By David Rowe
DIFFERENT US PRESIDENTS have had different attitudes to the Caribbean, from President Ronald Reagan, who made a high-profile visit to Jamaica (and ordered the invasion of Grenada to) to Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, both of whom maintain special relationships with Haiti.
But President Barack Obama’s attitude to the Caribbean has been characterized largely by disengagement.
The biggest Caribbean issue for Obama seems to have been his repeated pledge to close the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba where foreign-born terrorism suspects are currently detained.
In April of 2009, Obama traveled to Trinidad and Tobago for the Fifth Summit of the Americas, pointing to mutual respect between the United States and the Caribbean, and launching the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative.
The President also spoke about Cuba. Since then, however, US engagement with the Caribbean seems to have lessened as other powers like the United Kingdom and China have stepped up their presence.
Four years after the Fifth Summit, US Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Port of Spain to discuss regional security and energy.
But Obama was conspicuous by his absence, particularly in light of the fact that China’s President, Xi Jinping, actually visited the country just days after Biden’s departure.
The question is, why hasn’t Obama visited the Caribbean on an official basis, other than a stop at an Organization of American States summit?
There are a host of issues on which he could focus — from Caribbean deportees to Caribbean crime to Caribbean debt — and it seems that it is time to act.
A real visit, whether to Trinidad, Jamaica or even Haiti would go a long way toward showing the region that Obama is truly committed to the Caribbean.
Of course, there may be reasons why he has not yet made an official visit to a Caribbean country.
Jamaica would be a logical choice, but it may be that issues like Jamaica’s lotto scams – which drew strong rebukes from US lawmakers earlier this year — to Jamaica’s continued inability to tackle the crime problem — could be preventing such a visit.
And after Biden’s visit, a second trip to Trinidad would likely make the Caribbean feel that Trinidad was somehow the only country in the region.
US Attorney General Eric Holder visited Haiti in April, and it’s possible that that country could be a logical location for an Obama visit, although issues there — such as the continued delay on elections — could be a potential roadblock.
A presidential visit is not just a trip — it is as much about legitimizing the destination as it is about meeting with local leaders. And it may be that Obama’s next Caribbean trip could be somewhere unexpected — St Kitts, perhaps? Grenada?
Only time will tell, but if Obama is truly committed to the region, it may be time to take that next step.
David P Rowe is an attorney in Jamaica and Florida and an adjunct law professor at the University of Miami School of Law in Coral Gables, Fla.
Note: the opinions expressed in Caribbean Journal Op-Eds are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Caribbean Journal.