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An Uneasy Relationship  in Formation

By John Collins (1)

Puerto Rico’s Caribbean strategy raising questions, concerns in region as well as in Washington


"I use this opportunity also to offer, in advance but nonetheless with a special delight, our congratulations to the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico on the imminent attainment of the 50th Anniversary of its Constitution. We will look to join you soon, on the appropriate occasion, to celebrate with you, in the fully festive Caribbean way, this historic landmark in our region’s affairs.” – Keynote Address by Prime Minister Owen Arthur of Barbados to the Caribbean Hotel Industry Conference-2002 at Wyndam El Conquistador Resort & Country Club, June 16.

As The Barbadian leader began to speak, his first salutation was to “Excellency, the Honourable Sila Calderon, Governor of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.” But the governor was not there, having declined numerous invitations earlier in the year from top Caribbean Hotel Association officials. Representing the governor was Puerto Rico Tourism Co. executive director Milton Segarra.

The anniversary of Puerto Rico’s Constitution July 25, referred to by the prime minister, indicated that he is considering attending the occasion or has already accepted by that could not be confirmed. Reportedly the Calderon administration has invited numerous heads of government from the region and even from the hemisphere but details have not been released.

The relationship of Barbados with Puerto Rico is a good example of how some independent countries in the region attempt to interact with the Commonwealth government when under the control of different parties. As a senior head of government in Caricom, Arthur is completing his second five year term. This means that he also knew Gov. Pedro Rossello and in fact hosted Rossello on his visit to Barbados, the only Caricom country he visited.

Gov. Rafael Hernandez Colon maintained cordial relations with Barbados under Prime Minister Bernard St. John, visiting the country and attending a Caricom Heads of Government Summit in 1985. Two then Puerto Rico-based firms (Intel and Playtex) had plants in Barbados but subsequently relocated. Barbados signed a tax agreement with the U.S. to access Section 936 loans from Puerto Rico.

When the Popular Democratic party is in office in Puerto Rico, as under Hernandez and Calderon, the Commonwealth government conducts relations directly with foreign governments whereas when the New Progressive Party governed, as under Rossello, it dealt with foreign countries through the U.S. embassies there.

"Runs like hot and cold water"

Adjusting to the influence of these partisan aspects on their relations with Puerto Rico creates quite a bit of diplomatic maneuvering but the older countries, in the British tradition, just try to adjust. Veteran Sir Neville Nichols, retired president of the Caribbean Development Bank, who knew Gov. Luis Muñoz Marin, once said “relations with Puerto Rico are like ‘hot and cold running water,’ you go with the flow depending on which party is in power in San Juan.”

Sometimes the changes in Puerto Rico’s policy to ward the region complicates its relationship with the U.S. and then affects U.S. policy with countries in the region. An example is the current insistence by the Calderon administration that it is entitled to have associate membership in the Trinidad-based Association of Caribbean States (ACS). The initiative is opposed by the Bush administration on the grounds that Puerto Rico can not assume an international financial obligation (the membership fee) without the approval of the U.S. government. The U.S. State Department is also not happy about Puerto Rico joining an organization which is political and in which both Cuba and Venezuela are members.

How the situation can be resolved has created a dilemma for both Puerto Rico as well as some of the ACS member states as well as its secretariat. Even though a number of regional observers feel the Calderon administration mishandled the ACS membership, by not seeking Washington’s concurrence before hand, they are convinced that officials in the Caricom states are not going to become embroiled in a dispute between the U.S. and Puerto Rico. Cited as the main reason is the fact that Caricom countries have a whole litany of problems in their relationship with the U.S. and see little or no benefit for them by adding Puerto Rico to the list.

Meanwhile the U.S. Virgin Islands reportedly has been advised by the U.S. State Department that it can proceed with its plans to seek Observer status in Caricom.

As Caricom approaches the 29th anniversary of its founding, its heads of government will be meeting in summit in Georgetown, Guyana, its headquarters. Puerto Rico enjoys observer status in Caricom but has not announced by whom it will be represented at the summit. At a recent meeting of the board of governors of the Caribbean Development Bank, it was announced that Puerto Rico Secretary of State Ferdinand Mercado would attend but he was a no show.

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1) Other articles by the well known Caribbean author John Collins can be read at:

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June 24, 2002


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