Above: US President Barack Obama
By Alexander Britell
It’s been six years since United States President Barack Obama made his first visit to the Caribbean, on the occasion of the Summit of the Americas in Port of Spain. And it’s been four since he visited Puerto Rico, his last visit to the region.
While Obama hasn’t made many visits to the nearby region, his administration has not been inactive, however, promoting plans like the wide-ranging Caribbean Basin Security Initiative and, more recently, his potentially transformative rapprochement with Cuba.
Now, with two years left in his term, it seems the Obama Administration is looking to ramp up its engagement with the region.
Now, the White House is ramping up that engagement with the Caribbean in a major new way: green energy.
It’s no secret that rising energy costs are increasingly a major economic threat to the region, and the White House, led by US Vice President Joe Biden, hosted a major regional summit on Monday directly aiming at the issue. Indeed, energy prices in the region are among the highest anywhere on earth.
Indeed, the region’s energy issues have been a talking point for former US President Bill Clinton, who has been an outspoken proponent of helping the Caribbean go green, as he said in a speech in Puerto Rico in 2013.
Toward that end, Biden hosted leaders from across the Caribbean in Washington, DC on Monday for the first-ever Caribbean Energy Security Summit.
The summit came after the launch of the Caribbean Energy Security Initiative in June of last year.
Monday’s summit included a collection of regional heads of government, multilateral development banks and other officials, along with Biden and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.
According to the White House, the summit “highlighted ongoing efforts under the CESI, including support for improved governance, enhanced access to finance, and increased donor coordination.”
Also on the agenda was a slew of new projects, led by a World Bank proposal to create a Caribbean Energy Investment Network to improve “energy and communication” between development partners in the region.
The White House announced that the US Overseas Private Investment Corporation would “intensify” its focus on developing green energy projects in the region, and OPIC and the State Department have identified a team with a specific responsibility for identifying and arranging projects in that vein.
Among other projects, the White House said that USAID would support a multi-year regional Caribbean programme to promote efficiency and integration of green energy into the islands’ grids.
Jamaica will see the largest effort in that regard with the planned Jamaica Clean Energy Programme, which “aims to establish the pre-conditions for clean energy development.”
And the White House’s new energy impetus will manifest itself in several other new ways: the Department of Energy, OPIC and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory are working on a programme that would provide help for Caribbean hotels that reduce their energy and water footprints through green technology solutions.
In St Kitts and Nevis, which has been at the forefront of the regional green energy movement, particularly solar, the State Department will be supporting the development of the long-planned geothermal energy project in Nevis, among other US initiatives.
It remains to be seen how these initiatives will bear fruit; but what’s clear is that it’s much-needed American attention one of the Caribbean’s most pressing challenges.
But Caribbean leaders including CARICOM Chairman and Bahamas Prime Minister Perry Christie used the occasion to make a renewed call — for the President to continue his administration’s new engagement with an actual meeting with CARICOM, one that includes the President himself.
That follows a repeated call by Haiti President Michel Martelly, who has urged Obama and the US to hold a high-level CARICOM-US summit chaired by Obama.