Within the Americas it has been a difficult time for Caribbean nations looking for growth. To the north, the election of US President Donald Trump has not only changed the dynamic in Washington, but also fractured the strength of the North American relationship between Canada, the US and Mexico. This means that Ottawa and Mexico City now need to spend more time and resources managing the Washington relationship than they did prior. The election of Trump, alongside Brexit, China’s growing assertiveness, and political upheaval in Europe, has seen many people of the Caribbean focused on problems in the north. Yet, relations south of our region also remain vital, and recent years have seen some huge events really impact the economies and geopolitics of South America. This has made building links and growing relationships harder between the Caribbean and Latin America. So, what do these events mean for the state of Caribbean-Latin American relations in 2018?
HISTORY HAS A LONG MEMORY
As the years go by, the Cold War looks increasingly distant on the calendar. The Berlin Wall fell, the USSR is no more, but the history and geopolitics of that era remain a defining factor in relations across the Americas, as they do in the Caribbean.
The US holds a controversial legacy within the Caribbean, and it is just the same within Latin America. Navigating this hurdle has proved difficult for all parties as, while Washington has seen various leaders come and go – just as South American governments have – the history, enduring political ethos, and regional rivalries all complicate the situation.
In particular, a longstanding shatterpoint in Latin American relations has been the relationship between Colombia and Venezuela and, by extension, the United States with which Bogota continues to retain close links, and Caracas continues to decry. The fact that many Latin American nations are still building and growing their countries and economies complicates this further.
Just like the Caribbean, across Latin America there is an emphasis on independence and resentment of undue foreign influence. This, coupled with Washington’s legacy in the region, has seen a pronounced divide open up between Latin American nations, like Colombia, that would seek to build closer ties with Washington, and nations like Venezuela that would aspire to building regional links in Latin America, to the exclusion of Washington.
TRADE AND ECONOMICS
A central issue within this rivalry between Colombia and Venezuela is its volatility. The capacity for big shifts has, at times, been a positive thing: the June 2017 disarmament of the Colombian paramilitary group FARC brought with it the potential for a reset of relations. Yet, ironically for Venezuela, the constant back and forth between Bogota and Caracas has offered an ongoing justification (for better or worse) of Washington’s involvement in Latin America.
The ‘Washington issue’ is not only difficult history but holds real implications for the future of economies across the Americas. Sure, the Organization of American States, founded in 1948, has US membership (and its permanent secretariat in Washington) but other initiatives, like Mercosur, the Union of South American Nations, and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, operate to the exclusion of Washington.
Beyond fiery speeches at the UN and curt communiques between embassies, this divide makes more difficult the growth of stronger regional ties and trade. Historically the world’s biggest economies were north-west, and concentrated around the Atlantic, but the years and decades ahead will see the world’s economic power shift south-east, and to the Pacific Ocean.
States of Latin America are aware of the opportunities here, and initiatives like the Forum for East Asia and Latin American Cooperation offer a vehicle to seize upon its advantages. Given that many nations in Asia also remain developing, and are hungry for natural resources, building closer ties on the Latin American continent is also in the interests of the Asian region.
CRAFTING A CARIBBEAN STRATEGY
So, with these dynamics now addressed, where does the Caribbean come in?
Like Latin America, the Caribbean has its own difficult history managing the Washington relationship. But the regional dynamics are different. While nations like Grenada and Cuba have had a torrid relationship with the United States, others, like Saint Lucia and American territories like the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, have, despite a few hiccups, largely held good relations with the US. This, in part, can be explained by the different experiences of obtaining independence.
For many Latin American nations, winning independence from colonial rule was a difficult and embittered process. Though the Caribbean also holds similar stories, many nations obtained independence via a far more cordial parliamentary process. Where both regions share a common mission is growing engagement and trade across the Americas.
It must be remembered that it was not until the 1st Caribbean Summit and the Bridgetown Declaration of Principles in 1997 that the modern relationship between Washington and the region began. While 20 years is a long time on a calendar, is it a mere blink in the history of the world where states trace their foreign relations back hundreds, and even thousands of years. Just as Latin America is renegotiating a new relationship with the US in the 21st century, so too is the Caribbean considering what relations in the north mean for our region, and our relations in the south.
Presently there are two major factors that will influence the state of relations between the Caribbean and Latin America, especially as trade and partnerships are often pursued through regional frameworks and bodies.
Firstly, the crisis in Venezuela. While those opposed to Venezuela’s view on the global stage may welcome its diminishment as a regional voice, the instability of the nation can be bad news for business across both Latin America and the Caribbean, as Caracas is a key exporter of oil, and a strong trading partner for many surrounding nations.
Resolving the instability here in the north of South America will be important, just as the upheaval of Brazilian and Argentinian presidential politics in the past two years diminished the power of Rio and Buenos Aires as economic powers.
Secondly, to what extent the Trump administration wishes to engage in Latin America will be an important factor that shapes the region’s economic future.
It’s not news that Donald Trump is unique in the history of the US presidency and, at times, he has advocated for a deliberately vague and ambiguous foreign policy.