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Venezuela and The Trump Administration’s Foreign Policy Towards the Caribbean

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Peter Lyn René
April 4, 2019

President Donald Trump hosted five Caribbean leaders at his West Palm Beach, Florida home, Mar-a-Lago, on Friday March 23, 2019. It was the first foray of his administration into United States-Caribbean policy. The planned topics for the meeting included China’s growing sphere of influence and ways to counter their destructive economic practices in the Caribbean. Topics also included energy investment, renewed engagement in the region and most importantly, the ongoing crisis in Venezuela.

President Nicolás Maduro began his second term in office on January 10, 2019, following an election last year that many foreign nations did not recognize as legitimate. Maduro’s main opposition, Juan Gauido, on January 23, 2019 declared himself interim president of Venezuela. Shortly after Gauido took his oath swearing himself as the country’s new leader, President Donald Trump publically recognized him as the Interim President of Venezuela. The Caribbean Community (CARICOM) however, struck a cautionary tone, expressing extreme concern for the predicament of the Venezuelan people, and reiterating their guiding principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of state and for the respect for sovereignty. Historically, Venezuela deemed the Caribbean to be a natural area of influence because of its geographic location as well as their mutual cultural affinity.

Until 2016, Venezuela used Petro Caribe “diplomacy of oil” as the driving principle of its foreign relations to the Caribbean, providing oil to the Caribbean nations at a steep discount. All but six members of the body voted to uphold the CARICOM statement by the heads of government of CARICOM on Venezuela. These six member states, Haiti, The Dominican Republic, The Bahamas, Jamaica, Guyana and Saint Lucia, supported the United States’ pro-interference policy towards Venezuela and refused to recognize the Maduro government. Five Caribbean leaders, with the exception of Guyana, were invited to the, “Trump-Caribbean Summit,” enticed by promises of economic and energy investments in their countries as their reward for breaking with Maduro.

The Trump Administration’s foreign policy towards the Caribbean has been marked by steep cuts in foreign aid and stricter immigration laws and policies. After more than two years in office, this is President Trump’s first official outreach to the Caribbean, which President Ronald Reagan called our, “Third border.” The Administration stated three ways it planned to engage the Caribbean: economic growth and prosperity, security and democratic governance.

A promise of renewed engagement in the region by the president is a stark contrast with the Administration’s actions, sometimes accompanied by tough rhetoric on foreign aid, trade and immigration. The Trump Administration’s proposed FY 2018 and FY 2019 plans slash funding to the region by more than a third; the FY 2020 proposed budget is set to reduce aid to the Caribbean by roughly 30 percent. At a brief press conference at the end of the, “Trump-Caribbean Summit,” the Caribbean leaders were very optimistic about President Trump’s pledge of investment. He promised the Caribbean leaders that a high-level delegation from the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, the United States development lender, would visit their nations in the next 90 days. Jamaica’s Prime Minister Andrew Hollness said to reporters that it is critical the President’s promise is not just talk, but a real investment.

But given the Administration’s plan to substantially reduce aid to the Caribbean, can President Trump’s pledge to the Caribbean leaders for investment in their countries become a reality? Was the, “Trump-Caribbean Summit,” the first steps in robust engagement in the region by the Administration, or did his invitation do nothing little to insure United States involvement? Did the summit create problems and deepen division in CARICOM?

The Trump Administration’s decision to invite only Caribbean nations who supports the United States policy towards Venezuela led to spirited debate among Caribbean nations and an unwanted public disagreement with CARICOM and five of its member states. Several Caribbean prime ministers criticized the meeting, saying it had little to do with CARICOM. Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne even suggested his fellow prime ministers were “weak-minded.” The Prime Minister also stated that CARICOM must continue its sustaining position, by standing on principle without inducements, or face fear of reprisals.

The current chairman of CARICOM, Prime Minister of St. Kitts and Nevis, Dr. Timothy Harris was not invited to the meeting. He felt that representation of CARICOM would have yielded benefits in that the regional organizations would have been afforded an opportunity to expound on its stance on Venezuela. He states, “We in CARICOM have to be very alive to the mischief that some persons may be up to, to seek to divide us in a manner which we ought not to be divided and therefore reduce the extent of the efficacy of our work.”

The White House indicated that a high-level delegation from the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, the United States development lender, would visit the five Caribbean nations in the next 90 days. Meanwhile, the five Caribbean leaders returned to their counties with the region deeply divided. Many CARICOM countries feel that they should stand united on Venezuela.

Author: Peter Lyn René has a Bachelors in Political Science and a Masters in Law and Public Policy, and is currently a PhD candidate in Law and Public Policy. He is the Chairman and CEO of The Caribbean American Heritage Foundation of Texas. René is a Mediator, and is certified to mediate cases in the Justice of the Peace Courts, the County Courts, and the State District Courts. He is also the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of The Singing From The Soul Foundation. He serves on the Executive Committee of the United Nations Council of Organizations. René can be contacted at [email protected].

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