The fifth summit of the Americas in Trinidad next April has not yet received much attention. With the close contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the nomination of the first African-American presidential candidate, the surprising appointment of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as Republican vice-presidential candidate, and the current Wall Street financial crisis, we have had our hands full.

Yet, if properly handled, the summit, to be held for the first time in the Caribbean, presents the region with a great opportunity to share its challenges with 34 heads of state and government.

Throughout the Hemisphere, but mostly in South America, many countries have benefited from the commodity boom and the oil bonanza of the last four years.

Yet, as World Bank economist Augusto de la Torre remarked at the annual meeting of the Corporacion Andina de Fomento, held in Washington, DC, earlier this month, what about the Jamaicas of this world?

That is, those countries that have not profited from the commodity boom and are also affected by an economic slowdown? And what could they expect from an Obama administration?

Scheduled to be held three months after the inauguration of the new United States president, the summit is ideally timed ("timing isn't everything, it's the only thing") to launch his programme for the Caribbean and Latin America.

A President Obama, who has been described by Trinidadian Prime Minister Patrick Manning as "a breath of fresh air", would certainly receive quite a welcome in Port-of-Spain.

Partnership

Some inkling of what such a programme would look like was given at Obama's speech last May in Miami, titled 'A New Partnership for the Americas'.

Key points include the reinstatement of the Special Envoy for the Americas, the strengthening of the State Department (incredible as this may sound, the Pentagon has more lawyers that the State Department has Foreign Service Officers) and the expansion of the Peace Corps. What would such a programme entail for the Caribbean?

Obama, apart from spending a long weekend on the US Virgin Islands this past summer, has not visited the region and has not been too specific about it. Yet, as Dan Restrepo, Obama's go-to man for Latin American issues, told me in response to a question at that meeting in DC, Obama is fully conscious of the Caribbean's condition as the US 'third border'.

In that sense, "the need to have a robust economy at home" would be the soundest base for any US policy towards the Caribbean, as that would ensure a steady flow of tourists and of remittances, two key sources of foreign exchange for the region. With the present US economic crisis, those words acquire a special significance.

'Obamanomics'

Interestingly, on economic issues, Obama is by no means the flaming liberal he is often portrayed to be.

'Obamanomics', inspired by some of his colleagues at the University of Chicago where he has taught constitutional law, aims for a middle ground between government intervention in the economy, a la New Deal, and the laissez-faire, laissez-passer approach followed over the last eight years that has led us to the current mess. The basic notion here is to use enough regulation to avoid abuse by business of the consumer, but not that much that it stifles entrepreneurship and initiative.

Restrepo also mentioned the sensitive subject of Caribbean tax havens and the need to rein them in through a more transparent relationship with the US Treasury.

Obama has backed the Stop Tax Havens Abuse Act, legislation aimed at offshore financial centres. This stance is also linked to Obama's broader concern about the need to curtail outsourcing of jobs from the US.

This reflects an old pattern, well known in the Caribbean. Because of their special needs and circumstances, the West Indies, and also the larger islands, have had to find special niches (and special treatment) within the global economic system that will allow them to prosper and survive - be it Section 936 of the US Tax Code in Puerto Rico or the banana policy followed by the European Union towards the ACP.

With globalisation and liberalisation, however, these exceptions have come under fire and end up being scrapped, with the Caribbean being left holding the bag. Something similar may happen now with the OFCs.

Welcomed policy

On the other hand, the Obama campaign statement about debt relief for the most impoverished nations, including those of the Caribbean, would be a most welcome measure, especially for debt-stricken Jamaica.

Perhaps the most significant departure from current policy, however, would come in US policy towards Cuba. In that same Miami speech, delivered to the Cuban American National Foundation (a rite of passage for all presidential candidates), Senator Obama promised to change the failed policies that have been followed for 50 years.

For Cuban Americans, this would mean unrestricted rights to visit family in the island (these are now limited) and to send remittances. For Cuba itself, it would entail a diplomatic re-engagement and dialogue, one designed to look for ways to move forward in the economic and political opening in the island, using a gradual relaxation of the embargo as leverage.

Enormous hopes and aspirations have been placed on Obama's candidacy and his eventual presidency. He seems to be blessed not just by considerable talent, but also by destiny. Just as his candidacy was flagging (partly because of not appointing Hillary Clinton as his running mate), the Wall Street financial crisis has given him a new impetus.

He is up in the polls once again, and much will depend on the upcoming presidential debates.

Going forward, however, he must recover the élan and spirit of the first half of this year, when he captured the imagination of the American people and, indeed, the world.

Program
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