Canada once had a serious presence in the Caribbean, but our profile has diminished in recent years. When the British colonies in the Caribbean basin acquired independence in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Canada was quick to establish close relations with them, including meaningful development assistance programs and close political ties. Canada-Caribbean summits at the level of prime minister were organized on a regular basis, and personal relations among leaders were informal and friendly.

It was a positive relationship that served the interests of both parties, but in recent years it has drifted to the margins of Canadian foreign policy. Why did this happen?

Two connected events that were beyond Canada’s control helped precipitate a sea change: the advent of Hugo Chavez as president of Venezuela and, almost simultaneously, the massive increases in the international price of oil.

Sensing an opportunity, Chavez launched PetroCaribe, a program that provided subsidized oil to the Caribbean states. While his motives can be questioned, there is no doubt that this was a lifeline to these highly indebted and increasingly desperate countries. Venezuela’s largesse quickly eclipsed Canada’s, and the 14 votes of the Caribbean Community members at the United Nations gravitated toward Venezuela.

The importance of these votes is best illustrated in our campaign for the UN Security Council. In 1998, it appeared that every Caribbean country supported Canada’s (successful) bid. Needless to say, this did not seem to be the case in our next (failed) bid in 2010, nor would it seem to be today.

Unfortunately, the Canadian government made some counter-productive decisions at this time. It discontinued most country-to-country project aid to the region, breaking the direct link between Canadians and Caribbean recipients. Canada then ended meetings with the Caribbean prime ministers, breaking a well-established and highly valued tradition. These decisions had lasting consequences.

Does the Caribbean matter? Yes. While it may not be the most important region in the world strategically, it embodies a number of issues and values that have a direct bearing on Canadian interests.

In security terms, the uneven line that runs from the Bahamas to the coasts of Mexico has become in real terms not only a Canadian border, but our most porous and vulnerable frontier.

A high percentage of cocaine and other drugs consumed in Canada is transshipped through the Caribbean, where organized crime is increasingly sophisticated, and has infiltrated some local governments. Elsewhere, tax regimes do not meet OECD standards, and questionable financial institutions that facilitate money laundering, terrorist financing, and other illicit activities have flourished.

The region’s ports and airports do not meet acceptable security standards—an issue when some 1.5 million Canadians travel to the region annually.

Public health is another concern: the rising incidence of communicable diseases in the Caribbean (Zika, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, dengue, hepatitis), combined with inadequate monitoring and the volume of people moving in both directions makes the region one of Canada’s most dangerous disease vectors.

However, recent changes in the region’s economic and political landscape offer an opportunity for Canada to re-engage. In particular, Venezuela’s disastrous decline has diminished that country’s ability to play the political spoiler.

Canada could take a number of steps immediately: resume bilateral aid projects in the smaller islands; provide more resources to security under the Military Training and Co-operation Program; institute a re-invigorated scholarship program to train the region’s future leaders; and conduct an in-depth analysis of Caribbean requirements in the health sector.

Most importantly, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should convene a meeting with his Caribbean counterparts to signal our interest in re-engaging with the region, to form a new, mutually beneficial relationship.

Unlike many other parts of the world, this is one where Canada is welcomed and can actually make a difference. For a relatively modest investment of political and financial capital, Canada could regain lost ground and re-position itself in a region that is close, friendly and well known to Canadians; it’s our move.

Paul Durand served as ambassador to Costa Rica, Chile, and to the Organization of American States (OAS) in Washington. He is a fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

This article first appeared in the Hill Times of November 9th.


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