President Obama’s Caribbean Visit: Revitalizing U.S. Economic Engagement

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Obama in JamaicaPresident Obama’s meetings this week in Jamaica with heads of state from the 15-member Caribbean Community grouping known as Caricom is intended to signal renewed U.S. commitment to a region that has long felt neglected by Washington.  

En route to Panama for the Seventh Summit of the Americas on April 10 and 11, President Obama from April 8 to 9 will hold discussions in Jamaica with Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson and will co-chair a Caricom heads-of-state meeting. President Obama will seek to assure the Caribbean leaders of his country’s commitment to the region, especially as U.S. attention turns to Cuba. 

One group representing U.S. small, minority and women-owned businesses, and which has decades-long experience in Jamaica and the Caribbean as a whole, hopes to work with the U.S. administration in its efforts to revitalize the country’s engagement in the region.  

“The National Minority Business Council and Jamaica have had ties for nearly three decades. Former Prime Minister P.J. Patterson became an honorary member of our organization during his tenure as head of state, and in 1999 we established a working relationship with the Kingston Restoration Corporation to identify and bring in U.S. resources to establish an empowerment zone in downtown Kingston, the capital,” says John F. Robinson, NMBC president and CEO. “Our organization stands ready, willing and able to work with Washington to support its evolving relationship with the Caribbean.” 

With the governments of Venezuela, China, Taiwan making deep trade and investment inroads into the Caribbean, the Obama administration has identified priority sectors—notably economic development, security, and affordable energy—for U.S. engagement in the region. Vice President Joe Biden stressed the U.S. desire to become “more deeply invested in a partnership with all the nations of the Caribbean” when he represented President Obama at a meeting with Caribbean leaders in Trinidad and Tobago in 2013.

“Economically, the president and I are aware that island nations face special difficulties.  The cost of doing business can be higher. Goods are more expensive. And in a globalized world, everything can become more attenuated.  And so through Caribbean Basin Initiative, we’ve eliminated tariffs on 85 percent of your goods, and now we’re looking for additional ways…to help create growth and diversity in the economies within the Caribbean,” he said.

While in Trinidad & Tobago, the vice president signed a U.S.-Caricom Trade and Investment Framework Agreement on behalf of the United States, creating a vehicle for dialogue on trade and investment issues of mutual interest. Earlier in the year, the United States signed a memorandum of understanding with Trinidad and Tobago to advance cooperation on the scientific, technical, and policy aspects of energy efficiency and clean energy technologies. The MOU established a Renewable Energy Research Centre to promote the rapid deployment of critical technologies for renewable energy and energy efficiency deployment in the Caribbean.

Other U.S. activities to support economic growth and development in the Caribbean include:

•    The launch of the Caribbean Energy Security Initiative in 2014 to help transform the Caribbean’s electricity sector to include other sources of energy.
•    The Organization of American States is providing project development support to Caribbean governments and utilities for sustainable energy projects through the Department of State-funded Caribbean Sustainable Energy Capacity Building Project.
•    The Department of Agriculture sponsored 75 Cochran Fellows from the Caribbean, including the Dominican Republic, from 2009 to 2013for training in areas such as food safety, laboratory procedures, and animal health.
•    The United States concluded Open Skies Air Transport Agreements with six Caricom members, increasing options for airlines, passengers, and shippers and helping to promote increased travel and trade, enhance productivity, and spur high-quality job opportunities and economic growth.
•    With funding from the U.S. State Department, the Organization of American States and the University of Texas at San Antonio are supporting the adaptation of the U.S. Small Business Center model in Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Jamaica, and St. Lucia. The goal is to provide better services to small and medium-sized enterprises in hopes of generating more jobs in the Caribbean and facilitating greater regional trade and trade with the United States.
•    The U.S. Agency for International Development is supporting early grade reading, vocational training for at-risk youth in the Dominican Republic, Eastern Caribbean, and Jamaica, and disaster risk reduction activities throughout the Caribbean that are aimed at saving lives, alleviating human suffering and reducing the social and economic impacts of natural disasters.

The National Minority Business Council, Inc., which has organized business exchange missions to the Caribbean and Central America since the 1980s, has consistently advocated for bold moves to support entrepreneurship in the region as a path to economic development and increased partnerships between U.S. and regional SMEs.

“President Obama has demonstrated serious commitment to the global development of young entrepreneurs and he should engage Caribbean leaders in this worthy mission,” says Fritz-Earle McLymont, an NMBC co-founder and managing director of the organization’s international arm, NMBC Global. “There are numerous public, private, and nonprofit groups engaged in entrepreneurial development throughout the region and one would hope that, beyond the symbolism and excitement of this presidential visit, a real entrepreneurial movement will emerge that can fully engage committed entities such as the NMBC.” 

One step in this direct ion is the Caribbean Idea Marketplace competition, launched in 2013 to connect Diaspora business leaders mainly in the United States with Caribbean entrepreneurs.

The NMBC’s engagement with the Caribbean began nearly three decades ago, when the organization led a delegation of small and minority owned U.S. businesses to Montego Bay, Jamaica, in the first of its “Caribbean Business Exchanges” to foster trade and investment between U.S. SMEs and their counterparts in the region. Today, the NMBC through its NMBC Global arm forges collaborative relationships with Caribbean academic institutions to support research and development in engineering and science. Its goal is to build sustainable businesses that contribute to the long-term creation of jobs and wealth in the region.

The group made specific recommendations at a U.S. International Trade Commission hearing on U.S.-Caribbean relations in 2013.

“We called for increased support for joint ventures in R&D and manufacturing of renewable energy products; tax incentives for SMEs investing and operating in the Caribbean’s renewable energy sector; encouragement of greater use by U.S. SMEs of the Department of Energy’s Cooperative Research and Development Agreement {CRADA), and linking this to the use of the tax incentives as firms become engaged in sharing R&D and production facilities and resources in the region; and support for better regional policies and regulations for the development of sustainable renewable industry throughout the Caribbean,” McLymont recounts. 
 
The president’s two-day stopover in Jamaica is only the second visit to the Caribbean island since its independence from Britain in 1962. President Ronald Regan visited Jamaica in 1982.