Strengthening U.S.-Caribbean relations through the Caribbean diaspora

The U.S.-based Caribbean diaspora, as diverse as the region itself, constitutes a mosaic of communities. Coordinating, listening, and working with the Caribbean diaspora will provide U.S. policymakers with pathways to internalize the complexities of the region at large as well as the dynamics within specific Caribbean nations.


Source: Caribbean National Weekly / Paul Stein

The United States-based Caribbean diaspora, as diverse as the region itself, constitutes a mosaic of communities. Some may be more institutionalized than others, but collectively they encompass significant policy potential, and in the process, are perhaps among the strongest drivers of U.S.-Caribbean relations. The implication is two-sided: for American policymakers, the Caribbean’s fractured diaspora in the U.S. reinforces a compartmentalized U.S. policy toward the region; and for the Caribbean, the collective weight of its diaspora has not been sufficiently leveraged to promote the region’s interests both locally and within the U.S.

Consisting of small states with little economic and military clout, Caribbean governments are at the weaker end of an asymmetrical relationship with the U.S.—which is overwhelmingly defined by U.S. policy dynamics and resources. However, this does not mean that Caribbean states are devoid of the capacity to exert influence. The Caribbean’s proximity to the U.S. has afforded the region opportunities for influence via migration, ensuring a continuous flow of Caribbean migrants to the north since the latter half of the 19th century. This flow of people has culminated in a Caribbean diaspora that is estimated to be about 4.6 million people. These individuals—many of whom are U.S. citizens—pay taxes, can vote in U.S. local and national elections, and are able to raise concerns to their local politicians.

Consequently, diaspora populations can have some influence on U.S. policy; or, at minimum, have the collective ability to target U.S. political leaders to address policies and events in the region. In practice, such potential for impact on U.S. policy has been translated into different models of experiences.

For example, the political orientation of the institutionally and politically established Cuban diaspora—which includes U.S. Senators such as Marco Rubio, Robert Menendez, and Ted Cruz—has long been shaped by hostility toward the Cuban Revolution. Although newer generations of Cuban Americans have experienced some diversification in their partisan and ideological predilections, this diaspora community—with a stronghold in southern Florida, a crucial swing state in national elections—continues to enforce the boundaries of U.S.-Cuba policy.

Its counterpart, the Haitian diaspora, is following in the footsteps of other Caribbean diasporas in its increasing representation in professional classes, the medical field, and local government. More recently established and shaped by the sustained turbulence that has plagued Haiti since at least the 1980s, the Haitian diaspora has become a source of direct lobbying for causes in Haiti and includes a network that extends into the White House.

Nevertheless, these two cases also highlight the compartmentalization of Caribbean diasporas in the United States. Other Caribbean states with large diaspora populations—such as Guyana and Jamaica—have not yet established a consistent presence in U.S. policymaking toward their respective countries. Instead, their presence has been limited and ad-hoc, usually emerging only in response to crisis in their country.

As is often the case in the global affairs of small states, Caribbean countries increase their chances of having a greater impact on relations with powerful countries and multilateral organizations by uniting and pooling their resources and political weight. For the 14 independent countries that constitute the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), there is a potentially underutilized collective asset: their respective diasporas in the U.S., Canada, and the United Kingdom.

Caribbean diasporas that deploy their collective weight in politically and economically powerful countries, such as the U.S., would aid the region’s states that have small populations and, by extension, even smaller diasporas. Therefore, pooling the Caribbean diasporas to act in concert with each other—particularly as it relates to broad topics such as climate change and vaccine acquisition—can assist the region’s governments in their outreach to American officials.

Although not representing a significant share of the U.S. population, Caribbean diasporic communities are highly concentrated in key congressional districts in New York, south Florida, California, and Texas. For instance, a high concentration of members of the Caribbean diaspora in the New York metropolitan area reside in the Queens-based district represented by Gregory Meeks, the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The New York Caribbean diaspora community could complement the efforts of Caribbean governments to acquire COVID-19 vaccines for the region, or lobby members of Congress to oppose legislation that is harmful to their home countries. If New York-based representatives do not allocate appropriate attention to the Caribbean, the diaspora could muster political pressure, particularly at election time. Although many in the diaspora do reach out to their elected officials to raise awareness about key Caribbean concerns, the political reality is that the energy generated by these groups is diffused and segmented into sub-communities, some more impactful than others.

The Caribbean diaspora is not just a resource, it is a critical partner for policymakers shaping U.S.-Caribbean policy, and should be viewed and treated as such. Often, Washington defines the region and its key issues at a high level of generality, failing to account or distinguish sub-regional factors, let alone distinct subtleties in individual countries. Over time, there has also been a propensity to lump Caribbean policy concerns in with those related to Central America.

Part of the reason for this overgeneralization is that the U.S. foreign policy apparatus has not been designed to incorporate the Caribbean region’s socioeconomic and political diversity. In the executive branch, U.S. policy toward the Caribbean is best visualized as being compartmentalized, with segmented policies and related bureaucracies for each large policy issue—Cuba, Haiti, and the ‘rest’ of the Caribbean. Over time, this approach has triggered a small library of overlapping initiatives, from the comprehensive Caribbean Basin Initiative to today’s Caribbean Basin Trade Partnership Act (CBTPA), along with segmented country-specific (directed especially toward Cuba and Haiti) policy instruments.

Ultimately, coordinating, listening, and working with the Caribbean diaspora will provide U.S. policymakers with pathways to internalize the complexities of the region at large, as well as the dynamics within specific Caribbean nations. For example, Guyana’s political environment is often misunderstood by external analysts, which in turn affects policymaking at the strategic level.

The U.S. is not the only active power in the Caribbean, and as the region continues to face challenges from climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, and other longer-term challenges, it will seek to leverage other existing relationships—with the EU and the UK, for instance, or from potentially more forthcoming partners, such as China and India. The reemergence of steadier engagement from Washington and a strengthening of U.S.-Caribbean ties could provide the basis for a reenergized, strategic relationship. Key to achieving this relationship is a reconceptualization of the Caribbean diaspora as a diverse, resourceful, and influential group that can lay the foundation for steady, more sustainable, U.S.-Caribbean engagement.

Georges Fauriol is Fellow with the Caribbean Policy Consortium and a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS).

Wazim Mowla is a Program Assistant for the Caribbean Initiative at the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center.

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