The Shiprider Solution: Policing the Caribbean

March 1, 1996 Topic: Security Regions: Americas Tags: Baltic Sea

The Shiprider Solution: Policing the Caribbean

Mini Teaser: Thr reality is that the Caribbean micro-states have a most uncertain future, and may prove to be politically and economically unviable. Given their location, it is a strong American interest to maintain stability.

by Author(s): Elliott Abrams

American impressions of the Caribbean as a land of rum and beaches are belied by the region's past--and future--as an area of instability. While democracy is deeply rooted in a few countries, its hold is shaky at best in several others. Moreover, several island nations have economies so small and inefficient that they have little to export but their populations. The refusal of Bermudans to vote for independence last year may show that they, at least, have understood the point: In an increasingly troubled region, reliance on a foreign power for security and prosperity may be the most sensible form of nationalism. And the only available foreign power is the United States.

Three American Interests

While there has been continuing debate over foreign adventures throughout American history, there has been little argument over the importance of the Caribbean to American security. The Basin constitutes the coastal waters of the United States, which began trying to dominate it soon after the War of 1812. This was achieved over the course of a century by expelling the Spanish and then overpowering the British. In the process the United States acquired several colonies in the region, including the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, and there were even efforts to annex the Dominican Republic and Cuba. American intervention in Central America and the Caribbean islands has been frequent over the last hundred years, from the Spanish-American War to President Clinton's "permissive" invasion of Haiti. As most of the island Caribbean remained under British rule until very recently, intervention in the English-speaking Caribbean has been limited to Grenada--so far.

U.S. interest in the region long preceded the Cold War, and has not declined since the Soviet collapse. We have one less thing to worry about now--Soviet and Cuban subversion--and a policy of strategic denial is no longer necessary. But there are at least two significant and concrete American interests, and one powerful intangible concern.

The first American interest is migration, which has become an emotional issue in U.S. domestic politics. In the Caribbean, one common reaction to unemployment, local oppression, or violence is to move to the United States. Today, about 18 percent of all Grenadans live here; 15 percent of Guyanese and Barbadans; 14 percent of Jamaicans. The largest Caribbean communities in numbers are the Cuban, Dominican, Jamaican, and Haitian. If the Caribbean becomes more unstable those communities will undoubtedly grow, for there is already a "culture of migration" in the entire region.
Prior to the 1965 immigration reform law, there were no numerical limits on immigration from the Western Hemisphere. Today, both legal and illegal immigration are sensitive topics--sensitive enough to skew policy toward Cuba and Haiti. It is simply impossible to explain the American insistence on placing Jean-Bertrand Aristide back in power in Port-au-Prince after a military coup ousted him, without noting that his return legitimized the policy of refusing Haitian migrants the right to enter the United States.

Similarly, policy toward Cuba, especially the U.S.-Cuba migration agreement reached in 1995, is only explicable (though perhaps not defensible) in terms of the politics of migration. The decades-old policy of allowing refugee status and automatic admission to every Cuban who landed in the United States was jettisoned and replaced by previously unthinkable cooperation with the Castro regime to prevent unauthorized travel from Cuba to the United States. Why? In large part because the migration issue had become too explosive in domestic, especially Florida, politics to ignore.

The second American interest is drugs. The Caribbean Basin is now a key trafficking route and location for money laundering. Any serious effort to stop or slow the entry of drugs into the United States, or to prevent money laundering, requires a focus on the region that lies squarely between the cocaine-producing countries of South America and the U.S. market.

The third, and less concrete, American interest is in the maintenance of democracy and respect for human rights in this border region. What might be tolerated in distant lands--a government run by merciless thugs or the corrupted allies of drug traffickers--is far less acceptable in our front-yard. A nation that intervenes in far-off Somalia and sends troops to Bosnia is unlikely to ignore massive bloodshed or large humanitarian emergencies so close to home.

Caribbean Instability

These concerns may seem far-fetched, for the Caribbean has a reputation as a tourist haven where there is little to fear but hurricanes. The image is inaccurate, and democratic stability in the Caribbean is far weaker than most Americans think. If the 1970s and 1980s saw instability and violence in Central America, the late 1990s and the following decades may be the Caribbean's turn. Moreover, unless one is willing to posit a "velvet revolution" for Cuba, that country--the Caribbean's most populous--is likely to experience considerable instability as well, and any violence there will undoubtedly have a direct impact on its nearest neighbor, the United States.

Politically, fifteen of the sixteen Caribbean governments are now formally democracies, with Cuba the only exception. But several are weak democracies at best. When Freedom House's Douglas Payne surveyed the region, he found that four countries--Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Surinam, and Antigua & Barbuda--are only "partly free", and that several of the "free" countries are not stable. Indeed, Payne concluded that "the survival of even the strongest democracies in the Caribbean cannot be taken for granted."

Why is this? In some cases, such as Antigua & Barbuda, one corrupt family runs the place and may run it into the ground; in others, the legacy of corruption from a previous period--such as the Pindling years in the Bahamas--seems impossible to clean up. Haiti's travails are familiar, and the establishment of stable democratic institutions there seems, at best, decades away. In the Dominican Republic the Balaguer years are finally ending, leaving behind great poverty, no nationally popular leaders, enormous corruption, and a long history of stolen elections. Racial differences and racially-based parties are the problem in Guyana and in Trinidad & Tobago, producing in the latter case a 1991 coup attempt by a radical Islamic group that held the nation's entire parliament hostage for five days.

Faith in democracy, universal at the time of independence in the 1960s, is fraying. Howard Wiarda of the National Defense University expresses a growing consensus:

A worrisome factor is the apparent weakening of the successor generations' commitment to democracy. It is plain that on the islands, as on the mainland, the early euphoria over a restored or reinvigorated democracy has passed and considerable disillusionment has set in. The new democracies have not delivered much in the way of goods, services, jobs, and prosperity. Some are simply disillusioned with democracy's unfulfilled hopes, but others are blaming democracy for their troubles.

To these political problems must be added an economic challenge many Caribbean countries are not likely to meet. Since the Second World War, the states of the region have benefited from a variety of preferential trade arrangements, whether as colonies or independent states. Today, the European Community's LomŽ Agreement and the U.S. Caribbean Basin Initiative offer special access for Caribbean exports. But the preferences are on their way out, for the "level playing field" is the new organizing principle of international trade.

In the 1980s the United States adopted the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI) and directed large aid flows not only to Central America but to the Caribbean as well. Today, the Caribbean's brief place in the sun in Washington has fallen into shadows. The North American Free Trade Agreement (nafta) offers Mexico benefits not matched by the cbi, and the obvious result--as the U.S. International Trade Commission predicted--is a diversion of trade and investment from the Caribbean into Mexico. During the first half of 1995, for example, textile exports from Mexico to the United States grew more than twice as fast as Caribbean exports did. Unless and until nafta's advantages are matched by an enhanced cbi these trends can only worsen, but efforts to give "nafta parity" to the cbi beneficiary countries were all rejected in Congress in 1994 and again in 1995.

Moreover, the U.S. position in the great banana war is to support the cheaper Latin producers, such as Ecuador, against the expensive Caribbean exporters, which have hitherto had protected markets in Europe. Whatever the merits of the case as a matter of trade law and of market economics, losing those European markets would devastate the economies of the Windward Island countries: Bananas constitute more than 50 percent of the exports of Grenada, St. Lucia, Dominica, and 49 percent for St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

Meanwhile, aid flows have fallen fast: U.S. aid (excluding special appropriations for Haiti) went from $226 million in 1984 to $24 million in 1994, and aid from the United Kingdom and the European Community is falling as well.

The economic problems of the Caribbean nations are no mystery: They export little, save little, have few resources but sand (except for Trinidad, which has oil), and need far more new jobs than they are creating. Unemployment is perhaps 30 percent in Barbados and Grenada, 25 percent in the Dominican Republic, immeasurably high in Haiti. It is highest in every country among urban youth--a perfect formula for crime and unrest. Over the next fifteen years the Caribbean population, now thirty-six million, will rise another six million, and will hit fifty million in 2025, but far fewer jobs than workers are being added.

To underlying political and economic problems has recently been added the new danger of corruption and violence connected to drug trafficking. St. Kitts in 1994 provided a sad example. In June of that year, the country's ambassador to the United Nations, who had previously been the attorney for several offshore banks suspected of money laundering, disappeared without a trace. In October a huge load of cocaine was discovered on an abandoned beach. One week later the commander of the country's Secret Service was murdered by a gunman using a sophisticated rifle with infrared sights--which was left behind to impress others with the dangers law enforcement officers and their collaborators now ran. A week after that the son of the deputy prime minister was murdered, and his older brothers were arrested when drugs, money, and guns were found in their home. When they were quickly released on minimal bail, other prisoners burned down the jail in protest.

St. Kitts is not alone. As Anthony Maingot, a veteran Caribbean-watcher at Florida International University, recently wrote, "it has become predictable that when cases involving grand larceny, fraud and conspiracy or bribery and the sale of 'citizenship' and passports are reported in the international press, some offshore center--old or new--in the Caribbean will be the safekeeper." And these small states are virtually defenseless, for their military forces are tiny. Jamaica's are comparatively large at three thousand men; Trinidad & Tobago has two thousand; Haiti's police force is new and disorganized; the smaller islands measure their security forces in hundreds, not thousands. These countries have no navies to patrol their coasts, no air forces to protect their skies. It is, in a way, admirable that the Caribbean nations as a whole spent only 1.4 percent of gdp on security in 1994. But it means that they are virtually defenseless when powerful drug and criminal groups approach.

And they have approached. The following conclusions are from the U.S. Department of State's 1995 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report:
The Bahamas remains a major transit country for U.S.-bound Colombian cocaine and Jamaican marijuana. . . . The Dominican Republic is a major transshipment country for illegal drugs destined for the United States. . . . Haiti remains a base of operations for Colombian trafficking organizations and an increasingly important transshipment point for the movement of South American cocaine to the United States. . . . Jamaica is both a major producer of marijuana and a flourishing transshipment site for South America cocaine en route to the United States. . . . In 1994 the Eastern Caribbean region experienced increased use as a transit corridor for marijuana and cocaine into the U.S. and drug trafficking emerged as a threat to the political stability of the region.

The Question of Viability

What does this all add up to? Robert Pastor, President Carter's top aide on Latin America and the Caribbean, and Richard Fletcher of the Inter-American Development Bank have a gloomy forecast: "The Caribbean is not in danger of revolution; rather the prospect is for continued deterioration, growing social delinquency (crime, drugs), emigration and sporadic attempted coups by radicals or drug-traffickers or both." Pastor and Fletcher have even written the V-word--"the question of economic viability remains unanswered"--although limiting their doubts to Caribbean economies. Others are less restrained: Howard Wiarda maintains that "at some point, the United States will have to deal in a policy sense with these tougher questions: not just the problem of still-shaky democracies, but also the relationship in these states between economic and political issues and ultimately the problem of viability itself."

"Viability itself"? Precisely. It is time to ask, out loud, whether the decision made by Puerto Ricans decades ago when they voted for commonwealth status, and by Bermudans in a 1995 plebiscite that rejected independence from Britain, was not the wiser course: continuing dependency on a larger, richer, stronger nation. Of course, for nations as large as Trinidad & Tobago and Jamaica, Haiti or the Dominican Republic, the question is silly; it is less so for the smallest islands, with populations as low as 95,000 (Grenada), 72,000 (Dominica), 64,000 (Antigua & Barbuda), and even 41,000 (St. Kitts & Nevis). There are dependencies, colonies, "associated states" in the Caribbean with larger populations than several of these independent nations: not only Puerto Rico, but Aruba and Curacao (which have ties to the Netherlands), Bermuda, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Guadeloupe, Martinique, and French Guiana. Indeed, there are towns with larger populations. Watching the Europeans pour money into "their" territories after this year's terrible hurricane season, Caribbean residents may be forgiven for wondering what the costs and what the benefits of total independence really are.

Full colonial status may be a non-starter, but a voluntary, beneficial erosion of sovereignty should not be. For example, under agreements signed in 1995, six of the smallest states in the Eastern Caribbean now permit U.S. Navy vessels full freedom of action in their territorial waters, calculating no doubt that it is better to have their sovereignty invaded by Americans under treaty than by drug runners at will. These are versions of "shiprider agreements" with the United States, under which a local official is put on board a U.S. Navy or Coast Guard vessel, allowing better communication and coordination, and, most important of all, providing immediate permission for U.S. moves in territorial waters that would otherwise be off-limits. Indeed, under the 1995 agreements, the Americans can act even if a "shiprider" is absent or unavailable and a "suspect vessel or aircraft" moves into territorial waters.

In truth, the small states of the Caribbean are nearly defenseless if their territory, sovereignty, and democratic institutions are attacked by criminals and drug traffickers. Their often fragile democratic institutions cannot survive without help from outside powers, which means--as it did in the cases of Grenada and Haiti--the United States. American domination of the region is greater now than ever before, because in the past it was always contested--by the Spanish or British until the beginning of this century, by the Soviets and Cubans more recently. Today, the only major power that cares deeply about the Caribbean is the one that has a border there.

American intervention is almost inevitable if instability breaks out. Would the United States not act if a Caribbean government were overthrown by radicals, as almost happened in Trinidad? Or if a migration crisis threatened to arise due to events in Cuba or Haiti, as happened in the recent past? Or if a drug cartel seemed to be in control of an island's government and security forces? Even the strictest interpretation of the Weinberger or Powell Doctrine should not be an obstacle: the Pentagon should be enthusiastic about interventions that, given their scale, are bound to be quick and successful. Must the United States act alone? Collective action, whether through the United Nations or the Organization of American States, is impossible if the United States vetoes it, and unnecessary if the United States is willing to act. It may be a useful legitimization of American intervention, as it was in Haiti, but the decision-makers remain exclusively within the U.S. government. The dominant power in the region cannot evade its role as the ultimate guarantor of peace, stability, and, nowadays, democracy.

With this in mind, the small states of the Caribbean may well be best off accepting and trying to regularize American intervention--as several have now done with regard to the U.S. Coast Guard and Navy--in exchange for certain economic and trade benefits. As it is clear that the small states must rely on outside powers to assist them if their democratic institutions are under assault, why not establish some regime that sets the rules? These would set forth how aid might be requested from the United States or some multilateral body, establish in advance what sanctions would be applied to the usurpers, legitimate the intervention--and deter coup plotters by making it clear that they will indeed be pressured or pushed out of power.

Might the United States "buy" assistance in its drug wars, by giving the Caribbean states more aid and nafta parity in exchange for a larger role in regional defense? Could a new defense treaty between the United States and groups of countries--the Eastern Caribbean states, or the English-speaking (Commonwealth) countries--provide them not only with arms and training, but as well with economic benefits, conceived of as a form of rent? Could American control of national security affairs not co-exist with local control over all other matters, at least for the smallest islands? It should even be possible to think of new political associations, new forms of commonwealth status under which some of the Caribbean nations voluntarily link themselves with the United States.
Many in the Caribbean will see such ideas as efforts to reverse history and restore colonialism. And a new and more intimate relationship with the United States should not be imposed; if useful, it can be developed step-by-step as a response to events, rather as were the shiprider agreements. Faced with security problems, a grim economic future, and uncertain political stability, it is not hard to believe that some island leaders will see closer ties with the United States as a brighter prospect. Too big a push from Washington might undercut them by making them seem to be American puppets, but at least the message from up north should be that we, too, are reassessing our relationships.

Given the historic American opposition to colonialism and the present mood of isolationism in many quarters, these suggestions may be more unpopular here than in parts of the Caribbean. But the reality is that the Caribbean micro-states have a most uncertain future, and may prove to be politically and economically unviable. Given their location, it is a strong American interest to maintain stability and the rule of law in those countries, and mechanisms to accomplish this goal must either be carefully planned and negotiated--or decided hastily at the Pentagon when crises eventuate. Geography forces them to associate with the United States, and whether that association takes the form of sporadic intervention or permanent cooperation is the only issue remaining open.

This would be a sensible time to address it. The parameters of an economic relationship are clear: the nations of the Caribbean should be given trade benefits no less advantageous than those accorded Mexico under NAFTA. For the very smallest economies, foreign aid will be necessary--permanently. The political and military side is less clear, for many kinds of cooperation and association are possible. But the anti-colonial mindset, and the insistence on full independence, that marked the 1960s should be relegated to the past. Developments in the world economy, and indeed in international criminal activity, have made full independence tantamount to full vulnerability for the smallest states. Far more valuable would be a relationship with the United States that helped guarantee prosperity, security, and liberty.

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