The top envoy of one of the world’s smallest countries lashed out at its most powerful—barely a month before a long-awaited summit in Los Angeles is supposed to unite all nations of the Western Hemisphere.
Sir Ronald Sanders is ambassador of the twin-island Caribbean nation of Antigua & Barbuda (population 99,000) to both the United States and the Organization of American States (OAS).
But in an April 28 webinar co-sponsored by the Caribbean Policy Consortium and Florida International University’s Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center, Sanders said that when it comes to how the United States treats its Caribbean neighbors, President Joe Biden’s policies aren’t that much better than those of his predecessor, Donald Trump.
Biden, he said, “inherited Trump’s virulent anti‑Cuba posture, and an equally hostile attitude to Nicolás Maduro, the president of Venezuela.” The decision to recognize Juan Guaidó, then-president of the National Assembly—rather than Maduro—as Venezuela’s head of state, said Sanders, “has continued to haunt US‑Caribbean relations, and will be a significant issue as we approach the upcoming Summit of the Americas.”
The CPC-FIU panel, moderated by Georges A. Fauriol, a senior associate at the Washington-based Center for Strategic & International Studies, also included Ambassador Thomas A. Shannon Jr., senior international policy advisor at Arnold & Porter; Jacqueline Charles, Caribbean correspondent for the Miami Herald; and Samantha S.S. Chaitram, research manager of the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service.
According to Sanders, “Trump’s interest in the rest of the Caribbean nations was only to secure their support for his position on Venezuela, which he calculated was important to securing votes in South Florida among exile communities for his second bid for the presidency.”
The only other Caribbean country Trump showed any interest in was Haiti, said Sanders, “whichhe reportedly described along with African nations as a shithole country. His officials subsequently denied that report, but the damage had been done. This attitude effectively summed up his administration’s perceptions of the Caribbean.”
Sanders: US ‘pushing Caribbean into China’s arms’
Adding insult to injury, Trump pulled out of the 2015 Paris accord on climate change—an issue that disproportionally affects small Caribbean island nations—and in 2021 withdrew the United States from the World Health Organization at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As if all that weren’t enough, said the ambassador, “in the dying days of his tenure as secretary of state,” Mike Pompeo put Cuba on a list of state sponsors of terrorism—and warned that any Caribbean government that continued to accept medical brigades from Cuba would be regarded as an accessory to human trafficking.
“All of this had unintended, but not surprising consequences, of pushing those Caribbean countries with diplomatic relations closer to China,” which contributed generously to financing for both adaptation to climate change and to WHO program to help developing countries cope with the pandemic, he said.
None of this bodes well for the upcoming 9th Summit of the Americas, scheduled for June 6-10 in Los Angeles. The gathering, coming 28 years after the first such summit in Miami, initiated by then-President Bill Clinton in 1994, is already rife with controversy.
On April 28, a senior State Department official made it clear that the Biden administration does not intend to invite the leaders of Bolivia, Nicaragua or Venezuela to the gathering. That has led to warnings that the 15-nation Caribbean Community (CARICOM) will simply boycott the event.
“The threat is not simply that this year’s summit will be a flop—yet another example of feckless US policy toward Latin America,” Foreign Policy warned in a May 4 article. “Rather, the real risk is that—after nearly three decades of summitry—this year’s event may be interpreted as a gravestone on US influence in the region.”
That’s because Biden is well-meaning but generally ineffective when it comes to the Caribbean, said Sanders, writes a regular column in leading Caribbean newspapers and is frequently interviewed by the BBC, the Caribbean News Agency and other media outlets.
Ambassador urges Biden to stop neglecting Caribbean
Preoccupied with the pandemic, the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan and, more recently, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the current administration has rejoined the climate accord, boosted US support of the WHO and dropped Trump’s “America First” policy.
“He emphasized multilateralism, restoring some confidence in the international system, which Caribbean countries regard as their safeguard against aggression and a platform by which they could raise their voices and be heard,” said Sanders. “But his administration has failed to elaborate and roll out this specific Caribbean policy. He has certainly not attempted to consult with the Caribbean leadership on what such a policy should look like.”
Even worse, said Sanders, Biden has abandoned his own promise to improve US relations with Cuba. Instead, he charged, “Biden has continued the Trump policy of treating Cuba as a terroristic state, ramping up hostile positions against the Cuban government, including implicating CARICOM in human trafficking if they accept medical brigades from Cuba.”
Sanders has represented Antigua & Barbuda as ambassador to the US since 2015. A seasoned diplomat, businessman and academic, Sanders served for separate periods in 2016 and 2021 as president of the Permanent Council of the OAS. He also chaired the Caribbean Financial Action Task Force (CFATF) against drug trafficking and money laundering (2003-04) and served on the executive board of UNESCO (1985-87).
Sanders was twice Antigua’s high commissioner to the UK. In 2004, he earned the distinction of being the only representative of a small state to lead an arbitration case at the WTO and win. He’s also negotiated tax and investment agreements with the US, Britain, Australia and China.
“Almost from the moment the Biden administration began, it launched a campaign in the Caribbean urging that investment from China be curtailed, and labeling investment and concessionary funding agreements as debt traps and discouraging other connections,” said Sanders, who holds a master’s in international relations from the University of Sussex and is the author of Crumbled Small: The Commonwealth Caribbean in World Politics.
Sanders says this makes no sense, because the terms of China’s loans are far more favorable than those of the World Bank or the IMF, and because Beijing does not use per-capita income as a criteria for disqualifying high-income but vulnerable Caribbean countries from eligibility.
“Indeed, CARICOM countries have remained faithful to importing goods and services from the United States, even though US assistance and investment in the sub‑region have steadily declined,” the ambassador warned. “If China comes to dominate the economies of the Western Hemisphere, it will be because of a long period of US neglect.”