By Andrea M. Ewart, Esq.
U.S. foreign and trade policy could look very different in 2017. Whether this is the case depends, of course, on who wins the Presidential elections on November 8th, 2016. At the same time, there is little reason to expect that any change will have a major impact on the current status of US-Caribbean relations.
Hillary Clinton as President will continue the general course of President Obama’s foreign and trade policy. With respect to the Caribbean, this policy has created some increased engagement with the region, notably in President Obama’s second term. President Obama’s 2015 meeting with CARICOM Heads of State in Jamaica is the highlight – not to be taken lightly given the countries/regions desirous of a visit from the U.S. President. The groundwork had already been laid by Vice President Biden’s meeting with CARICOM in Trinidad & Tobago, and the signature of the Trade & Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) in 2013. Since then, the U.S. and CARICOM meet bi-annually through the Trade & Investment Council (TIC) created by the TIFA.
Energy has received particular focus. After increasing levels of engagement in this area, President Obama initiated the Task Force for Caribbean and Central American Energy Security in 2015. Its goal is to diminish the vulnerability of small energy markets in the region to fluctuations in global energy markets.
The region can expect these key initiatives to continue under a President Clinton. Secretary of State Clinton was very focused on women and gender issues so this is one possible area of increased attention under her presidency.
The unknowns lie with a Trump presidency. Will the U.S. return to the “benign” neglect of the Caribbean, and indeed of any country or region that does not pose an immediate security or economic threat to the United States?
The policy that Trump the Candidate promotes is best described as isolationist. In his trade platform to “make America great again”, Mr. Trump promises to:
• Retrench on trade negotiations by renegotiating the 20+-year old North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between U.S. Canada, and Mexico; and withdrawing from the TPP; and
• Strengthen trade enforcement against countries that his Administration would label as “cheats” – this would include unilaterally raising tariffs and duties on the goods from some countries.
Some of these commitments, if implemented, would trigger a trade war. Economists have said this eventuality would push the U.S. and the world back into economic recession. Even if this worst case scenario did not occur, the region is unlikely to see heightened engagement under a Trump presidency.
A very good basis has been laid, nevertheless, that could allow the current status of US-Caribbean foreign and trade relations to continue under either candidate. There may not be a US-Caribbean Energy Summit under a President Trump. However, the important work takes place after and in-between such high-level events. Progress comes from the work of professional foreign policy officials and engaged civil society. The key deciding factor for the future of US-Caribbean relations continues to be the extent to which the region responds while proactively and consistently engaging the U.S. with its own agenda.
US-Cuba foreign and trade relations are considered separately by US policymakers. The topic is also of particular interest to the rest of the Caribbean.
Ms. Clinton and Mr. Trump have taken opposing positions on the US opening of Cuba. Ms. Clinton supports the current opening and lifting of the US embargo. Mr. Trump perhaps appreciates the business opportunities but has said he would be prepared to return the restrictions if Cuba does not give more religious and political freedoms to its citizens.
Andrea Ewart is a Jamaican national and US-trained customs and international trade attorney with her own firm, DevelopTradeLaw, LLC, which works with businesses, governments, and individuals to facilitate the successful movement of goods and services across national borders. Ms Ewart also consults for Caribbean businesses and governments on World Trade Organization (WTO), CARICOM Single Market and Economy (CSME), US-Caribbean trade relations, trade negotiations, and other trade issues.