May 28, 2013

Caricom leaders to engage US VP on regional security, energy, trade

Tue May 28, 2013

Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves will be among leaders from CARICOM and the Dominican Republic who will join the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago in a meeting with Vice President of the United States of America Joe Biden this morning.{{more}}

Trinidadian Prime Minister Kamla Persad Bissessar is hosting a two-day visit by the Vice President, who arrived in Port of Spain yesterday.

Mr Biden’s visit follows that of US President Barack Obama to that twin-island republic in 2009, on the occasion of the Summit of the Americas. Then too, Mr Obama took the opportunity to hold a special meeting with Caribbean leaders. Expectations were high among Caribbean people following Obama’s election in 2008, the first Afro-American President, and the long years of the Bush administration, when it was clear that the Caribbean was very low on the list of priorities of the US administration.

Those expectations were not realized, for although there has undoubtedly been an improvement in US/Caribbean relations, the reality is that the Caribbean has not moved much higher up on that list. There are still many outstanding concerns on the Caribbean side and these are sure to be on the agenda for the meeting with Biden.

The deportation of people of Caribbean origin who may have transgressed US laws, immigration issues and trade matters are among the issues likely to be discussed.

According to reports, Caribbean leaders will put regional security, including crime and drugs, trade co-operation, human and social development and energy on the table. Biden himself, in a pre-visit interview with the Express newspaper, explained the purpose of his visit in the following words:

“I want to use this visit to discuss what we can do to strengthen our co-operation on a number of issues, including sustainable energy, economic growth and security”.

It is expected that a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement will be signed at the conclusion of the talks. This will include the establishment of a Council, jointly chaired by representatives from both sides, and the setting of an action agenda to galvanize trade and investment activities. This Council will be expected to monitor trade and investment relations, identify and work to remove barriers to trade, facilitate expanded linkages between the respective private sectors.

While CARICOM has a favourable trade surplus with the USA of US$1.2 billion, much of it comes from Trinidadian exports of petroleum and its by-products to the USA. The many non-tariff barriers to trade with the US are also among the major concerns of CARICOM members.

The short half-day meeting with Biden is unlikely to resolve many of the differences, but as a public relations exercise, it is useful in furthering US/Caribbean relations.

Unlike when Obama visited, this time expectations are much lower, perhaps because of the disappointing outcomes of the last visit. Some have even gone so far as to call it a “cosmetic” exercise. Yet, it is important to continue to patiently build relations with our powerful neighbour to the north, and to persist in raising our concerns and proposals for deepening our relations. The Biden visit can be another step in that direction.