How the Diaspora can help even more, the need to influence. Change in United States policy to the Caribbean
“A signal role for the Diaspora.”
Dr. Peter Phillips, currently the Opposition Shadow Minister of Finance in Jamaica’s parliament, was directing his gaze on Caribbean immigrants across the United States. And he did that for an excellent reason: to encourage then to exert influence on U.S. policy in the island-nations and coastal states that are next door to the economic colossus.
In simple terms, Dr. Phillips is urging the more than one million immigrants from the English, French and Spanish speaking sub-regions of the Caribbean who now live or work in America to lobby for causes that would spur economic and social development along the United States’ third border.
“There is scope for greater pressure to be brought to bear to influence policy decision-making in the United States with respect to the Caribbean,” was the way Dr. Phillips, a former Minister of National Security in Jamaica, put it. “There has been a gradual withdrawal of U.S. interests in the Caribbean, both in terms of the extent of financial outlay and in terms of scope of interest being exercised by U.S. authorities.”
However, his chief complaint was Washington’s pre-occupation with security issues –drug interdiction, terrorism, human and weapons trafficking and violent crime to the exclusion of improvements in people’s standard of living. Admittedly, crime is mushrooming all around the Caribbean, so much so that the countries routinely record some of the world’s highest homicide rates. Ask most people in the region to list their priority concerns and crime and violence are bound to figure prominently. That’s because insecurity on the street and in the home can be a matter of life and death.
That doesn’t dilute Dr. Phillip’s strong argument. At a time when Caricom states are feeling the brunt of the pain inflicted by the global financial debacle and they worry about the prospects of a double dip economic recession, the United States seems unfazed by the economic plight of its neighbors – slow economic growth, high unemployment, a mountain of debt and ballooning deficits.
Things were not always like that. Washington used to have a diversified list of priorities. On it were economic expansion and the paving of the way for steady improvements in standards of living in the Caribbean. Unfortunately, we have seen a significant reduction in U.S. interest as Washington withdrew from the Caribbean, cutting development initiatives and even cutting back on security assistance, mainly because the small states opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq during the debates at the United Nations. President George Bush event went so far as to send a senior White House aide to the Caribbean to threaten the countries with virtual elimination of all assistance if they didn’t fall into line.
Fortunately, most of them, including Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago didn’t buckle under the pressure.
When Barack Obama was elected President and moved into the White House, he placed security assistance on the priority list, along with help to fight HIV/AIDS infection to all Caricom countries.
That’s where Dr. Phillips’ sensible recommendation to the Diaspora comes in. He believes, quite correctly, that economic and social development must be of prime concern to the United States, not simply security. After all, the economic and financial troubles which are taking the heaviest toll on the entire Caribbean can be traced to the Great Recession in the U.S. and Europe.
The Jamaican Diaspora which has been a tireless contributor to their country’s development through remittances, investments in real estate and assistance to social services agencies – schools, hospital, clinics and youth centers – has done quite a lot. But it can do even more by lobbying for Caribbean economic causes. The same is true for immigrants from the rest of the Caribbean. They must use their political influence as naturalized American citizens who are registered to vote to get their elected representatives in Washington and in the state capitals in New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Florida, Georgia, indeed wherever they are living to push for changes in policies.
Just the other day U.S. Congressman Eliot Engel, a Democrat of Bronx, pushed a measure through the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Hose of Representatives that would, if enacted into law, force the State Department to open diplomatic offices in each of the independent nations that belong to the Organization of Eastern Caribbean states, OECS – Antigua, Dominica, Grenada, St. Vincent & the Grenadines, St. Lucia and St. Kitts-Nevis – in order to ease the pressure on people seeking visas to enter the United States to visit relatives, attend schools or otherwise do business. Right now, they have to travel to Barbados for meetings at the U.S. Embassy. Not only is it an imposition but it is costly. Engel acted after immigrants from those countries in his District and governments in the Caribbean urged him to take up the matter. That’s an example of the lobbying Dr. Phillips probably had in mind.
Of course, any lobbying would be on a larger scale and it would bring untold benefits to Caricom. The United States is the Caribbean’s largest trading partner and its closest rich and developed neighbor. A change in Washington’s attitude to emphasize more than just security is in everyone’s best interest.