Friday, November 23, 2012

The Caribbean’s Agricultural Crisis

November 23, 2012

“Make no mistake about it. Our region is in the throes of the greatest crisis since independence. The specter of evolving into failed societies is no longer a subject of imagination. How our societies crawl out of this vicious vortex of persistent low growth, crippling debt, huge fiscal deficits, and high unemployment is the single most important question facing us at this time. Indeed, if CARICOM (the Caribbean Community) wishes to be relevant to the lives of the people of the region, then that issue should dominate its deliberations at the next summit. CARICOM cannot be seen to be impotent when societies and economies are at risk, on the brink of collapse.” These were the words of Dr. Kenny Anthony, Prime Minister of St. Lucia to a meeting of the Barbados Chamber of Commerce and Industry on October 31.

While fighting an uphill battle in an unfriendly global economic environment, a key part of the Caribbean’s socio-economic descent has to with the collective failure to take the necessary steps to integrate the region and find alternatives to support agricultural production. Due to the dictates of World Trade Organization (WTO) which dismantled protected trade agreements with Europe, a great deal of the Caribbean agricultural industry was left for dead. It was assumed that due to economies of scale the Caribbean was producing agricultural goods in an inefficient manner and that they should free up their human resources to focus on areas in which they held a “comparative advantage” (i.e. tourism or offshore financial services—which catered to powerful interests).

This feeling was so pervasive that in the late 1980s U.S. Secretary for Agriculture John Block argued that “The idea that developing countries should feed themselves is an anachronism from a bygone era. They could better ensure their food security by relying on U.S. agricultural products, which are available, in most cases, at much lower cost.”

Much to the surprise of the expert economists, the comparative advantage to replace agriculture never showed up. The small farmers of the Caribbean were forced into redundancy and the results are telling. During the start of the U.S. led “Banana War” at the WTO twenty years ago the countries which form CARICOM produced a net agricultural surplus of roughly $3 billion; today CARICOM’s food import bill stands at $3.5 billion per year. The loss of agricultural jobs contributed significantly to the sharp rise in unemployment, poverty, and hunger, with it also contributing to a sharp decline in government revenues. Furthermore, according to Ryerson University’s Center for Studies in Food Security much of the newly imported food is harmful, as “nutrition-related, chronic non-communicable diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and hypertension are the main causes of disability, illness, and death in the region”.

Given that the Caribbean is one of the most fertile regions on the planet and that it was colonized primarily for agricultural reasons, the fact that most of the Caribbean countries are now designated as Net Food Importing Developing Countries—meaning that they cannot grow their own food—is highly problematic. While this is predominately due to the actions of the WTO, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and bi-lateral loan conditions, the Caribbean leaders must take responsibility as well for not moving fast enough to build new links in the agricultural sector and reduce vulnerability due to high levels of food insecurity.
However, the delay on diversification should not be considered as a very recent phenomenon, as many Caribbean dependency theorists and progressive politicians also warned about the ongoing overreliance of the region on outward oriented protected trade agreements. Expressing the demand for greater economic self determination, diversification, and shift away from unequal trading, during the short lived St. Lucia Labour Party government of Allan Louisy, Winston Cenac and George Odlum remarked that:

“We (St. Lucia) have inherited our export economy in which the very operation of the economy was geared to external and not domestic demands and needs. The best resources in our country were utilized for producing the export staple .... Whatever resources remained, which were both few in both quantity and quality, could not satisfy our domestic requirements. The result was a large import bill and a disincentive to local production fostered by an attitude which maintained that foreign goods or anything with a foreign label was superior to our local products. The basic problem associated with the import/export economy lay also with the nature of our exports and imports. Our exports are primary products like bananas which suffer from the vagaries of the weather and sensitivity of their prices to factors outside our control .... Our imports, on the other hand, are high valued goods, covering every category from food to capital goods.”

The new service oriented direction that the Caribbean was forced into was not much different from the unequal trading terms which existed under agriculture. Looking at the nature of the tourism industry for example, in all inclusive resorts, all guests pre-pay for their visits, and such a great deal of the money does not come into circulation in the local economy. In addition, a great deal of the food is imported, as seen by the 2006 Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association study titled The Caribbean Accommodation Sector as a Consumer of Locally Produced Goods and Contributor to Government Revenue, which revealed that less than 20% of fresh fruit, fish, and eggs were acquired locally. Furthermore, a 2008 World Bank study titled OECS Increasing Linkages of Tourism with Agriculture, Manufacturing, and Service Sectors which showed that food imports for the tourism sector were estimated at a value of US$366 million, representing 20-25% of total agricultural imports.

While many Caribbean economies were overdependent on protected banana exports, the banana industry was highly regarded for the levels of economic growth due to what economists refer to as the “multiplier effect.” Bananas affectionately became known as “Green Gold” amongst the small farmers, as the steady prices enabled them to raise their humble standard of living. Due to the nature of the banana industry, the farmers spent their income in the local economy, creating spinoff jobs, which leads to more spending and the cycle continued.

While the United Nations has announced that the Caribbean is geographically unable to provide 100% food security, Belize Guyana and Suriname, with comparatively larger land masses, can do a great deal to reduce the region’s vulnerability. There are some small slivers of hope, as last month, Guyana and Trinidad announced the creation of a food-security facility with hopes of increasing agricultural and livestock production, reducing dependence on foreign food imports, and at the same time encouraging the regional goal to reduce food insecurity in CARICOM by 25% by the year 2015. Jamaica has recently announced in April that it would be launching a $150 million, 2,000 acre rice cultivation project. These are all promising steps in the right direction.

While refocusing on agriculture will not be a salvation in and of itself, it provides the opportunity for some stability for the region’s most vulnerable people. The resources, markets, and technical knowhow and experience of the Caribbean population already exists, it is just being underutilized. Additionally, governments must be stronger when dealing with the tourist industry and mandate that they must buy local first, then secure imports after. By supporting the agricultural sector, it will free up a great deal of revenue for health and education projects which are currently used up on food imports.

Furthermore, regional and national banks must offer credit to expand production and improve technology for small scale farmers. If the leaders simply continue to talk and do nothing to deepen regional integration, then Dr. Anthony’s warning of becoming a failed society will become reality. The real test will be to see which government takes the lead to make sure that this doesn’t happen—and whether others will do their part to implement the much needed reforms.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Despite Global Opposition, United States Votes to Continue Cuban Embargo

Nov. 15, 2012

In a near unanimous vote at the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, the vast majority of the world voted to put an end the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba. Aside from the moral argument, the driving principles behind the vote to end the embargo were those regarding the sovereign equality of states, non-intervention in internal affairs, and the freedom of international trade and navigation. In total, 188 countries voted in favor of the resolution, with the U.S., Israel, and Palau voting against it, and the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia abstaining. It was the twenty first consecutive year that the resolution passed by an overwhelming majority in the U.N. The last time the United States had normal relations with Cuba, the Andy Griffith Show was the most popular show on TV, African Americans couldn’t vote, McDonalds only had 228 locations, and Barack Obama would not be born for another year. It was indeed a different world.

It was thought that President Obama knew this as well when he made headlines in 2009 by stating that he sought “a new beginning” with Cuba, as the outdated and damaging policy was more ideological than practical, Tuesday’s vote showed that when it came to the embargo, nothing has changed.

The embargo began in 1960 when the United States sought to punish revolutionary Cuba for nationalizing properties which previously belonged to U.S. corporations and citizens. To put things in perspective, after Cuba gained “formal” independence in 1902, it was still governed largely by the neo-colonial Platt Amendment. This imposition stipulated that the Cuban government could not make alliances or sign treaties with any foreign government without the permission of the United States. Article III of the Amendment stated that the government of Cuba must consent to the right of the United States to intervene in Cuban affairs for “the preservation of Cuban independence, the maintenance of a government adequate for the protection of life, property, and individual liberty.” Thus the Platt Amendment set the stage for repeated U.S. intervention in Cuba in 1906, 1912, 1917, and 1920.

While the Platt Amendment was scrapped in 1934 under President Roosevelt's Good Neighbor policy, U.S. companies already dominated the Cuban economy, which owned 60% of rural properties, 90% of Cuban mines and mineral exports, and 80% of the utilities and railroads. The United States also backed business-friendly strongmen which ensured that the neo-colonial status quo would continue. Students of American history would be right to recognize that a similar pattern of foreign economic control sparked their very own revolution in 1776.

In many ways, the ongoing Cuban embargo is one of the most symbolic policies of U.S. imperial control in the Americas. That said, the impact is much more than merely symbolic for the Cuban people, as according to Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, the embargo is “an act of aggression and a permanent danger to the stability of the nation.”

While the Cuban embargo was ultimately created to isolate Cuba economically and politically, the routine imposition of harsher conditions has failed to bring down the Castro government. In 1992, President George H. Bush signed the Cuban Democracy Act (also known as the Torricelli Act) into law, which forbids subsidiaries of U.S. companies from trading with Cuba, U.S. nationals from traveling to Cuba and remittances being sent to the country. The Cuban Democracy Act also attempts to limit the amount of interaction the international community has with Cuba by “imposing sanctions on any country that provides assistance to Cuba, including ending U.S. assistance for those countries and by disqualifying them from benefiting from any programme of reduction or forgiveness of debt owed to the USA.” It was widely assumed that after the fall of the Soviet Union it would only be a matter of time before Castro fell as well.

When that prediction didn’t materialize, President Bill Clinton signed the internationally condemned Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act in law (more commonly known as the Helms-Burton Act) in March 1996. This act further deepened the sanctions against Cuba as it sought to “strengthen international sanctions against the Castro government,” and to “plan for support of a transition government leading to a democratically elected government in Cuba.” The Helms-Burton Act allowed for any non-U.S. company that dealt with Cuba to be subjected to legal action and that the respective company's leadership could be barred from entry into the United States. This essentially meant that many international businesses were blackmailed to choose between operating in Cuba or the United States—which financially speaking isn’t much of a choice in regards to market size.

Like any embargo—whether in Iran, Gaza, or Cuba—it is the regular people who suffer the most. While there is a wide disagreement on the exact amount of harm the embargo has done to the Cuban economy, the estimates range between one and three trillion $US. In 2008, the Indian Delegation to the United Nations stated that “The negative impact of the embargo is pervasive in the social, economic, and environmental dimensions of human development in Cuba, severely affecting the most vulnerable socioeconomic groups of the Cuban population.”

President Jimmy Carter highlighted the failure of the embargo in September, when he stated that "We should all continue to press the Cuban government to respect individual rights and more political openness, but the embargo undermines any credibility that [the United States] has in calling for improvements in Cuba."
Cuba’s Foreign Minister went on to question the logic of the embargo, remarking that “Keeping this policy in force is not in the national interest of the United States. Quite on the contrary, it harms the interests of its citizens and companies—especially in times of economic crisis and high unemployment—which, according to every poll, are demanding a change of policy .... What's the point of encroaching on the constitutional and civil rights and the freedom of travel of Americans by preventing them from visiting the Island when they can visit any other place in the planet, including those where their country is waging wars?”

While the world has called on the United States to “act on the right side of history” by lifting the crushing and unnecessary economic embargo on Cuba, it must also remove Cuba from the U.S. State Department’s list of Sponsors of State Terrorism. This position is highly problematic, as the United States has actively engaged in over 50 years of economic and covert destabilization in Cuba, going so far as blindly protecting wanted terrorists such as Luis Posada Carilles and Orlando Bosch, both former CIA agents accused of dozens of terrorist attacks in Cuba and the United States.

The double standard of dealing with noted human rights abusers such as China, Saudi Arabia and Colombia, while isolating Cuba, does not make sense. Obama’s re-election has meant that he is no longer captive to a potentially extreme anti-Cuba voting bloc in Florida. In fact, calls for normalization of relations with Cuba have been on the increase. Given that Obama has stated that “I am not interested in talking for the sake of talking, but I do believe that we can move U.S.-Cuban relations in a new direction”—it is time for meaningful, progressive engagement with Cuba to occur. Tuesday’s vote showed how out of touch America is on this issue. Given the other foreign relations nightmares Obama has both inherited and created, normalizing relations with Cuba would be a realistically achievable and just goal for his second term.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Obama's Election and the Caribbean: What Does it Mean?

Nov. 8, 2012


Early Wednesday morning the Caribbean breathed a sigh of relief with the re-election of Barack Obama. A Romney victory would have ushered in a period of uncertainty, as it was expected that he would pursue a more aggressive stance towards Cuba and other left leaning governments in the region. During the debates however, it became apparent that Latin America and the Caribbean was not an area of deep concern for either candidate as the foreign policy discussion was intensely focused on matters relating to the potential conflict with Iran, security in post-Gaddafi Libya, Israel/Palestine, Syria and the trade imbalance with China.

While Caribbean Prime Ministers immediately extended their congratulations to Obama, their expressions of cautious optimism also came with calls for more meaningful engagement with the region. For example, Dominica’s Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit sent his congratulations to Obama, remarking that “The relationship between the United States and Dominica continues to be strong, based on mutual respect...we work very diligently on matters relating to regional security and we look forward to advancing those efforts. Clearly, the U.S. focus is on anti-terrorism matters and they moved away from issues relating to development in the region. But I am hoping that the new term of President Obama there would be some kind of re-direction towards developmental issues.”

During his first term, Obama’s most significant interaction with the region came in the form of the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative to combat the growing influence of the drug trade. While sounding familiar, this should not be confused with the Caribbean Basin Initiative. In 1984, the Reagan administration implemented the first Caribbean Basin Initiative to stem the tide of leftism in the region—characterized by the Grenadian Revolution of 1979—by offering financial aid and development assistance. A key pillar of the initiative was export diversification in the region, but this consisted primarily of relocating export processing plants for textiles and apparel industries to the Caribbean.

Obama formed the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative during the Fifth Summit of the Americas in April 2009, when he announced an investment and partnership with the Caribbean toward strengthening regional security. In the first two years of the initiative, the Obama administration invested $139 million which went towards training scouting aircraft and boats, police polygraphers, improving prisons, and training police. Despite the initiative claiming to work on “increasing educational opportunities and providing workforce development and entrepreneurship training for at-risk youth,” very little has been done of this aspect of the program.

During Obama’s first term there were no clear signs that the antagonistic relationship between Washington and Havana was going to change. Evidence of this could be seen by the U.S. State Department keeping Cuba on their list of “State Sponsors of Terrorism.” Despite this irresponsible categorization, Obama introduced small changes—specifically easing the restrictions on Cuban-American travel to the island and increasing the amount of remittances they can send back home. The increased flows of remittances have been pointed to as a key source of financing for the small businesses that are now sprouting up in Cuba under Raul Castro’s economic reforms. Next week at the United Nations General Assembly, Cuba will submit a draft resolution titled “Necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial blockade imposed by the United states of America against Cuba.” It is universally expected that the United States will veto the resolution for the 21st consecutive year.

In regards to Haiti, U.S. policy has maintained the status quo of empowering international capital at the expense of the Haitian people’s livelihood and self determination. At the opening of a controversial $300 million industrial park (sweatshop) in an ecologically sensitive zone far outside of the area damaged by the earthquake, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remarked that “When I became Secretary of State, I looked at the billions of dollars of foreign assistance that the United States spends around the world and I asked myself why the results didn’t always create meaningful and sustainable change in the lives of people .… So we redirected our efforts to work with Haiti, not just in Haiti.”

A sign of the sustainable priorities envisioned by the United States and the Bill Clinton-led Haiti Recovery Commission is their focusing on constructing low wage assembly plants and totally ignoring Haiti’s education system. After the earthquake the State University of Haiti was severely damaged, but two years later classes are still taking place in sheds and under tarps. Haiti Grassroots Watch revealed the troubling priorities of the commission, which noted that the State University submitted a reconstruction contract to the Clinton-led commission in early 2011 which was ignored, while the Clinton commission offered $914,000 to the private Quisqueya University to open a Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

While the Caribbean has fallen off of Obama’s radar, it has allowed non-traditional political forces such as China and Venezuela to exert their influence in the region. Over the past ten years, China has gradually made inroads into the region and has now become one of the Caribbean’s largest sources of development projects, trade, and preferential lending. The Chinese Government’s first-ever policy paper on Latin America and the Caribbean, written in 2008, stated that “As the largest developing country in the world, China is committed to the path of peaceful development and the win-win strategy of opening-up. It is ready to carry out friendly cooperation with all countries on the basis of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence and build a harmonious world of durable peace and common prosperity.”

Furthermore, the countries of the Eastern Caribbean are seeking out alternative alliances with the Venezuelan and Cuban influenced Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA). ALBA is an international co-operation organization based on the idea of social, political, and economic integration between the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean. It is associated with socialist and social democratic governments and is an attempt at South-South regional economic integration based on a vision of social welfare, solidarity, and mutual economic aid. Immediate benefits from ALBA include reduced oil via the PetroCaribe program, infrastructure grants, and investments in social services.

While the Bush-era will be remembered for backing violent intervention in Venezuela in 2002 and Haiti in 2004, it must be remembered that the coup which ousted the democratically elected President of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya occured on Obama's watch. Despite initially calling the coup which brought Porfiro Lobo to power illegal, Obama quickly moved on to recognize the regime, praising Lobo for his "strong commitment to democracy" in 2011. Additionally, Obama has been silent on the parliamentary coup which removed Paraguay's democratically elected President Fernando Lugo from power in June.

It remains to be seen whether or not Obama will shift to a more development focused approach in the Caribbean, but based on his past actions it remains doubtful that meaningful change will occur. However, the shift to a less antangonistic, more hands off approach comes with both new problems and possibilities for change through new alliances and spaces for policy development in the Caribbean. Given the troubling history of intervention, destabilization, and the steadfast implementation of neoliberal economic policies, perhaps giving the Caribbean its own space to decide their future and chart their own political and development priorities is what exactly what they need.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Climate Change and the Caribbean

Nov. 3, 2012

With Hurricane Sandy still vividly imprinted on everyone’s mind, it is important to remember that the storm’s destruction did not begin once the storm came ashore off the coast of New Jersey. Before the storm made landfall, it took the lives of 70 people, the majority occurring in Haiti (54) and Cuba (11), but also in Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, and the Bahamas. While many regard the Caribbean as being blessed with warm tropical waters and white sandy beaches, it has also been cursed by geography, as it sits in what can best be understood as “Hurricane Alley.” The Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Climate Change Center has stated that “The two dozen island nations of the Caribbean, and the 40 million people who live there, are in a state of increased vulnerability to climate change. Higher temperatures, rises in sea level, and increased hurricane intensity threaten lives, property and livelihoods throughout the region.”


Just as Hurricane Sandy was described as a “Frankenstorm” because it was a combination of the worst possible scenarios, the Caribbean has been dealing with increasingly intense storms—the result of which has torn at the economic, social, and political fabric of the region. Norman Girvan, of the University of the West Indies reflected that “30 years ago, one expected to deal with major disasters of this kind, say, once every ten years. Nowadays, most islands expect at least one, and possibly two or three, every year. In other words this now has to be seen as a permanent, recurring phenomenon or integral feature of Caribbean development.”

According to Princeton University Geosciences professor Michael Oppenheimer, "Climate change will probably increase storm intensity and size simultaneously, resulting in a significant intensification of storm surges.” David Enfield, a senior scientist at the University of Miami and former physical oceanographer at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration stated that "The severe hurricanes might actually become worse. We may have to invent a category 6."

Perhaps out of necessity, CARICOM has avoided politicizing the issue of climate change, choosing instead to develop ways how to both minimize and cope with its undesirable and unpredictable effects. As far back as 1994, Barbados hosted the Global Conference on the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States. This resulted in the emergence of the Caribbean Planning for Adaptation to Climate Change (CPACC) project. The plan sought to integrate the impacts of climate change into the planning strategies of the region and strengthening technical capacity. Despite these moves, Mother Nature has been insistent on not giving the region a break from the intense storms.

In 2004, Hurricane Ivan leveled Grenada, damaging 90% of the homes on the island and killing 12. The island literally looked like it had been hit by an atomic bomb. The Prime Minister’s own home was flattened, and he had to relocate his office and residence to a British Naval ship. Not surprisingly, the storm decimated the island’s agriculture industry as well. At the time it was the most powerful hurricane to hit the Caribbean in a decade.

Hurricane Wilma later surpassed Ivan's power in 2005, claiming the lives of 12 in Haiti, four in Cuba, and one in the Bahamas and Jamaica. In 2007, while not as powerful as Wilma, Hurricane Dean took 28 lives in the Caribbean. In 2010, Hurricane Tomas smashed into St. Lucia, causing an estimated $500 million in damages. The hurricane destroyed the island’s banana crop, severely damaged the John Compton dam, washed out crucial roads, and took the lives of 14 people. To put things in perspective, the United States is over 1800 times the size of St. Lucia in regards to population; on this basis it would be equivalent to the United States dealing with $916,000,000,000 in damages.

Given that much of the Caribbean is already in a dire economic situation, their ability to rebuild is severely hampered. Each super storm chips away at already scarce infrastructure, increasing the debt burden of these nations and placing them in a more precarious situation. Unfortunately, the impact of climate change in the Caribbean is not confined to hurricanes however—the Caribbean also has to deal with the rising water levels and rising temperatures.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted in 2007 that the global average sea level would rise between seven and 23 inches by the end of this century. This would have a significant impact on the low-lying islands of the Bahamas and Anguilla. It would also submerge many of the region’s beaches and deal the tourism industry a critical blow. Because the Caribbean is highly dependent on tourism, a decline in tourism would rob many governments of their most important tax base—resulting in declining support for healthcare, education, and infrastructure.

Furthermore, 2010 saw a sharp spike in ocean temperatures in the Caribbean. The increased temperatures lead to widespread coral deaths. In 2005, 80% of corals were bleached and as many as 40% died in areas on the eastern side of the Caribbean. Scientists studying corals in the Caribbean reported that the damage to corals in 2010 were more devastating than in 2005. It is estimated that 80% of marine life is found in coral reefs and that these reefs are found in only 1% of the ocean territory.

Thus the impact on reefs has social and economic consequences. In the Caribbean, fisheries employ nearly 200,000 people, noted Dr. Leonard Nurse of the Centre for Resource Management and Environmental Studies at the University of the West Indies. Furthermore, the industry earns USD $5 billion to $6 billion per year in foreign exchange and providing about 10% of the region's protein intake. As another example of the Caribbean’s near total dependency on tourism, dive tourism and recreational fishing are also important revenue sources. In 2000, one study estimated dive tourism and fisheries in the Caribbean provided an economic value between $3.1 billion and $4.6 billion. In a compounding manner, the rising sea levels would create higher storm surges during hurricanes, and the warming ocean waters would fuel stronger storms.

When it comes to discussing climate change in the Caribbean, the sharp inequalities in power and resources come to light. Despite climate change posing a major threat to their survival—and their playing an insignificant impact on carbon emissions—the small countries of the Caribbean have extremely limited influence on the decisions being made (or not made). Extend this inequality to matters of trade and finance and the region is not only at a major disadvantage in preparing for and coping with disasters, both economic and environmental, but it is also being assaulted on many fronts by issues they cannot control.

Dr. Givan best articulated the seriousness of the situation when he remarked that “When you combine acute climate change-related stress of this kind with (a) the acute economic stress arising out of erosion of trade preferences and the failure to develop a new 'insertion' into the global economy, (b) fiscal stress due to unsustainable debt burdens and the impact of the global economic crisis; and (c) the seeming incapacity of governments to control the impact of transnational crime; one must wonder if we are not in fact experiencing an overlapping and interconnected series of challenges which in their totality, challenge the assumptions underlying the ‘national statehood’ dispensation of the region.”

Knowing that it is hard to see any bright spots coming out of such a devastating event like Hurricane Sandy, perhaps it will force the issue of climate change onto the political agenda in such a way that it will be impossible to ignore. The Caribbean has not had the luxury to ignore climate change because they were affected in more acute ways via hurricanes, rising sea levels, and warming currents. Hurricane Sandy has shown that this is now changing.