The Bahamas: a close but unknown American partner

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Compared to much of the world, the Bahamas is doing well. Located just 50 miles off the coast of Florida, this archipelago country is not in danger of falling into violence or being taken over by China. In fact, it continues to quietly host a large US submarine installation and just had an election that went so well that no one in Washington even noticed.

Indeed, by the conventions of foreign policy experts, there is no need for an alarmed article on the Bahamas at this time. This is exactly why Washington should take this opportunity to deepen its cooperation with Nassau and ensure that we never have to read one in the future.

On September 16, the Bahamas held a general election in which the opposition party made considerable gains. The timing was a surprise, as the outgoing Prime Minister called a snap election amid rampant COVID-19 cases months before the May 2022 constitutional date. His strategy failed. The leader of the Liberal Progressive Party, Philip “Brave” Davis, won the election and won 32 of 39 seats in Parliament. Hours after the polls closed, the outgoing Prime Minister admitted defeat to Davis, paving the way for a peaceful transfer of power in this stable democracy.

Nonetheless, the new Bahamian government faces a number of challenges, including the pandemic, a faltering economy and a persistent hurricane threat. Washington can help by providing pandemic and hurricane relief, larger investments, tailored security cooperation, and high-level diplomatic engagement. Rather than taking the Bahamas for granted, the Biden administration should instead help take this successful relationship to the next level.

Strategically located

Most Americans probably associate the Bahamas with an idyllic tropical vacation, the lyrics of the Beach Boys, or perhaps the annual Bahamas bowl of college football. Game. Some may even know its famous swimming pigs.

But what many Americans don’t realize is that the same factors that make the Bahamas a tourist haven also make it uniquely strategic. With over 700 islands and a location on the western end of the Caribbean, the Bahamas is an easy jump for Americans on vacation. And it’s also a key drug corridor through which smugglers get their products to US markets. These two elements are factors in the country’s enduring and multifaceted relationship with America.

Tourism provides a vital source of government revenue in The Bahamas, accounting for more than half of the country’s GDP. A number of US citizens also live in the Bahamas, some attracted by its lower tax liability. These ties have created strong cultural ties that are linked by a common English language. Even the National Basketball Association, whose ranks include several players from the Bahamas, have reportedly considered resuming their suspended season in the Bahamas. after his COVID-19-induced hiatus in 2020..

The Bahamas, which has a smaller population of 400,000 than Wyoming, is also a close political and security partner of the United States. Since the 1980s, the US Coast Guard has worked with the Bahamas and neighboring Turks and Caicos Islands on an anti-drugs partnership aptly called Operation Bahamas Turks and Caicos. The Bahamas also quietly host a US Navy submarine test center on Andros Island. The test area spans a deep water basin known as the Tongue of the Ocean, making it ideal for underwater testing. The outgoing administration of Prime Minister Hubert Minnis, who was elected in 2017, was a powerful political ally of the United States and has supported American positions on Venezuela and Nicaragua at the United Nations and the Organization of American States, respectively.

Chinese interest

China has also recognized the geographic importance of the Bahamas and has aggressively sought to deepen its influence in the archipelago. Around 2009, the Liberal Progressive Party-led government that stepped down in 2017 attracted Chinese investment, which today is most visible in several renowned construction projects in the tourism sector. One of those projects is a $ 2.4 billion mega-spell in Nassau, dubbed the Baha Mar – a reference to the country’s original name in Spanish for “shallow water.” The project was mired in controversy and suffered several delays until its final opening in 2017. In the 1990s, a Hong Kong-based company opened a deep-water container port in Freeport, a major hub in northern Bahamas. In 2014, the Chinese Harbor Engineering Company built a port in Abaco, who has languished for several years because the dredging remained unfinished. Then, in 2016, China donated $ 1.2 million to help the Bahamian military purchase equipment, a move likely aimed at winning favor with the security sector. In 2020, China extended mask diplomacy to the Bahamas to aid its response to COVID-19. It then delivered six shipments of medical supplies, reflecting the support it provided after a hurricane in 2019. More recently, in July 2021, China and the Bahamas signed a $ 12 million modernization grant. infrastructures.

China’s goals behind this litany of investments are likely economic and political, not in the pursuit of a naval base to project its might. And the Bahamas has yet to adhere to China’s ambitious foreign policy infrastructure project known as the Belt and Road Initiative. However, the long-term risk of China’s soft power campaign is that it slowly erodes US-Bahamian relations in Beijing’s favor. China’s success in building partnerships in other Caribbean countries, such as Jamaica, gives an indication of what this could lead to.

Don’t take the Bahamas for granted

Washington cannot take for granted that the strong US-Bahamian partnership will automatically continue with the change of government in Nassau. The United States must swiftly back the new government to help keep the Bahamas stable and deny China opportunities to deepen the influence it has gained over the past decade. China might see an opportunity in the Liberal Progressive Party’s electoral victory because the party has historically been more open to Chinese engagement.

The new government is taking power in the shadow of twin crises over the past two years that have hit the Bahamas and likely lingered in the minds of voters as they filled out their ballots. In late 2019, Category 5 Hurricane Dorian ravaged two populated northern islands and caused $ 3.4 billion in damage in its wake. When COVID-19 arrived in March 2020, it hit a country still struggling with a recovery from the storm. The government acted quickly to eradicate the virus but could not stop its island-to-island spread. At the height of the epidemic, Minnis, a doctor, even offered to treat patients on the front line.

Countering China’s influence should inform Washington’s approach, but should not be the only lens it engages through. This post-electoral partnership does not require radical political changes, but simply deepens existing programs. There are a number of opportunities for engagement.

The Bahamas are located in what has been called “hurricane alley”. It will always be vulnerable to seasonal storms, the devastation of which will likely require serious assistance from foreign partners. US aid after Hurricane Dorian was commendable, involving the mobilization of USAID, the Department of Defense and the Coast Guard, which saved more than 400 people. Individuals and businesses in Florida have also responded with donations and fundraising events, uniting under the hashtag #Bahamasstrong. In addition to being prepared for disaster relief, Washington should also look for ways to strengthen the resilience of the Bahamas – for example, by supporting much-needed investments in the country’s obsolete energy sector or weather-proof solar farms. storms.

The geography of the Bahamas has not spared it from the pandemic, which exposed the country’s public health deficiencies. The Global Health Security Index, which ranks countries’ health capacities, ranked the Bahamas among the “least prepared” countries in its most recent report. The pandemic validated this ranking, as the country’s aging health infrastructure was pushed to its limits. The United States has provided much-needed vaccines to the Bahamas and is expected to look for ways to help the Bahamas modernize their health infrastructure, including on the less populated islands.

In addition to the economic damage caused by Hurricane Dorian, the pandemic is expected to cost the Bahamas up to $ 1 billion. The pandemic left hotel rooms empty for months and forced cruise ships to cease calls at the port of Nassau. In September, Moody’s downgraded the Bahamas’ credit rating, citing the economic erosion caused by the pandemic. U.S. investment and the return of U.S. tourists will be critical to the Bahamas’ recovery, especially as China sees new economic opportunities.

The Royal Bahamas Defense Force has also been a steadfast American partner who will benefit from additional and appropriate security cooperation. U.S. aid, including a recent $ 5.9 million equipment delivery, has helped the small, largely maritime force increase its capabilities. Humanitarian aid, disaster relief, logistics, educational exchanges and domain knowledge represent promising areas for future cooperation.

Finally, the Bahamas needs more love from senior US officials, who should do more to recognize the islands’ importance to US national security. The USAID administrator’s visit to the Bahamas in September 2019 after Hurricane Dorian showed the invaluable solidarity of a senior US official. The secretary of state is expected to pay a similar visit to demonstrate that the US-Bahamian partnership transcends hurricanes. Ideally, this would come right after the confirmation of a US ambassador to the Bahamas, a post that has been vacant for years. The president should be ready to invite his counterpart from the Bahamas to Washington for a bilateral meeting to define the partnership for the next few years.

The renewed instability in Cuba and Haiti this year underscores the importance of a stable American partner in the Caribbean, which some have called the United States’ third frontier. The Bahamas sits astride this border and will forever be linked to the United States by cultural, political and historical ties. The United States should do more to embrace this close but often overlooked Caribbean neighbor.

John Mohr is a former Air Force officer and 17-year veteran of the intelligence community who previously served as the NSC’s chief of staff. He currently serves at the Defense Intelligence Agency where his portfolio includes the Bahamas.

The opinions expressed in this article do not reflect any official position or opinion of the Department of Defense or the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Image: UpstateNYer, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons


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