It is easy to share the excitement felt across the Caribbean at President-elect Joe Biden’s victory in the US polls.
However, a calmer voice within suggests that while the outcome will bring some short-term, big-picture policy gains for the region, the extreme political polarisation that the election highlighted does not bode well for the country that matters most to the region.
That said, and despite Mr Trump’s apparent interest in a confused and vindictive transition process, Mr Biden is already advancing plans in several policy areas of general significance to the Caribbean. These relate to climate change, addressing COVID-19 and the roll out of a vaccine, and stimulating the US economy.
In the case of climate change, Mr Biden will reverse the Trump Administration’s withdrawal from the 2016 Paris climate accord and seek a significant role in the delayed COP-26 global climate summit, now to be held in Glasgow in November 2021. The President-elect has already said that he will ‘listen to science’, and stated his intention for the US to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by the middle of the century through radical reform measures, and to integrate climate change targets with US foreign policy.
The incoming administration is expected to rejoin the World Health Organisation, establish a new COVID-19 task force, and allocate US$25bn for vaccine development and distribution. It will probably also support the World Health Organisation’s COVAX facility, which will benefit most Caribbean nations by providing significant quantities of vaccines as they become available, at a reduced cost.
Assuming that the US Congress can agree, the region also stands to benefit indirectly from the Biden presidency’s intention to deliver a package of domestic measures aimed at stimulating post-pandemic economic growth. This and a possible vaccine should enable the Caribbean, two years out, to see the return of significant demand for US travel to the Caribbean.
Of similar importance to the Caribbean will be a change in US government values in the form of a commitment to multilateralism, an end to the induced polarisation in organisations like the Organisation of American States, the reassertion of ethical values on Black lives and gender equality, and respect for, and support for, allies.
Although easy to overstate, given the global pressures they will face, Biden and Harris know and understand what motivates and what matters to the region. In addition, the often-underestimated importance of the expert advice and analysis provided by long-suffering career diplomats in the Caribbean and the US is now expected to be better heard.
On trade and investment policy, the tone and approach of the Biden presidency will be different and linked less transactionally to the USA’s security and political concerns. However, there is little reason to believe that the new administration will do anything other than continue to secure the hemisphere as an integrated special trading partner in order to lessen Chinese influence, stimulate near-shoring, and continue existing policies that support a central developmental role for the US private sector.
In contrast, the coercive and regionally-divisive approach taken by President Trump, in seeking a coalition of willing Caribbean states who were prepared to trade off an improved economic relationship to support US trade, political and security objectives, is expected to end. Despite this, the pressures in relation to Chinese 5G and other emerging technologies will continue, albeit based on a common Western approach to investment screening.
On security, the US’s regional and hemispheric concerns are unlikely to alter. However, of particular significance to the Caribbean is an awareness in the Biden camp that the vacuum created by isolating Venezuela and Cuba has created a destabilising refugee crisis, citizen poverty and instability, while offering geopolitical opportunity to Russia, China, Iran and Turkey.
Specifically, on Cuba, the Biden team made clear that it wants to restore a working relationship over time, but that this cannot be the same as existed under President Obama. As in the case of Venezuela, this may involve a negotiated step-by-step approach that seeks to ease tensions, address the US refugee crisis, establish multilateral support for the Cuban people, and slowly restoring travel, trade and limited forms of cooperation.
What this caution reflects is concern among Democrats that the Cuban-American vote in Florida and voter perceptions of ‘socialism’ impacted their performance in what was once a swing state. Although Cuba has yet to say more about the election outcome, one interesting commentary in Cubadebate state-media suggested that misplaced political perceptions about a relatively-small group of Cuban-Americans in Florida may determine future US-Cuba policy.
‘By focusing on that tiny (Cuban-American) vote, in national terms, both parties are unaware of the position of broad sectors of US voters who favour the most normalised relationship possible with Cuba and who have specific interests in business, science, culture, academic relations, health and other sectors.’
More generally the Biden presidency is expected to continue the process of strategic reorientation, started under President Obama, which recognised that the US would cease to be the sole global hegemon and that it needs to address China’s rapid technological advance.
Caribbean leaders have congratulated President-elect Biden and, in private, are now looking forward to a period in which many of the economic and political issues that matter most to the region will receive a more sympathetic, less-transactional hearing in Washington.
However, it is far from clear, even with a friend in the White House, whether a divided and poorly integrated Caribbean still struggling to overcome the pandemic has the energy and leverage to successfully prosecute its case.
Beyond the good news, the Caribbean urgently needs to end its graduation out of concessional financing. It also needs a well-supported post-pandemic recovery package, and it has to convince Washington that US, Chinese, European and other investment all have a future place in the region. The Caribbean needs to engage now.
Image credit: Ted Eytan