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Bousquet’s Bulletin: St Lucia’s foreign policy in the age of pandemic fatigue and vaccine diplomacy

By Earl Bousquet

Foreign policy isn’t a domestic priority before Caribbean elections but becomes an immediate matter of regional and international concern once electors vote for regime change. Nations go head over heels to be first or early online to congratulate the winning party, others awaiting the appointment of a new leader and government, still, others await the appointment of a new foreign affairs minister. But not Saint Lucia after its July 26, 2021, general elections that saw voters vote for regime change a fourth consecutive time.

External interest

Such external interest is only natural, as neighbours and countries afar with close ties and power to flex their muscles far abroad always prepare for outcomes and to engage old or new governments at the start of a new administration. Historically, the rich nations of the North have tailored ties with former colonies and newly independent states in the South primarily according to the latter’s economic value, strategic location or political proximity.

In the Caribbean context, the North-South relationship has been top-down in all respects. But given the region’s growing presence and numerical influence on the world stage in the past six decades of independence, it continues to gain more external attention.

Take Saint Lucia, where the new labour party-led administration’s foreign policy became a matter of external interest and concern even before Saint Lucians voted and continued to attract attention even before the new government was sworn-in, or the new parliament met.

Saint Lucia’s Caribbean and Latin American neighbours all kept their eyes on the elections, even before the announcement of the date on July 5 with a short 21-day window.

Eyes on Castries

Saint Lucia belongs to the Association of Caribbean States (ACS), Caribbean Community (CARICOM), Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), Organization of American States (OAS) and Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) and each kept close tabs on the elections campaign.

Canada, China, Cuba, European Union (EU), Japan, United Kingdom (UK), USA and Venezuela also all had eyes dead-set on Saint Lucia.

The Biden administration’s sights were cocked on Castries as soon as Washington saw early signs that the electoral tide started to turn, the State Department fearing that the Saint Lucia Labour Party (SLP) long-standing bilateral ties with China’s Communist Party might ruffle the waters in a region Uncle Sam has never stopped seeing and treating like ‘America’s Backyard’.

Japan was also silently watching as monumental gifts to Saint Lucia, including fisheries complexes built and donated by Tokyo, were fished out to the private sector.

A state-of-the-art multi-million-dollar livestock processing plant donated by Taiwan was also abandoned at the point of commissioning in 2016, to facilitate the construction of a controversial horse-racing track.

The European Union (EU) and the USA watched quietly as the previous Allen Chastanet administration had sold Washington’s relaxation of Leahy Law against the island’s police force – during the elections campaign – as approval of its handling of investigations into a dozen alleged extrajudicial Saint Lucia police killings a decade ago.

CARICOM and the OECS looked on after five years of anxiety, including over the impact of the previous administration’s pursuit of domestic application of US sanctions against Venezuela in ways that torpedoed regional efforts at coordinating foreign policy.

That included Saint Lucia joining the pro-Washington, Canada-led ‘Lima Group’ at the OAS in 2018 that led to a significant de-emphasis on ties with Caracas, including a virtual cancellation of ties with local Venezuelan diplomatic officials and an apparent refusal to accept the credentials of the last ambassador Caracas dispatched to the island in 2019.

Charm offensives

But most concerned of all have been Taiwan – USA relations, which have both positioned to hopefully influence the new administration’s foreign policy, for common and different reasons.

Taiwan has had on-and-off ties with the island from 1983 and Taipei’s ministry of foreign affairs diplomatic out-reach with prime minister Philip J. Pierre sweeping 13-4 election victory.

It included a series of very early calls on the new prime minister-designate by Taiwan’s ambassador to Saint Lucia Peter Chen, delivering early greetings from president Tsai Ing-wen and the premier of the executive Yuan (parliament).

He also arranged a phone call between prime minister Pierre and Taiwanese foreign minister Joseph Wu, who invited the new Saint Lucia leader to visit Taiwan – as soon as COVID allows.

The new prime minister’s very positive responses on his Facebook page to the foreign minister’s ongoing Saint Lucia – Taiwan relations  welcomed by Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA). Saint Lucia is in the region here where a vital five of the remaining 15 countries worldwide with ties to Taipei (Belize, Haiti, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, and St Vincent and the Grenadines) are located.

Vaccine diplomacy

For its part, Washington won’t be left out of the charm offensives, last week announcing its latest regional vaccine diplomacy offensive its delivery of 52,600 doses of the Pfizer vaccine to Saint Lucia on Tuesday, August 17, the same date of the first meeting of the new parliament.

The American donation, part of a wider 5.5 million donation to 15 Caribbean Community (CARICOM) member-states and territories, is also very timely for Saint Lucia, coming only four days after the first three cases of the dreaded Delta variant were reported by chief medical officer, Dr Sharon Belmar-George and health minister Moses Jn Baptiste, Friday, August 13.

The Delta confirmation came from tests on two US nationals and a local – at a time when vaccination levels also need a heavy boost.

The Biden administration on August 12 announced it was delivering a shipment of 569,000 doses to Antigua and Barbuda, The Bahamas, St Kitts and Nevis, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados. Saint Lucia’s shipment also arrives four days after the government announced (also on Friday 13) new measures following the Delta landing. With the UK-based Oxford-AstraZeneca the only vaccine used here thus far, the US donation will now make two vaccines available.

There’s increasing support locally for widening choices of European and American vaccines, as well as others also being effectively used globally – and already in the region.

Widening choices

The government is being urged by some strong voices in the medical fraternity here to widen choices to include Chinese and Russian brands, in addition to others not yet on the Caribbean line. The need for widening choices is also reinforced by the very many who mistrust the American and European vaccines and have not yet vaccinated, saying they prefer to await Cuba’s vaccines, also already eagerly awaited across the region.

The Cuban vaccines will surely yield greater levels of overall vaccine trust, as Caribbean citizens have for decades directly benefitted from Havana’s eternal policy of extending permanent direct, superior and dependable health and medical assistance to all independent 14 CARICOM member-states.

Given the seemingly ‘mistrust’ of Oxford-AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, Moderna and others based on exposed inefficiencies and the pharmaceutical companies’ inability or unwillingness to upgrade them fast enough to address complications from new virus variants, there’s also much room and reason to widen vaccine choices to include Cuba’s Soberania, China’s Sinovac and Russia’s Sputnik brands.

The Biden administration’s contribution of Pfizer vaccines to Caribbean nations is the latest manifestation of the continuing cross-Atlantic arms race for shoulders worldwide, but it is that COVID Caribbean diplomacy started much earlier this year when the Pentagon dispatched a detachment from the US Armed Forces Southern Naval Command to Trinidad and Tobago to construct and donate a canvas field hospital.

The current distribution of vaccines across the region by the US is also the result of an earlier request by then CARICOM chairman, Trinidad and Tobago, prime minister Dr Keith Rowley, for vaccine donations, responded positively by US vice president Kamla Harris.

Sensitivities

Saint Lucia’s prime minister’s cautious response to the early engagements by Taiwan’s foreign minister and the new administration’s early signal that it will pull out from the Lima Group and restore normal ties with Caracas are both early signs of prime minister Pierre’s unwillingness to rock the diplomatic boat or to be lectured on determining Saint Lucia’s future foreign policy priorities.

Taiwan is also observing the 40th anniversary of diplomatic ties with St Vincent and the Grenadines, one of the three OECS Member States with ties to Taipei.

Deliveries

Washington clearly intends to use its vaccine diplomacy over an extended period, only delivering half-a-million of the 5.5 million Pfizer doses promised to Caribbean 15 nations.

The signs of a slow pace of distribution of the US vaccines remind health authorities across the region of the continuing long wait for delivery of Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines through the WHO’s COVAC scheme.

COVAX was first exclusively dependent on the ‘non-profit’ Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines, but deliveries to developing countries have been more than just slow over the past 17 months of the pandemic plaguing the world.

In the post-Trump period, COVAX has now been buttressed with donations from the USA and China – over 50 million promised from Washington’s 80 million to be shared with developing countries and 10 million from the two billion doses Beijing has promised to distribute worldwide by the end of 2021.

Besides, China has also marketed its different vaccines in 66 countries, over 16.5 million doses delivered directly as aid donations while also making soft loans available to governments wishing to buy.

Lessons

While the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) regulates entry of Oxford AstraZeneca and other non-American vaccines into the American market to ensure Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer and other Made-in-America brands remain ahead at home, the distribution of 5.5 million vaccines from extra US stocks have already started to raise concerns about expiry dates vis-à-vis the virtual stop in vaccination rates across the region.

Europe and America’s high and deadly costs being paid for mixed messaging about masks and other protocols alongside cross-Atlantic advances and reversals on mandating vaccination, Israel’s experiences with its current ‘fourth wave’ and Africa’s efforts to join India in leading developing nations’ capacity to produce vaccines fast enough to meet Southern needs – all offer free lessons for the world that the Caribbean can quickly learn from.

Saint Lucia’s low hospital bed capacity would have been much better had not the previous administration rolled back plans inherited in 2016 for three new hospitals close to commissioning.

But it’s created a need for immediately improving the island’s ability to provide enough beds fast enough nationally, if and when the Delta variant does here, what it’s done everywhere else: increasing the number of hospitalizations and deaths of unvaccinated people.

Shifting focus

But history is also pregnant with examples of Northern nations’ attention and focus shifting to other parts of the world when new developments arise, as is the case now with the crisis in Afghanistan and America being blamed by NATO allies and others for causing the Taliban takeover by withdrawing troops too early, too fast.

Same with the most recent Haiti earthquake, minimal by normal standards, but already costing 1,300 lives and 5,000 injuries – and counting.

Haiti still being without a national mechanism for such disasters despite its tragic location on shifting tectonic plates, the assassination of its president last month, its inability to arrest the local perpetrators said to be involved in the presidents’ assassination, the inability to form a government, postponement of presidential elections and the latest 7.2 earthquake have still not been enough for the UN and the USA to overcome the manifested policy of keeping Haiti affairs on the back burner.

But CARICOM has taken the global lead on the Reparations issue (that’s also featured before and after the Black Lives Matters movement and in the last US presidential election campaign) and the CARICOM presence at the OAS continues to be an effective counterbalance to Washington’s never-ending efforts to use the US-based entity as a base to pursue its foreign policy agenda and military campaigns, especially against Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua.

Sensitivities

The region continues to face the same problems 60 years after the failed Federation and is now pursuing Reparations from Europe for Slavery and Native Genocide had placed CARICOM on the front burner of global rights issues in the 21st Century is not lost on the current CARICOM leadership, including the new Saint Lucia prime minister.

Another new University of the West Indies (UWI) graduate in CARICOM and a clear advocate of regional cooperation in ways that work, prime minister Pierre’s experience in and out of parliament and government since 1992 and as a leading member of three SLP administrations that presided over Saint Lucia’s foreign policy. Ditto foreign affairs minister and member of parliament for Laborie, Alva Baptiste, whose first major public announcement was the announcement of the restoration of normal ties with Venezuela and having already held the post for an entire term in the last labour party administration, is no stranger to the protocols of international diplomacy.

Signs and signals

Signs and signals thus far are still insufficient to give a clear indication of what the island’s foreign policy will look like over the next five years.

But foreign policy necessarily continuing to tail domestic policy for new administrations everywhere, it can be expected the new Saint Lucia government will take into consideration current global and regional realities, effects and impacts of 21st Century Climate Change on small island states, as well as the usual effects of global regime changes on ties with and between North and South again being unravelled in the current Apartheid-type inequities in the global distribution of COVID vaccines.

The Delta variant having landed immediately after it had already become clear that national numbers would rise after the virtual disregard of COVID masking and social distancing protocols during the three-week election campaign, the new Pierre-led administration, following the August 17 first meeting of the new parliament, will have to do all it can to implement its announced plans for encouraging more vaccinations, widening vaccine choices, national testing, improving national capacity to handle more hospitalizations and deaths, combatting the high levels of vaccine hesitancy that followed extended pandemic fatigue and prolonged conspiracy theories by the local anti-vaccine lobby, preparing for eventual politicization of the pandemic and avoiding the violent responses already seen next door.

It can be expected that in building back better as promised and elected to, prime minister Pierre will keep putting Saint Lucia’s interests front and centre, over and above all else. But whatever it turns out to be, the usually underestimated Pierre, as prime minister, will preside over a foreign policy based on labor administrations’ usual diplomatic protocols of mutual respect and non-interference in other nations’ internal affairs and not taking sides in disputes between allies.

Prime minister Pierre’s, foreign minister Baptiste and health minister Moses Jn Baptiste have taken the helm in the national war on the global pandemic at a time when protocols today span the realms of COVID protection and prevention, as well as vaccine diplomacy. They have assured the government has no plans to mandate vaccinations but are also aware of the equally important life-and-death task of securely and safely protecting the vaccinated from the unvaccinated

The government has also indicated it will consider incentivizing the vaccination effort, opening the way for a discussion that’s already started on whether governments should pay citizens to care for their own health, vis-a-vis its overall primary responsibility to do all to secure the health of all, including the unvaccinated.

The immediate tasks are already underway, but, sooner than later, the government will have to face the task of widening vaccine choices and building hospitalization capacity, even considering mobile hospital units or field hospitals, to quickly increase the just-over-100 now available nationally, while awaiting the safe completion of the St Jude hospital during its current term.

Persuasion during the coming national house-to-house testing being supported by senior local health officials should also be accompanied by effective measures to protect the vaccinated from the large numbers misled into believing they have a right to not just refuse to vaccinate but also to endanger the lives of others – vaccinated and unvaccinated – at home, among friends and in the community.

The new government has its COVID work well-cut-out and the national public pulse welcomed its announced new prescriptions and the new Cabinet maiden voyage after August 17, will continue to have to be based on current and historical realities — and navigated with the certainty that comes with the prime minister’s penchant for ‘following the numbers and the science’, all along the way.

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