Canada once had a serious presence in the English-speaking Caribbean, from the time the British colonies began to acquire independence in the sixties and seventies. Political and economic relations were close, including small but meaningful development assistance programs. Meetings of the Canadian and Caribbean prime ministers took place on a regular basis, and personal relations among leaders were informal and friendly.
It was a positive relationship that served the interests of both parties, but in recent years it has drifted to the margins of Canadian foreign policy; why did this happen?
One reason was the advent of Hugo Chavez as president of Venezuela and, almost simultaneously, the massive increases in international oil prices. Sensing an opportunity, Chavez launched ‘Petrocaribe’, a program that provided subsidized oil to the Caribbean states. While his motives can be questioned, there is no doubt that this was a lifeline to these highly indebted and increasingly desperate countries. Venezuela’s largesse quickly eclipsed Canada’s, and the loyalty of the Caribbean Community nations began to shift toward Venezuela.
The Canadian government aggravated the situation with some short-sighted decisions; it discontinued most bilateral, country-to-country project aid to the region, breaking the direct link between Canadians and Caribbean recipients. Also, Canada ended meetings with the Caribbean prime ministers, breaking a well-established and highly valued tradition. These decisions had lasting consequences, especially in securing their support – and votes – in multilateral institutions.
The importance of those fourteen votes is best illustrated in our campaigns for the UN Security Council; in 1998, every Caribbean country supported Canada’s (successful) bid. Needless to say, this was not the case in our next (failed) bid in 2010 – nor would it be today.
Does the Caribbean matter?
Yes; while obviously not the most important region in the world, it embodies a number of issues and values that have a direct bearing on Canadian interests:
In security terms, the uneven line that runs from the Bahamas to the coasts of Mexico has become in real terms not only a Canadian border, but our most porous and vulnerable frontier.
A high percentage of cocaine and other drugs consumed in Canada is transshipped through the Caribbean, where organized crime is increasingly sophisticated, and has infiltrated some local governments. Tax regimes are lax, and questionable financial institutions have flourished, facilitating money laundering, terrorism financing and other illicit activities.
The region’s ports and airports do not meet acceptable security standards – an issue, when some 1.5 million Canadians travel to the region annually. Public health is another concern: the rising incidence of communicable diseases in the Caribbean (Zika; HIV/AIDS; dengue; hepatitis), combined with inadequate monitoring and the high volume of people travelling in both directions, makes the region one of Canada’s most dangerous disease vectors.
Having distanced ourselves from Caribbean governments, our ability to make an appropriate response to these challenges – and to count on their support when needed (think Security Council again) – is diminished.
However, recent developments in the region’s economic and political landscape offer an opportunity; Venezuela’s disastrous decline, in particular, opens the way.
Canada could take a number of steps immediately: resume bilateral aid projects in the smaller islands; provide more resources for security under the Military Training & Cooperation Program; start a re-invigorated scholarship program to train the region’s future leaders, and conduct an in-depth analysis of Caribbean requirements in the health sector.
Most importantly, Prime Minister Trudeau should convene a meeting with his Caribbean counterparts to signal our interest in re-engaging with the region, to form a new, mutually beneficial relationship.
Unlike many other parts of the world, this is one where Canada is welcomed and can actually make a difference. For a relatively modest investment of political and financial capital, Canada could regain lost ground and re-position itself in a region that is close, friendly and well known to Canadians; it’s our move.
Paul Durand is a former Canadian diplomat who worked in international banking in Latin America prior to joining the Canadian government. In government, he worked in CIDA, PCO and the Department of Foreign Affairs and International trade. He served in the Caribbean for several years, and as ambassador to Costa Rica, Panama, Chile and the Organization of American States in Washington, D.C. He is a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.