Geopolitics and the CSME – Down to Kingston Market

First Published: 2005-02-02

NOTE: The drumbeat is on for the Bahamas to join in West Indian unification. And although some of us may be sick of reading about the Caribbean Single Market and Economy, the more we look at these complex issues the clearer they become. There is no doubt that whatever is decided will affect our lives and livelihoods for decades to come. This week's article looks at the CSME's political dimensions. The next will explore its economic implications.

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Some Bahamian politicians argue that unification with Caricom is our manifest destiny…A shared colonial culture makes those 14 small nations down south our natural "geopolitical allies".

What do we have to do with such a high-faluting technical term coined by a Swedish political scientist more than a hundred years ago?

That's a good question. Geopolitics became popular in 1904 when an Englishman suggested that controlling the "heartland" of Eastern Europe was the key to world domination…an idea enthusiastically adopted by the Nazis in World War 11.

In its simplest form, the geopolitical concept means that the size, location and position of a territory help determine its influence and prospects in the world.

So as an offshore archipelago with the population of a small American town, you might think we don't amount to much. But in earlier times these islands were strategically important, as this example from a 17th century British writer named John Oldmixon shows:

The Bahamas, he said, was "so necessary for the security of our trade in the West Indies, that the parliament of England have not thought it unworthy of their care, as well to have it cleared of pirates, as to defend it against both Spaniards and French, who find its situation very convenient."

Today, economic power plays a greater role in geopolitical analysis. So much so that some analysts say the term should be replaced by geoeconomics – or perhaps geonarcotics in our case, since the regional drug trade amounts to a $500 billion industry.

There's no doubt that globalisation – the freeing up of the world economy coupled with the development of the Internet – has led to a rapid increase in cross-border trade and social, cultural and technological exchange. And the demands on small insular economies like ours are great.

But is Caribbean integration a part of this process? Well, yes and no. Our political elites see it more as a counter-globalisation survival strategy. They want to unify the Caribbean Community's economic and security policy vis-?-vis the United States and other major powers as a bargaining tool.

And recent moves by South American countries to build regional economic blocs represent "a clear rejection of US aims to dominate a western hemisphere free trading zone", according to Michael Lind writing in the Financial Times.

Mr Lind, of the New America Foundation – a Washington think tank – says the evidence of foreign cooperation to reduce American primacy is everywhere …"from the increasing importance of regional trade blocs to international space projects and military exercises. A new world order is indeed emerging – but its architecture is being drafted in Asia and Europe."

And much of the blame for this can be attributed to the "truculent unilateralism of the Bush administration".

So our government wants to align itself with Caricom as a protection measure against America. And Foreign Minister Fred Mitchell says Caricom leaders are prepared to offer us any terms: "We need to be in," he says, "and not half in and half out. It simply makes good geopolitical sense…! do not see any downside."

Well, it's good that Mr Mitchell cannot see a downside, although surely there are many pros and cons to a complex arrangement such as this. But the key point is that what others want has little to do with what is in our own best interest. We are reminded of the famous Groucho Marx quip about not wanting to be a member of any club that would have him as a member.

Sir Shridath Ramphal, chancellor of the University of the West Indies, put it this way: "Small states are weak and vulnerable…like small boats pushed out into a turbulent sea, free in one sense to traverse it; but, without oars or provisions, free also to perish. Or perhaps, to be rescued and taken on board a larger vessel."

There's no doubt that the Bahamas is a small vessel. But are we really afloat on the Caribbean sea? Or should we seek to be "rescued" by the United States?

Minister Mitchell says the Caricom alliance is "our most important relationship save and except for that between the United States and ourselves." Perhaps that explains why we are a leading participant in this 0week's Chinese Economic Trade Forum in Jamaica.

Jamaica wants to make its container port and free zone the hub for trade and investment throughout the region. To a non-trade expert like me, that sounds like direct competition with our container port on Grand Bahama, but the government obviously sees it as a strategic move to bolster regional solidarity against the US.

Others may see it as an example of the diversion of our limited resources and energies towards a Caricom initiative that holds few benefits for the Bahamas. As one analyst told Tough Call:

"The Bahamas is in an odd position. It thinks it needs the political support of being in the CSME, even if that provides no substantive material support. But at the same time it does not understand how to develop a constructive political relationship with the United States, its closest and most powerful neighbour."

The dilemma is that on the ground, our focus is almost wholly towards the United States. Bahamians spend a billion dollars a year in Florida and were among its earliest settlers. Americans in turn have invested billions in the Bahamas and many prominent US citizens live and vacation here.

Large numbers of Haitian and Cuban refugees, not to mention drug traffickers, pass through the Bahamas to get to Florida. And the governor of that state is the brother of President George W Bush himself. Whatever you might think of Dubya, you couldn't ask for a better connection than that.

So the question is, why do we always rub the Americans the wrong way? In 1992, for example, the Bahamas signed a mutual legal assistance treaty with the US, and then for the next eight years failed to respond to hundreds of treaty requests.

According to some analysts, this led the US to support the OECD when it began to squeeze our offshore sector in the late 1990s to stem the capital flight from Europe. And it was mostly American pressure that produced the disastrous financial bills of Christmas 2000, which had a chilling effect on our lucrative offshore services sector.

Then, just a few months after the Progressive Liberal Party took power in 2002, Perry Christie became the first Bahamian prime minister to make a date with Castro. Although he was part of a Caricom delegation, this was clearly a staged political event guaranteed to upset the Americans, without producing any benefits for the Bahamas.

In the case of Haiti, what substantive policy initiatives has our government made other than talking the Caricom talk at endless meetings? After drug trafficking, Haitian instability is our biggest foreign policy headache, yet hardly a thought is given to constructive engagement. And we continue to alienate the only partner who can contribute to a solution.

And why, for example, does our government actively promote the establishment of the putative FTAA headquarters in Trinidad rather than in Miami? Foreign Minister Fred Mitchell would no doubt reply that we must support our geopolitical allies. But Port of Spain is 1500 miles to the south, while Miami is right next door – and chock-a-block with Bahamians.

Former agriculture minister Earl Deveaux put the issue in another context when he told Tough Call: "I have always felt that the peculiar resources and location of The Bahamas would have developed more holistically from a greater integration with the University of Florida rather than the University of the West indies."

The furious reaction to recent reports of Caricom students receiving concessionary treatment at the Eugene Dupuch law school underscores this perception…a "misguided" policy that could open the "floodgates" to West Indian lawyers, one student ranted. Hardly a reflection of Caribbean brotherhood.

Meanwhile, some commentators have called for the Bahamas to become the "Switzerland of the Western Hemisphere." That small mountainous nation in the heart of Europe has refused to join the European Union, and although it is a member of the OECD it has successfully resisted pressures to dismantle its financial services industry.

"We are, irrevocably and inevitably, in a trading partnership with our great neighbour," wrote publisher Paul Bower recently. "The USA, only a few minutes flight away, is the source of our bread, butter, jam, cake and champagne. So let's not be seduced by the blandishments of our Caribbean rivals. Let's stay away from the CSME which cannot benefit us, and might even damage us, if it adopts an anti-American stance."

Clearly, Bahamian interests lie almost exclusively with the United States. And we have to ask whether it makes sense for us to play at hemispheric power politics. As an offshore extension of the Florida economy, and a willing protectorate of the world's most powerful democratic state, a more effective strategy might be to cultivate those ties.

Such a policy could offer a far better future than the uncertainties involved in playing the nationalist/ethnic card with Caricom.

And if the government would pay more attention to the country's basic needs, and rather less on the strategy talking shops down south, we could all be better off.

For a real geopolitical ally, look no further than Miami.

The column 'Tough Call' by Larry Smith is published in The Tribune every Wednesday and is reprinted here as a courtesy. Mr. Smith founded and successfully grew an advertising agency over 20 years. Under his direction Media Enterprises diversified into short-run commercial printing and publishing, and is now the largest non-fiction book wholesaler in the Bahamas. He has 30 years experience as a journalist and publicist and has contributed numerous articles and columns to the Bahamian press. A former reporter at the Nassau Guardian, local correspondent for Reuters and editor at the Bahamas News Bureau, he conceived and edited the Bahama Almanac (published 2000 by Media Enterprises), wrote the commentary for Mike Toogood's Portrait of an Archipelago (published 2004 by Macmillan Caribbean), and edited the Bahamas Environmental Handbook (published 2002 by the government). In 2003 he took a year's leave of absence from Media Enterprises to lead a transition management team at the Nassau Guardian after the paper was acquired by local investors. After leaving the Guardian he was contracted by the Tribune as online manager/editor and columnist. He has a degree in political science and journalism from the University of Miami. Mr. Smith can be contacted at: larry@tribunemedia.net

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