WASHINGTON — In the past few weeks, three Caribbean leaders hobnobbed with President Bush at the White House, first lady Laura Bush visited Haiti and two top Bush administration officials went island-hopping to push a joint security arrangement.
A few years ago, relations between the United States and the Caribbean were chilly at best, as Caribbean nations warmed to China and oil-rich Venezuela and publicly squabbled with Washington over the war in Iraq, the 2004 ouster of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, U.S. immigration policy and U.S. aid policies.
However, with a new crop of Caribbean leaders taking over in several island nations — and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez facing internal and international difficulties — Washington is making an unprecedented push to woo its small southern neighbors.
The outreach is mutual, as Caribbean nations need Congress to renew a vital trade-preference pact by the end of September. Whether all this translates into substantive agreements remains to be seen, diplomats said.
"The Caribbean presence on the U.S. radar screen is much more pronounced," said Albert Ramdin, the assistant secretary general of the Organization of American States, who's from Suriname. "The general feeling in the Caribbean is that there is more talk on (the U.S.) side than delivery."
In late March, two senior U.S. officials — Thomas Shannon, the assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, and Adm. James Stavridis, the head of U.S. Southern Command — visited Barbados, Suriname and Guyana to discuss crime and drug-trafficking issues, a top regional concern.
A few days before, three prime ministers — Hubert Ingraham of the Bahamas, David Thompson of Barbados and Dean Barrow of Belize — were in the Oval Office, where Bush told the newly elected leaders, "The neighborhood is important to the United States of America." Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding was invited but couldn't make it because of scheduling conflicts.
In early March, Laura Bush delivered the president's regards to Haitian President Rene Preval as she promoted AIDS funding on her first visit to that nation.
Daniel Erikson, a Caribbean expert with the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based research center, said the overtures indicated that "the U.S., for its part, has largely dropped its 'us-or-them' mentality toward Caribbean relations with Chavez, which means that these countries will have an easier time managing these multiple relationships without political costs."
In 2005, Chavez went on the offensive in the region through PetroCaribe, which offers concessionary financing terms for oil purchases. Soon afterward, the Caribbean seemed to align itself more with Chavez, backing Venezuela's 2006 bid to join the U.N. Security Council and voting for Chavez candidates at the OAS.
Jorge Pinon, an energy fellow with the University of Miami's Center for Hemispheric Policy, estimates that the Caribbean region now owes Chavez more than $1 billion.
But Caribbean countries have realized that PetroCaribe "could disappear tomorrow" given Chavez's political troubles, Pinon said, and they understand that they need to nourish ties more with the United States, their biggest market.
Also, Venezuela has promised more than it's delivered, signing deals that would cover nearly half of the Caribbean's oil needs but delivering in 2007 only one-fifth of those contracted totals, Pinon said.
Meanwhile, the Bush administration has stepped up its Caribbean outreach, last year dispatching the Navy hospital ship Comfort to Caribbean and Latin American ports and providing hundreds of millions in aid to Haiti for police training, HIV/AIDS and other programs. It's also teamed up with Brazil to explore biofuel alternatives for poor Caribbean countries.
Topping the agenda for now is crime and security. The Caribbean is providing the United States with advance passenger lists of tourists visiting the region, and Shannon said he'd look into the possibility of setting up a Drug Enforcement Administration office in Guyana, an idea that the Bush administration long had rebuffed even though Guyana is considered a shipment point for cocaine.
The Pentagon is considering reactivating the Navy's 4th Fleet to augment the U.S. presence in Latin America and the Caribbean, with an eye on drug interdiction, medical missions, disaster response and counterterrorism, according to Stavridis.
While Caribbean and U.S. diplomats prefer to see all this as a positive, others are more skeptical.
"These are legacy overtures on the part of the Bush White House. I don't see it as anything special or differential," said Ivelaw Griffith, a longtime Caribbean expert and provost at York College, The City University of New York. "Out of the visits come what? Out of the conversations come what?"
(Charles reports for The Miami Herald.)