C’bean foreign ministers hold talks with Trump admin officials

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(CMC) At least one Caribbean Community (CARICOM) government minister has described Washington as being “simply in a listening mood,” after regional foreign minister held talks today with two officials of the new United States administration.

Belize Foreign Minister Wilfred Elrington

“Basically I thought they wanted to tell us they still have an interest in us and to hear our concerns and interests and so we told them the various ills confronting our region,” Belize Foreign Minister Wilfred Elrington told the Caribbean Media Corporation (CMC) following the talks.

Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas A Shannon, Jr, and acting Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Francisco Palmieri, met with the foreign ministers on the sidelines of the 38th meeting of CARICOM leaders, which ends here later on Thursday. The foreign ministers were due to present a report to the leaders.

The State Department, in announcing their visit, said the two officials of the Donald Trump administration would discuss “regional and bilateral issues of mutual interest”.

Shannon also met with the incoming CARICOM Chairman and Grenada Prime Minister Keith Mitchell to discuss stronger coordination between the United States and the Caribbean Community. He is also expected to hold bilateral talks with CARICOM leaders.

Elrington said the Caribbean had listed a number of concerns including de-risking of banks, crime and security, adding that the US officials “gave the impression they are taking it on board and to seek to do something about it.

“I was particularly concerned personally with the disparity, the gap we have in knowledge. This is the 21st century, an information age and the kind of education attainment that exist in the United States [is] so different from the ones that exist in our country…it is very difficult for us to catch up with that and at the same time we are expected to compete with them.”

He said the issues of crime and security, which the Americans raised during the deliberations, in his view “are issues of symptoms…of a major problem. The problem is absence of education, absence of skills, and of course absence of employment opportunities….”

Erlington said the focus has got to be on “greater education, training and narrowing that gap in our knowledge… The divide is too huge

The State Department said that in keeping with a mandate from the US–Caribbean Strategic Engagement Act, or HR 4939, that was signed last year by former President Barack Obama, the US last month released a “Multi-Year Strategy for Engagement with the Caribbean.”

The US Department of State said it has, in coordination with the US Agency for International Development (USAID), submitted the strategy to the US Congress “that establishes a framework for enhancing the security and prosperity of the United States and its Caribbean partners.

“Considered the ‘third border’ of the United States, the Caribbean is a vital part of our efforts to counter organised crime and illicit trafficking, support democracy throughout the Western hemisphere, strengthen energy security, and create jobs through increased trade and investment,” said the State Department.

“A secure and stable Caribbean contributes to a safer and more prosperous United States by securing the US border, protecting US citizens abroad, and increasing opportunities for US exports,” it added.

“The United States will continue to work with the Caribbean region to support commitments in the multi-year strategy; encourage private sector-led growth and job creation; reduce energy costs through diversification, regulatory reform, and public-private partnerships; and maximise partnerships in health and education for more sustainable growth and development in the Western Hemisphere,” the State Department said.

Erlington described as a “very serious matter”, budgetary cuts announced by the new Trump administration that have so far affected some programmes to the region, including the HIV/AIDS project.

“For many years the United States has been a kind of escape valve…when things got tough for us we were able to go to the United States, now that is going to be severely curtailed by the emphasis they are putting on the wall and the border security.

“And of course a reduction in aid, coupled with the fact that they are charging our citizens a tax on the remittances that they send to us, all those things are going to impact us very negatively and I think it is something the entire Caribbean society will have to look at very carefully,” he added.

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