The impact of Sir Allen Stanford's US$9 billion debacle on offshore banking, especially in Antigua, but also elsewhere in the Caribbean, is something that remains to be seen, but there is little doubt that it won't help that particular line of business. This only adds urgency to the task of using the Fifth Summit of the Americas, to be held in Port-of-Spain on April 17-19, to highlight the specificity of the Caribbean condition and its needs.
President Obama, who is focused on his domestic agenda, has not yet come up with a grand foreign policy vision, apart from withdrawing from Iraq and reinforcing the US military presence in Afghanistan, and is unlikely to do so before April. Neither he, nor his key foreign policy aides, have any particular connection with Latin America or the Caribbean.
In fact, no new Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs has been appointed yet. The current incumbent, Thomas Shannon, a career diplomat who has done an excellent job, is expected to stay in place at least until the Summit. A strong candidate to replace him is Arturo Valenzuela, a Georgetown professor who ran hemispheric affairs in Bill Clinton's National Security Council.
Given that nature abhors a vacuum, this puts a premium on initiatives from the region. In her confirmation hearings in the US Senate, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton mentioned an "Energy Partnership of the Americas" as a priority. The Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) is quite dead and the "the terrorist threat" gains no traction. Energy is thus one policy issue which might generate convergence. President Obama's telephone conversations with President Lula of Brazil have focused on bio-fuels. The problem is that Brazil, a key player, is not keen on hemispheric joint ventures on this - only on global ones.
As a leading oil and gas exporter, energy is a subject that suits Trinidad and Tobago. The point, however, is not to leave it at that, but to also use the first Summit of the Americas to be held in the Caribbean to underscore the region's particular concerns.
Free trade has been the key driver of the hemispheric agenda over the past two decades, and a special priority of the Americas Summits, ever since the first held in Miami in 1994. This is fine as far as it goes, but in this regard the interests of, say, Chile or Peru, are different from those of Jamaica or Guyana. The latter's, as well as the smaller islands', developmental needs are still considerable, and just opening the doors for a bit more free trade is not enough.
According to one study, the Commonwealth Caribbean's capital requirements over the next five years will be US$45 billion. The small size, vulnerability and lack of natural resources of many of the CARICOM states lead to a very different development equation from the one obtaining in South America.
The relatively high per capita income and high literacy rates have made the IFIs leery of granting the islands a special category that would deserve special consideration when it comes to development financing. Yet, as my colleague John Curtis has pointed out, the financial crisis will make itself felt with even greater strength in the Caribbean, whose economies are less diversified, and therefore more vulnerable, than those of South America.
What to do?
A first task is to impress upon President Obama how urgent the situation in the Caribbean has become. The usual figures of per capita income and educational levels don't convey that, but there is one datum that does, reflecting the degree of social anomie and downright tearing of the social fabric we are seeing. With 30 per 100,000, the English-speaking Caribbean has the highest murder rate of any region in the world - led by Jamaica with 49 per 100,000, but followed not too far behind by Trinidad & Tobago and Belize with 30 (Colombia's is 37). This is four times that of the United States and 15 times that of Western Europe. If this does not indicate a crisis, I don't know what does.
Starting from that premise, a 'wish list' for the Summit to present to President Obama would include the following:
1) Come through on your campaign promise of debt relief for the neediest developing nations.
CARICOM states and especially Jamaica certainly qualify for it.
2) Rethink the so-called 'war on drugs'. One reason for Caribbean crime is the wrong-headed approach to fight this problem, driven by demand in the United States, more than anywhere else. Unless it is treated as a public health problem, no progress will be made, as a recent report of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy eloquently argues.
3) Stop the repatriation of convicted criminals to the islands. If the United States, with its elaborate criminal justice system, has difficulty coping with them, you can imagine what it is like for small islands to receive hardened criminals, trained in the latest techniques of their trade, into their midst.
4) Dust off the old development tool kits. Much as 'trade, not aid' has become the mantra of our time, it does not necessarily apply to the Caribbean, which still has to build up its productive capacity to actually be in a position to have goods to trade in significant amounts. A partnership between the United States and Canada on this might be particularly fruitful.
5) Loosen up immigration restrictions for the region. Immigrants from the Caribbean, by definition, don't have any language problems in the United States, and many of them and their offspring have done very well, as the Colin Powells, Harrry Belafontes and Eric Holders of this world testify.
The CARICOM heads have their work cut out for them from now to April 17.