When the Donald Trump administration was elected to office in 2016 in the United States, there was collective anxiety in the region about the development. For we followed his highly controversial campaign closely, and assessed instinctively, that truly little good was going to come from the Republican president.
We were not disappointed in his performance in office simply because our expectations were low. He was as boorish in office as he was on the campaign trail. We were treated to comments like people from “sh_thole countries”, and the rapid deportation of Caribbean and other nationals from the South, even during the deadly COVID-19 pandemic.
Of course, there were the perceived efforts to divide CARICOM by selecting certain leaders to meet with the Secretary of State and then the hand-picked CARICOM leaders to dine at Mar-a-Largo.
In fact, there was incredulous amazement as countries in the region faced the threat of US sanctions if they delayed in the acceptance of deportees, even on the grounds that these deportees could expose the populations of small nations with COVID-19.
During his turbulent tenure, Caribbean countries kept a low profile, preferring to tiptoe around US policies, recognizing that the traditional diplomatic approaches would be useless when dealing with Donald Trump. It was the Trump way or no way. There was no reconciling and negotiating with a leader who did not take kindly to criticism in even its mildest form.
The COVID-19 pandemic threw a curve ball in the diplomatic relations between the Caribbean and the US when Cuba offered to assist regional governments in their battle against the deadly viral illness. COVID-19 was spreading exponentially in Latin American and the Caribbean.
While the US policy was to take care of its own, Cuba rejected that inward approach, instead extending a helping hand with their “white coat army”.
We were among 40 countries that accepted medical assistance during the pandemic, from the socialist government that has remained a schizophrenic obsession of our American friends.
Since its 1959 revolution, Cuba has used medical diplomacy as a powerful tool, sending its “army of white coats” to disaster areas and disease outbreaks around the world.
During the last US administration, many Barbadians were flabbergasted at the propaganda on social media from the United States Embassy here, with specious cartoons and literature suggesting that the Cuban medical staff in the region were really military spies on a mission to spread the socialist system of government.
The Cuban healthcare workers are still here. Their assignment has been extended, and from all the reports, they are providing a much-needed boost at a time when our health care system is under immense pressure.
As such, the most recent diplomatic drama involving the United States and Barbados, is a most interesting development. The US’ unexpected decision on April 20 to issue its highest alert against the island, took many by surprise, given our rapidly decreasing cases of COVID-19, and enhanced travel protocols implemented.
In bright red on its website and headlined Do Not Travel, the American Government warned its citizens to stay away from the island, advancing that there was “a very high level of COVID-19 in the country”.
Barbados is ramping up plans to welcome tourists in larger numbers to the country after the tourism sector’s state of comatose due to the pandemic. With our country’s economic situation not likely to improve without a major jumpstart of tourism, clearly, the US move rattled the Mottley administration.
In a swift response that was released to the global media, Barbados let it be known, it was not happy with America’s de facto travel ban of the island.
In a statement issued 24 hours after the US travel advisory, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs made no bones about its feelings on the decision.
“Barbados condemns any travel advisory which, absent of publicly verifiable data, advocates for the prohibition of travel to Barbados on the suggestion that such is inherently dangerous for international travellers.”
It added: “Barbados is not satisfied that the Department of State’s novel decision to conflate its travel advisories with those of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), has been adequately explained to US citizens and residents. Moreover, Barbados is concerned that the narrative of the advisory does not give US travellers the opportunity to make an informed decision on travel to the island based on relevant data.”
But some have questioned whether the administration might have overplayed its hand in the very strongly worded response. It has been asked in some circles, were this a position of the Trump administration, would the island’s reaction be so terse?
We surmise that the administration believes it has a more conciliatory ear in the new Biden/Harris administration. But if one were to examine recent history, a Democratic president does not necessarily translate to any special favours for the Caribbean.
In fact, scholars and diplomats will argue that the region faced some of its toughest policies from the North when Democrats held the reigns in the White House and on Capitol Hill.
We suggest our Government tread with caution. America promotes America’s interest, and this is unlikely to change, even with an Afro-Caribbean Vice-President in the White House and an ostensibly “friendly” President.