Obama and the Caribbean
By the morning of Wednesday November 5, the world should know who the next President of the United States will be.
Barring the unexpected, the polls suggest that Barack Obama will win an historic victory.
If he does, his inauguration next January will send a potent and hugely symbolic message of hope to the world and signal a much needed change in the style and content of US policy.
Indeed, so iconic has he become among people inside and outside of the US who feel marginalised, that he and those around him may find it difficult to manage expectations, or have people understand the uncompromising nature of superpower real politik.
Since the middle of the year an Obama transition team has been in place in Washington.
According to reports, Mr Obama is intent on not making the type of mistakes that delayed and confused the implementation of President Clinton’s policy agenda when he took office.
As a consequence a group led by John Podesta who served in the Clinton White House, has been seeking consensus on how to implement the wide range of policy issues that Mr Obama wants his cabinet and a new Congress to address rapidly when he takes office.
Amongst the most pressing domestic challenges Mr Obama will face on becoming President will be how to relate his campaign proposals on the economy, healthcare, energy and education to the steps he must take to avoid a recession.
His team will also have to determine how to deliver his promise to withdraw US forces from Iraq, deal with challenges in the Middle East, Pakistan, North Korea, Iran, and Afghanistan and sustain the US assault on terrorism.
What this suggests is that irrespective of there being a popular President in the White House the US will continue to exercise aggressively its influence and when required, project ruthlessly its international authority.
This may not sit easily with the aspirations of those who have an unrealistic view of what Mr Obama is about.
Where the hope lies in an Obama White House being different is in his tone, his sense of social commitment and his global awareness; qualities almost wholly lacking in the recent Republican Administration.
In his book ‘The Audacity of Hope’ Mr Obama makes clear the impact that his own difficult upbringing and his work with poor communities has had on him.
What is apparent is that it has endowed him with a sense of humanity and a deep awareness of how race, poverty and religion alter lives.
Strikingly he writes that he recognises that no person in any culture likes to be bullied or to live in fear because his or her ideas are different.
People around the world are looking less, he suggests, for elections and more ‘for the basic elements that define a decent life, food, shelter, electricity, basic health care, (and) education for their children’.
In this and his other books Mr Obama also states clearly that he does not dismiss critics of the US system out of hand.
Recently, using the language of President Roosevelt, he has elaborated this vision by suggesting that it will be mutual respect, self-determination and co-operation that will be the guiding principles of his foreign policy.
What this seems to mean in practice is that when it comes to the region - Mr Obama’s online document detailing his vision of ‘A New Partnership for the Americas’ has specific references to the Caribbean - there will be a significant change of style and greater specificity.
Before the summer break I had the opportunity to hear at first hand from one of Mr Obama’s senior advisers what US policy might be towards the Caribbean, countries strikingly described as being ‘on our first border’.
Mr Obama it seems recognises the significance of the region in relation to trade, its geographic proximity, its faith based connections and the common problems of climate change.
He sees as an imperative the need to develop a relationship which recognises the littoral nature of the region and which, with one exception, shares the same values of democracy.
The suggestion was that an Obama administration will support regional economic growth through partnerships involving the private sector, government and people.
This could involve one hundred percent debt cancellation for the whole of the Caribbean (Mr Obama’s manifesto only mentions Guyana, Haiti and St Lucia); World Bank reform to enable the region to respond better to external shocks such as that being experienced in relation to oil and food prices; and policies that aim to foster tourism and in remittances.
On trade policy, the approach appears to be to concentrate on it being fair and benchmarked, in a manner that takes greater account of the concerns of US labour.
With respect to climate change Mr Obama is completely convinced that global warming is real and a result of human activity.
As a consequence and as ‘a security and economic imperative’, it was suggested that this needed to be addressed on an hemispheric basis by bringing the US and its public and private sector partners in Latin America and the Caribbean into a carbon cap and trading systems.
On the security front the Obama team intends confronting transnational criminal networks operating in the Caribbean through hemispherically co-ordinated policies linked to demand reduction programmes in the United States.
This will involve creating a regional strategy that will combat narcotics trafficking, gang activity and organised crime providing new resources for technical assistance and unspecified community based solutions.
Haiti and Cuba
There will also be new initiatives on Haiti and Cuba.
In the case of Haiti the focus will be on food assistance and then strengthening its security and economic prospects.
Only it seems in the case of Cuba will there be a wholly new approach.
Space does not permit me to write about this at length but this is likely to go far beyond the already stated intention of restoring the right of Cuban Americans to send remittances and to travel to the island.
What all this amounts to is a vision that genuinely seems to recognise that US policy towards the Caribbean has to change. This is welcome and may well find its best expression in a new Cuba policy.
However what remains hugely uncertain is how much time and energy, given the pressing nature of both domestic and international problems facing the US, anyone senior in a Democratic Administration will give to the Hemisphere on a sustained basis, when as seems likely Mr Obama becomes President of the United States.
David Jessop is the Director of the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org