CARICOM-US relations: Overlooking our connections
AS NOW customary, June was declared Caribbean American Heritage Month in the USA to celebrate the contribution of Caribbean migrants. The month is being commemorated, this year, within the COVID-19 pandemic and amid widespread protest against police excesses and racism in the USA. Also shadowed by COVID19, people in the Caribbean have joined others around the world in signalling support for the peaceful US protests, while also acknowledging our own struggles with police excesses and race and class prejudice within the region.
Recall that our close relationship with the American states date back to the 17th century, and I refer you to my Gleaner article of June 12, 2019 titled ‘US-CARICOM relations: a chequered trade history’. Nationals of Jamaica and other British West Indian (BWI) territories began to immigrate to the USA in larger numbers after the American Civil War (1861-1865), which resulted in the emancipation of four million enslaved people of African descent. This was 30 years after the abolition of slavery in the BWI. The US also began recruiting agricultural workers from the BWI. Migration continued in spite of the US’s ‘apartheid’ or ‘Jim Crow’ system, which officially ended almost 100 years later. Through the years, many persons of Caribbean heritage were active participants in the US civil rights movement and continue to be.
There are some voices questioning Caribbean interest in US affairs. In my view, we should not feel constrained to research and comment on events in the USA.
Various US administrations have designated the Caribbean as its Third Border and, as should be known, our economies are intertwined. What happens in the US impacts CARICOM countries because it is:
• Still a development partner. There is cooperation through the US-Caribbean Strategic Engagement Act and other instruments.
• Our principal trading partner. In 2018, CARICOM countries imported goods valuing US$9.4 billion and exported US$3.5 billion – US trade surplus $5.9 billion.
• In trade in services, a main source of tourist arrivals into the region. In 2018, over 6 million visitors came and earnings exceeded US$10 billion.
• The home of over three million persons from CARICOM countries, making it a major source of remittances and diaspora engagement.
• The travel destination in 2018 for 1.79 million nationals from all Caribbean countries for tourism, business, health and education services.
• A source of financial services and investments; and
• A centre of multilateral institutions.
These are reasons enough for us in CARICOM to be interested in and have opinions on various events unfolding in the USA which impact our interests.
REOPENING OUR ECONOMIES
The Caribbean is the region most dependent on tourism. In some countries, the sector accounts for about 50 per cent of the gross domestic product. Most of our visitors, as indicated, arrive from the USA by air or sea. COVID-19 halted tourism and highlighted our dependence as unemployment increased and foreign exchange inflows declined. Governments are thus under pressure to open their borders to visitors to revive economies.
As we open, however, we must be aware of the situation in the USA where there are already nearly two million cases of COVID-19, and with widespread and sustained protests, could see a spike in cases. The US has to successfully contain this virus. Like elsewhere, the economy has been seriously affected. Fortytwo million people are currently claiming unemployment benefits. Latest employment figures have improved, but have to further improve at consistent levels. Consumer spending declined by 13.6 per cent and confidence has to improve to prioritise a Caribbean vacation. Recovery of the travel industry will be critical.
With continued uncertainty, we should not be surprised if the flow of visitors is below expectations for the rest of this year. We hopefully are planning with this in mind.
In our trade with the USA, as you know, the Caribbean Basin Trade Partnership Act (CBPTA) will expire in September. The resubmitted Extension Bill has been in Congress (House and Senate) since February 2019. I hope it will be adopted, but we must consider that Congress is preoccupied with COVID-19, its economic repercussions, and the protests. This is also an election year.
And so, governments and people in the Caribbean need to take account of our connections with the USA which impact our economies and personal lives.