Most governments in the Caribbean are racing to secure COVID-19 vaccines for their citizens. This has opened up an opportunity for the United States to use its economic and political clout to help coordinate vaccine distribution to the region. Since vaccines have become available, Caribbean governments have sought the assistance of partners such as the United States, China, India, Russia, and the African Union for help in acquiring vaccines, and all but Washington have responded with donations or agreements for vaccine purchase. However, each state or regional group that has supplied vaccines to the region is limited in its reach or has halted vaccines exports, meaning that there is an opportunity for the Biden-Harris administration to aid its Caribbean allies in their search for vaccines. In the process, they can strengthen U.S.-Caribbean relations.
Caribbean governments are acquiring vaccines through donations from India and China as well as through agreements reached with Russia and the African Union. For instance, India’s government has pledged more than half a million vaccines to governments in the region. And according to the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center’s vaccine tracker, China has donated 20,000 vaccines to Guyana, and recently committed 30,000 to Barbados, after conversations between Chinese President Xi Jinping and each country’s leader. Further, Russia reached an agreement with Guyana through which the latter purchased 200,000 doses of the Sputnik V vaccine. In addition, with the support of the World Health Organization’s Director General, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) brokered an agreement with the African Union for the purchase of 1.5 million vaccines. Finally, as Cuba enters the latter stages of its vaccine development, Caribbean countries are likely to request assistance from their neighbor.
However, access to these vaccines is limited for Caribbean governments. India, which has been forthcoming to the region and the rest of the world’s developing countries, has announced that it will restrict vaccine exports due to rising domestic infections. China, although a partner to many CARICOM states, is not recognized by five of the body’s members, meaning that these countries are unlikely to be on the receiving end of China’s vaccine gifts. As for vaccines from Russia and the African Union, CARICOM governments, which are strapped for cash due to the pandemic’s negative consequences on their economies, will not have the resources needed for additional purchases. This means that the already debt-burdened Caribbean countries will need to borrow from international financial institutions or accept cash donations from other states, similar to Grenada receiving $200,000 from Venezuela in its efforts to purchase vaccines.
And even if a country like Cuba is forthcoming in its vaccine distribution to the region, there may be political consequences for CARICOM nations working with that country. For example, when CARICOM governments requested Cuban medical assistance at the onset of the pandemic, there was outrage among Republican members of the U.S. Congress, which culminated in a proposed bill that would have seen several Caribbean governments become categorized as recipients of trafficked persons. Further, although the COVAX facility is designed to supply Caribbean states with vaccines, many in the region will not receive the full quota before the end of 2021.
Therefore, as vaccine options for the Caribbean become more limited, the United States should capitalize on this opportunity to ensure that U.S.-Caribbean relations remain strong. Most of the Caribbean states are politically stable, longtime U.S. partners. As a group, they are among the world’s leading voices against climate change and the pandemic’s economic consequences on small states, and they are staunch advocates of hemispheric peace and security. At the same time, the United States has growing strategic interests in the region, given the emergence of Guyana and Suriname as significant oil producers, the recognition by five CARICOM members of Taiwan, the Caribbean’s proximity to Venezuela, persistent narcotrafficking, and CARICOM’s leadership on debt relief and climate change.
This means that in order for U.S. objectives in the Caribbean to remain feasible and for the region to begin its post-pandemic economic recovery, Washington should support Caribbean governments in vaccine acquisition. The United States can help on two fronts – sharing vaccines, and using its economic and political power to help coordinate vaccine acquisition and distribution in the region. The former should be the bare minimum of U.S. efforts, as it is the more easily accomplished. The fact that the CARICOM countries have small populations, apart from Haiti, means that small donations generally go a long way in the region. At the moment, the United States is vaccinating almost 3 million of its citizens per day. For perspective, one day of U.S. vaccinations could inoculate the populations of either Jamaica and Trinidad, or the populations of all states in the Eastern Caribbean. But any vaccine-sharing must be a first step, and not an ad-hoc event that becomes anecdotal evidence about U.S. support to the region.
There are positive signs on the horizon after U.S. President Joe Biden appointed Gayle Smith to help coordinate U.S. vaccine diplomacy, as well as indicating that the United States will share vaccines with the world after every American citizen is vaccinated. However, when that will happen is yet to be seen. It is also a question whether the Caribbean will among the first to benefit from the U.S. vaccine rollout.
Instead, Washington should use the example set by Caribbean countries, which have called for the convening of an international summit on the distribution of vaccines. The United States should consider this an option but take it a step further. Rather than only coordinate an international summit to discuss the thus-far inequitable distribution of vaccines, it should bring together the world’s wealthiest countries to coordinate a massive vaccine rollout to nations that are struggling to acquire them. It’s in the best interest of the United States to do so, as it aims to rebuild goodwill in the region and attempts to re-establish itself as more than ‘America First.’
This means that the United States has a unique opportunity to use vaccine coordination as a way to strengthen its relations with the region. The Caribbean, beyond Haiti, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic, is frequently neglected by the United States, but as existential crises such as the pandemic and climate change terrorize all countries, ignoring any region is ill-advised. Moreover, how the United States manages vaccine rollout to the region will determine how Caribbean governments assess whether the Biden administration sees the Caribbean as a valued partner. This would diverge from the previous administration’s approach to the Caribbean, which saw value in specific countries in the region but never collectively. If Washington can coordinate vaccines for the entire region, it will leave a powerful imprint on even the region’s most suspicious governments.
Wazim Mowla is a Guyanese American Program Assistant for the Caribbean Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center and is an MA candidate at American University’s School of International Service. The views expressed are the author's own.