Obama’s Caribbean out­reach comes as Bei­jing ex­pands its re­gional in­flu­ence


Open­ing a three-day trip to the Caribbean and Cen­tral Amer­ica, U.S. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama hopes to cap­i­tal­ize on mu­tual needs in the face of ex­pand­ing Chi­nese in­flu­ence and weak­en­ing power by Venezuela, once the en­ergy jug­ger­naut of the Amer­i­cas.

Obama’s ar­rival Wed­nes­day evening in Kingston, Ja­maica, was low-key com­pared to the ex­cite­ment he stirred in the Caribbean upon his elec­tion in 2008. Greeted at the air­port tar­mac by dig­ni­taries in­clud­ing Prime Min­is­ter Por­tia Simp­son Miller, Obama slipped into a mo­tor­cade that ran through mostly quiet, empty streets.

The visit comes amid a per­cep­tion that Obama’s in­ter­est in the re­gion has failed to ma­te­ri­al­ize. Yet his trav­els — first to Ja­maica, then to the Sum­mit of the Amer­i­cas in Panama — fol­low a year of in­creased at­ten­tion to the re­gion by the U.S. pres­i­dent. His im­mi­gra­tion ex­ec­u­tive or­ders, his ef­forts to slow the in­flux of Cen­tral Amer­i­can mi­nors to the U.S. bor­der, and his diplo­matic out­reach to Cuba have put a for­eign pol­icy spot­light on U.S. neigh­bors to the south.

Obama on Thurs­day will meet with Simp­son Miller and with other lead­ers in the 15-mem­ber Caribbean Com­mu­nity. He also plans to speak to young re­gional lead­ers in a town-hall set­ting, con­tin­u­ing a tra­di­tion of en­gag­ing new gen­er­a­tions in for­eign po­lit­i­cal and civil so­ci­ety in­sti­tu­tions.

The pres­i­dent promptly paid trib­ute to the is­land’s cul­tural hero, the late reg­gae star Bob Mar­ley, mak­ing an un­sched­uled visit Wed­nes­day night to the leg­endary singer’s mu­seum. He toured Mar­ley’s for­mer home as Mar­ley’s hit “One Love” played through the build­ing’s sound sys­tem.

In the Caribbean, en­ergy se­cu­rity tops Obama’s agenda as the U.S. seeks to fill a po­ten­tial void left by Venezuela’s scaled­back oil diplo­macy. Ear­lier this year, Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den hosted prime min­is­ters and other top of­fi­cials from all Caribbean coun­tries ex­cept Cuba at the first Caribbean En­ergy Se­cu­rity Sum­mit in Wash­ing­ton.

“We, in look­ing at the re­gion, saw that a num­ber of the (Caribbean) coun­tries had sig­nif­i­cant en­ergy needs,” said Benjamin Rhodes, a White House deputy na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser. “At the same time, the United States has sig­nif­i­cant re­sources, not just in terms of our own en­ergy pro­duc­tion, but also in our en­ergy in­fra­struc­ture, in our abil­ity to work with coun­tries that have formed co­op­er­a­tive so­lu­tions to pro­mote en­ergy se­cu­rity.”

Mean­while, China has steadily ex­panded its eco­nomic al­liances in the Caribbean, pro­vid­ing much of the fi­nanc­ing for new roads, bridges and other in­fra­struc­ture projects.

“China is run­ning away with the gold in the view of many re­gion watch­ers. Its foot­print is vis­i­ble and ob­vi­ous through its ‘check­book’ diplo­macy in the Caribbean,” said An­thony Bryan, an in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions pro­fes­sor at Trinidad’s cam­pus of the Uni­ver­sity of the West Indies. The public uni­ver­sity sys­tem serves 18 English-speak­ing coun­tries and ter­ri­to­ries.

Obama’s visit to Ja­maica is the first by a U.S. pres­i­dent since Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan in 1982. Obama was last in the Caribbean re­gion in 2009 when he at­tended the Sum­mit of the Amer­i­cas in Trinidad. His stop in Kingston comes ahead of his at­ten­dance at this year’s sum­mit of the West­ern Hemi­sphere’s heads of gov­ern­ment Fri­day and Satur­day in Panama.

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