- Associated Press - Thursday, February 12, 2015

MIAMI (AP) - Five U.S. ambassadors to the Caribbean on Thursday reinforced the U.S. government’s commitment to helping the cash-strapped region to reduce its dependence on Venezuelan oil while addressing multiple security issues.

The panel at Florida International University followed last month’s Caribbean Energy Security Summit in Washington, where Vice President Joe Biden said the U.S. was poised to help Caribbean countries that could address corruption and make needed regulatory changes.

The U.S. ambassadors to Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Suriname and Barbados and the eastern Caribbean participated in the panel hosted by FIU’s Latin American and Caribbean Center.

The U.S. wants to encourage more American investment in Caribbean energy projects, such as a new wind farm in Jamaica, “but we need to have and provide a safe and secure environment,” said Luis Moreno, the ambassador to Jamaica.

With falling oil prices shaking Venezuela’s economy, the Caribbean is interested in finding alternatives to Petrocaribe, a decade-old trade program created by the late President Hugo Chavez that requires member countries to pay only a small portion of the up-front costs for oil, allowing them to finance the rest under long-term debt agreements.

The ambassadors derided the program, though they acknowledged it wasn’t likely to end soon even as they push Caribbean countries to consider shifting to natural gas or other energy alternatives.

“We want to encourage individuality. We want to get these countries to sit up for themselves,” said Moreno, who called Petrocaribe “a blunt political instrument.”

Aside from Venezuela’s influence, the Caribbean faces a number of challenges that concern the U.S, such as border security, rising Chinese influence in the region, human rights, weak infrastructure, a lack of regional coordination and vulnerability to climate change and natural disasters.

There’s also been a rise in drug, arms and human trafficking in some eastern Caribbean islands as authorities put pressure on traffickers in South America, and some countries have begun essentially offering citizenship and easing travel for people who buy land or make other investments in the islands, said Larry Palmer, ambassador to Barbados and the eastern Caribbean.

Another problem is political instability in Haiti, in spite of strides the country has made in recovering from a 2010 earthquake. Long-delayed elections are scheduled later this year, but “it’s always rocky in Haiti,” said Pamela White, ambassador to Haiti.

“Let’s just pray we can get through those two days (of scheduled voting) this year so the Haitian people have the right, the democratic right, to vote in people they think will represent them,” she said.


Follow Jennifer Kay on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jnkay .

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