region as one would expect in such a long-standing relationship. Security and drug-interdiction matters, along with the battle against HIV/AIDS have been the main spheres of assistance. Even when the Caribbean is floundering in the aftermath of the global economic crisis, not much has come from Washington in the form of significant economic aid.

Indeed, with US attention turned to other areas – the Middle East, Africa and Eastern Europe, the Caribbean seems to have been placed on the ‘back burner’. Even the hosting of a Summit of Americas meeting by Trinidad and Tobago, including a visit by the first black President of the USA, did not raise the Caricom profile any higher in the north.

Now, with a second visit by President Obama, this time to Jamaica where he will meet Caricom leaders, there is still a relatively low-keyed approach by the American and international media. Matters domestic and global are still given media priority.

President Obama was due to meet Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller on Wednesday. He was bound to hear concerns about Jamaica’s battle to overcome its burdensome debt situation and crippling IMF programme. One of Obama’s advisors, Ricardo Zuniga, had encouraging words on the eve of the meeting, saying that the US is lending “strong support for Jamaica’s work to deal with the debt crisis.”

Jamaica certainly needs such support, since, in the words of the US Centre for Economic and Policy Research, the IMF programme in Jamaica is the “most austere in the world”, and Jamaica now has a per capita Gross Domestic Product which is actually lower than when Obama was first elected.

Following the meeting with Simpson-Miller, it will be the turn of Caricom leaders to meet with the US President. Security and energy will be high on the agenda. In particular, and in keeping with US policy initiatives, President Obama is reported to be willing to offer Caricom nations inducements in the energy field to try and weaken ties that those countries have with Venezuela under the Petrocaribe arrangements.

One commentator, former Clinton advisor Ted Piccione, was quite blunt about it, saying that the “goal of the US now is to try and break up Petrocaribe and offer in particular some extra special attention to Caribbean states that are so vulnerable and so dependent on energy imports.”

With Venezuela under economic pressure, despite huge oil reserves, and much speculation about possible cutbacks in generous Petrocaribe subsidies, the US is moving to try and wean Caribbean states away from deepening relations with Venezuela.

In fact, the US-Venezuela rift can cloud the last leg of President Obama’s tour, a two-day Summit of Americas in Panama at the end of the week. Relations between these two countries have rapidly deteriorated over US support for the Venezuela Opposition and sanctions imposed on that country.

It is to be hoped that this row does not blur the Summit waters, for this, the seventh such Summit, will be the first one attended by Cuba. At the Sixth Summit in Port of Spain, hemispheric leaders had insisted that Cuba be included, even in the face of strong US objections. However, since then much has changed, including President Obama’s announcement last December of a thaw in Cuba-US relations and there is much speculation about a possible meeting between President Obama and his Cuban counterpart, Raul Castro.

The hemisphere needs peace, cooperation and neighbourly co-existence. President Obama’s visits can do a lot in this regard.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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