The US government’s ‘divide and conquer’ tactics in the Caribbean

Trump yelling
Jeb Sprague

Recent multilateral meetings in Kingston and Mar-a-Lago signal US attempts at intensifying divisions in the Caribbean. ‘Shithole countries’ (as president Donald Trump allegedly labeled Haiti and many other low-income countries) can be important allies for undermining those states targeted for regime change. In particular, Trump’s former national security advisor John Bolton has spoken openly about US and regional businesspeople benefiting financially from a toppling of Venezuela’s left-of-centre government and a privatization of its petroleum industry. Venezuela reportedly has the world’s largest proven oil reserves.

Over recent decades, the Caribbean has experienced profound change, propelled by new digital technologies, hi-tech remittance networks, new global cultural and media flows, low-cost mass travel and tourism, expanding real estate markets, and new banking and financial arrangements.

People across the region are propelled into the clutches of globalization with mounting inequality and climate breakdown taking a severe toll on their lives. Meanwhile, there are plenty of other brewing worldwide crises such as those stemming from automation and artificial intelligence, nuclear proliferation, and a lack of regional and global coordination around many issues (the latest being the new coronavirus (Covid-19)).

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It’s in this context that US officials are seeking to intensify geopolitical divisions in the region, most notably in order to promote its policy of regime change targeting Venezuela.

Targeting Venezuela and its role in the Caribbean

US plans to replace elected Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro with self-proclaimed leader Juan Guaidó failed utterly in 2019; yet an intensification of its economic terror campaign looms even as it continues to be the key factor that hinders Venezuela’s recovery.

The South American country has suffered tremendously, pushing many people to emigrate. While Venezuela has only had tens of coronavirus cases so far, the country’s health system has been battered by US sanctions and will face difficulties if the virus spreads.

Facing constant attack, dramatically intensified since August 2017 when the US imposed financial sanctions, Venezuela has been forced to rely on investment and support from Chinese and Russian state enterprises. By June 2018, Caracas had halted around half of its crude oil shipments around the Caribbean.

A part of the US strategy has been to undermine the viability of Venezuela’s subsidized-ALBA project as a regional developmental alternative to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other neoliberal financial institutions.

ALBA itself has faced many internal problems. Yet in late 2019, ALBA leaders declared that in 2020 they would relaunch PetroCaribe, the Children’s Heart Hospitals, its eye surgery program, and its school of medicine.

Thus far, though pummeled, the remaining leaders and left-leaning movements and parties of some regional states have not given in to Washington’s offensive. Historically, many officials in the Caribbean region have argued for the region to be ‘nuclear-free’ and a ‘Zone of Peace‘, yet this has always been contradicted by the fact that so many identify with the West and are located in the US geopolitical sphere. The most vocal exceptions are Cuba (since the 1959 revolution), and Grenada (from 1979 to 1983 under the short-lived government of Maurice Bishop).

Over recent decades, many Caribbean political parties have shifted away from their disparate ideological roots. Instead, they have moved towards promoting economic models emphasizing exports and tourism. Many state elites, with the support of supranational institutions, have sought to focus on creating conditions that attract transnational corporate investors. While participants in ALBA partially promote an alternative developmental stream, they also must regularly juggle close relationships with big business.

US seeking to widen the gulf between Caribbean states

In July 1973, four of the newly independent and leading sovereign states in the English-speaking Caribbean – Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago – all signed on to the Treaty of Chaguaramas. In later years, the other Caribbean Community (CARICOM) states would sign on. Among the provisions of the established treaty, the states are expected to coordinate their foreign policies on matters of regional and international import.

Moving in the exact opposite direction, Trump met with five Caribbean leaders at Mar-a-Lago in South Florida in March 2019. US secretary of state Mike Pompeo later met with Caribbean officials in Kingston, Jamaica in January 2020.

The meetings signaled US attempts to intensify geopolitical divisions. One Reuters headline read bluntly: Trump dangles investment to Caribbean leaders who back Venezuela’s Guaido.

By signing on to US policy undermining Venezuela, and supporting the interventionist demands of the heavily US-funded OAS (Organization of American States), divisions in the region have been further widened. For Jamaica, the Bahamas, and Saint Lucia, it may even constitute a violation of Article 12 and Article 16 of the Treaty of Chaguaramas, for which they are signatories.

Divisions have occurred in the past. The 1983 US invasion of Grenada was one of the more divisive matters in the region, with some states such as Trinidad and Tobago opposing the attack. Another divisive event was the 1996-1997 Shiprider Agreement. Caribbean countries split over allowing Washington to have the ability to sail into their territorial waters freely, with the US coastguard allowed to interdict vessels. Another split occurred when cruise company lobbyists defeated an effort to create a common head-tax in the region, successfully playing the islands off of one another.

On the other hand, the region has, over time, come together to oppose the US blockade on Cuba. Havana provides a large number of scholarships for students as well as technical and agriculture assistance. For decades, it has built up a lot of goodwill in the region.

Among the general population in the Caribbean, there is also a great deal of historical memory around the role of foreign intervention, with the demand for colonial reparations being widely popular.

In another example of unity, following the 2004 coup in Haiti, CARICOM denounced the US removal of the country’s elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. However, after the US and France advised CARICOM against raising the issue at the UN Security Council, Caribbean officials withdrew in silence. Aristide was allowed to enter Jamaica briefly, but after US national security advisor Condoleezza Rice and other US officials objected, he soon returned to his exile in Africa.

Importantly, the leaders of Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, and other states in the region did not attend Trump and Pompeo’s recent meetings.

The officials of CARICOM member states sometimes act according to how they perceive themselves to be affected by high-handed US geopolitical policies. They don’t like to be pushed around as ‘small island development states’, and are broadly skeptical of military intervention but are not necessarily unified on this point.

What’s happening now, though, is that US policymakers in a more concerted manner are seeking to widen the gulf between Caribbean states. Some Caribbean officials have more capacity for resilience, while others see only benefits in closer ties with Washington, which can undoubtedly help them with corporate investors. Many interests and pressures exist for siding with the deadly US policy in Venezuela.

Attending the Mar-a-lago meeting with Pompeo were the heads of government of the Bahamas, Jamaica, and Saint Lucia, and the heads of state of the Dominican Republic and Haiti, all having cut ties with Venezuela’s elected government and recognizing Juan Guaidó. The same countries attended the Kingston meeting, with the addition of Belize and Saint Kitts and Nevis. Aside from Trinidad/Tobago and Guyana, the official ‘head of state’ of most former British Caribbean colonies is still Queen Elizabeth II.

Structural crises at home

Governments joining Trump’s Caribbean strategy face deep problems at home.

Haiti’s president Jovenel Moïse, for example, governs without parliament after failing to hold elections, and is suffering a crisis of legitimacy that threatens to topple him from office. US support is a lynchpin for his political survival.

Dominican president Danilo Medina, meanwhile, is facing the largest protests in memory in the country, as he is accused of massive corruption and attempting to steal the February municipal elections. The Punta Catalina power plant Odebrecht scandal alone may total upwards of $1bn, a huge scandal for Medina’s government.

Jamaica’s government, continuing to suffer under large-scale structural adjustment debt, has been promised various deals from US officials. This helped compel the country’s withdrawal from Venezuela’s PetroCaribe program. Venezuela itself faced mounting barriers to maintaining it.

The Bahamas, meanwhile, has long been a virtual US colony, with the island used as a tax haven platform for transnational capital. The archipelago has also been battered under the climate crisis in the form of the recent devastating hurricane Dorian.

As for Belize, another country highly susceptible to pressure from powerful Western states, it was recently reported that one sixth of the country’s total landmass was being used by the British military for jungle warfare training. Belize has also faced annexation threats from Guatemala in the past.

US ‘national security’ strategy and the imperial frontier 

Sanctioning and attacking Venezuela through hybrid warfare, some US policymakers and thinktanks now openly plan for a violent escalation targeting the country. With a far-right government in Brazil and US military bases and proxies in Colombia, Washington has helped inflame a hostile situation on the country’s borders.

This has extended to the US tightening the screws on Cuba and Nicaragua, the recent ousting of Bolivia’s elected government, and even a short-lived attempt by the highly interventionist OAS secretary general Luis Almagro to undermine CARICOM and ALBA-member state Dominica.

By late 2017, seeking to halt any kind of compromise with Cuba, Trump’s administration began to claim that Cuba had targeted US embassy staff in Havana with a ‘sonic weapons attack’. Recordings of the ‘sonic attack’, as CNN later reported, were thought to be the mating calls of a loud cricket species.

The US Helms-Burton Act that targets Cuba, meanwhile, is being strengthened. Third parties doing business on the island may face more lawsuits that increase risks for investors. Cruise ship lines and many charter and direct flights have also been blocked from traveling to Cuba, while inward remittance flows to the island have been made much more difficult. Furthermore, the Trump administration is reportedly carrying out new plans to attack the island’s medical services, one of the most vibrant parts of its economy.

Whatever one’s view on Nicaragua’s 2018 violence carried out by some police and government and opposition supporters, US and EU sanctions are not the answer. They’re having a growing impact on the small Central American country beyond individuals: increasing risk calculations for businesses investing in the country, slowing and hurting the likelihood for loans to be refinanced, and – over time – it will make it harder for the country’s diaspora to wire money to family members. Meanwhile, the US congress has expanded funding to influence Nicaraguan civil society.

The end goal of Washington’s NICA Act and EU sanctions is not to promote peace, but rather to push for a draconian neoliberal solution. This is highlighted by Luis Almagro’s recent call for Nicaragua to be ‘strangled‘ through sanctions and other means.

All of this provides evidence of the illegality of waging economic warfare in peacetime.

Pressure on Trinidad and Suriname, deepening ties with Guyana and the Dutch Caribbean

Guyana, a country where roughly two thirds of the citizens live in poverty, has etched a new deal with Exxon that is expected to transform the country into a major oil producer within the global energy sector.

US military activities, meanwhile, have increased inside Guyana; however, such ‘lily pad’ or training exercises occur in many parts of the region. This reflects just how deeply integrated the region is into the US orbit.

In recent weeks, tensions inside Guyana appear to have boiled to the surface as its two main parties compete for leverage. Socially-constructed ethnic differences have historically been amplified, weaponized, and exploited to control political outcomes in the country.

Here it’s important to note the historical formation of Guyana, and the US role in pressuring Winston Churchill to militarily intervene in British Guiana in 1953, overthrowing its first elected prime minister Cheddi Jagan.

New oil discoveries in Surinam may also dramatically alter its political economy in due course. Its authorities have come under pressure to end friendly ties with Venezuela. However, in recent weeks the regional left-wing media outlet teleSUR has expanded its broadcasts in Suriname, a member of ALBA.

Trinidad and Tobago, which sought to honor a new liquified natural gas pipeline deal it made with Caracas, was pressured in February to end the project. Media reports indicate it was halted by Washington’s sanctions and US-based transnationals active in Trinidad’s energy sector.

A cat and mouse game has also played out with Venezuela’s national oil and gas company PDVSA and its contracted third-party oil vessels facing seizure and new pressures through the US sanction regime. This has caused a scramble, with diplomatic crises occurring between Venezuela and the ABC islands, which host a growing array of US southward-aimed operations.

Geopolitics in the globalizing Caribbean 

Peace was never a defining feature of US ‘national security’ strategy. The US pursuit of global supremacy includes misrepresenting the world as naturally chaotic and dependent on US leadership. Ultimately, this strategy includes sowing discord, ramping up regime change, and keeping the world unstable. In bringing about political transitions, US policymakers and their allies use the most sophisticated forms of soft power and, at times, backed up by force – as exemplified by the coups in Haiti, Honduras and, most recently, Bolivia.

Challenging this juggernaut requires local, regional, and global efforts and new transnational forms of popular organizing, alongside fundamental changes inside the US where peace, cooperation, and respect for international law need to be advocated for, not shunned.

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons

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