Congress Wants a U.S. Embassy in Every Caribbean Country? Um, Because Why The Heck Not?

Rep. Eliot Engel                     Image via Wikipedia

Even my poor jaded self occasionally gets stupid-shocked into attention by the antics of our elected representatives.

In late July, the House Appropriations Committee released fiscal year 2012 State and Foreign Operations Appropriations bill which includes a total of $39.6 billion in regular discretionary funding; $8.6 billion or 18% below last year’s level.

Congress is on a belt tightening mode and instead of shaving off a bit from Defense’s overly generous budget, it decided to shave off some more from State’s niggardly budget. What more can I say? All is not fair in peace or war.

Connie Mack IV             Image via WikipediaAlso in late July, the House Foreign Affairs Committee passed an amendment authored by Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-NY-17) pressing the State Department to open U.S. embassies in the five Caribbean countries which currently do not have one.  Rep. Engel’s amendment, which he offered with Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Connie Mack (R-FL), called on the State Department to model new embassies on the U.S. embassy in Grenada, which is staffed by one foreign service officer.

I entirely missed out on this exciting new development until I saw a news item from the Office of the Prime Minister of St.Kitts & Nevis which says that a key United States Congressional panel wants Washington to set up diplomatic missions in St. Kitts and Nevis and every Eastern Caribbean island-nation, instead of having everything done by the American Embassy in Barbados.  The Prime Minister’s news item notes that “Although the diplomatic outposts wouldn’t be full-fledged and fully staffed as in Bridgetown, the committee believes the presence of an American Foreign Service Officer and a permanent mission in Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, St. Lucia, St. Kitts and Nevis and St. Vincent and the Grenadines would end the hardship imposed on American business executives and US citizens in those islands as well as those countries’ nationals now forced to travel to Barbados for visas and other services.”

Well, if you put it that way.  That’s the Caribbean, baby – what’s not to like? Would make a great CODEL destination, and only a short hop from Miami, and what more, the votes, baby, the votes.  Whoever says bipartisanship is dead in Congress is dead wrong.

Representative Engel apparently also represents thousands of Caribbean immigrants including Kittitians and Nevisians who live in the Bronx and Westchester County.

Um… if you build them embassies, will they vote? Oopsie! Did I ask that out too loudly?

In any case — on July 22, Representative  Eliot L. Engel (D-NY-17)  proudly announced the passage of an amendment pressing the State Department for more embassies in the Caribbean. Five more US embassies to be exact.  You can read his full press statement below reprinted in full on why “We Need Embassies in Every Caribbean Country”

Washington, DC — Yesterday, the House Foreign Affairs Committee passed an amendment authored by Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-NY-17) pressing the State Department to open U.S. embassies in the five Caribbean countries which currently do not have one.

“It’s hard to imagine, but there are five countries in the Caribbean, only a few hundred miles from the United States, where we have no physical diplomatic presence.  We need embassies in every Caribbean country, and I look forward to working with the State Department over the next few years to make this happen,” said Rep. Engel, Ranking Member of the House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere.

The five countries where the United States has no embassies are Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.  The U.S. Embassy in Barbados covers the five countries.  Meanwhile, Venezuela, Cuba, and Brazil all have embassies in the five island nations.

Rep. Engel’s amendment, which he offered with Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Connie Mack (R-FL), called on the State Department to model new embassies on the U.S. embassy in Grenada, which is staffed by one foreign service officer.  The amendment passed by a voice vote.

Rep. Engel’s statement in the Committee on Foreign Affairs is reprinted below:

Madame Chair, I’d like to do a quick visualization.  Imagine, if you will, countries:

    Where tens of thousands of American citizens travel for pleasure or
    business;

    Where thousands of American citizens go to school;

    Where Venezuela, Cuba, Brazil, and other countries have embassies;
   
    Where there is a constant concern about drug trafficking to the
    United States;

   
BUT, where the United States has no Embassies

I realize that’s hard to imagine, but it’s true.

There are five countries in the Caribbean, only a few hundred miles from the United States where we have no physical diplomatic presence.
Those countries are:  Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

I realize these countries are small and certainly pose no strategic threats to our homeland.

But, at the same time, they are friendly, welcoming nations where Americans often go.

They have votes in the United Nations and other international organizations, and are of profound interest to the millions of our Caribbean-heritage citizens.

Even more, due to the lack of any US diplomatic presence in the five Caribbean countries:

  • In order to meet with local officials, private business, or civil society, diplomats must fly in from Barbados (or Washington) on often expensive, infrequent flights, and stay overnight in often expensive island hotels;
  • U.S. citizens living in these countries do not have fully-accredited consular staff to assist in the event of an emergency;
  • Key events and meetings often pass with no American presence;
  • Close working relationships with key leaders never develop because our diplomats are not there to establish them;
  • Our diplomacy is limited to phones, emails, and faxes, when the best interaction is often carried out in person;
  • AND, Venezuela and Cuba maintain embassies in all these countries, putting us “behind the diplomatic eight-ball” because we’re simply not there.

But there is a solution.

The United States maintains an embassy in Grenada staffed by one Foreign Service Officer and a few locally hired personnel.

This embassy’s operating costs are very low — in the hundreds of thousands of dollars according to the Congressional Research Service.

Keeping costs down, our Grenada embassy is staffed by a “Principal Officer / Charge’ d’ Affairs,” but not an Ambassador.  The Ambassador remains in Barbados.

Given that Washington is embroiled in deficit reduction and the no tax increase heehaw the last several months, you’d think that opening new embassies would be the last thing in any representative’s mind. But no, the good representative from the Bronx, and others who voted for this amendment had it covered. Representative Engel in his statement:

I know what you’re thinking:  (1) This amendment will establish new positions and be costly, and (2) We are short diplomats right now, and while this is a good idea, it’s time has not yet come.

I’m pleased to say that the amendment addresses both of these concerns.

The Amendment specifically says only amounts available for setting up an embassies may be used for this purpose.  No additional monies may be used, so there will be no net additional cost to the taxpayers.  Further, it only reassigns current foreign service billets to this job, rather than creating a new position.

We have HUGE embassies in Iraq and Afghanistan with more than 500 foreign service officers in Afghanistan and more than 300 in Iraq.  They will be there for years to come — and rightfully so.  My amendment does absolutely nothing to affect our requirements in Iraq and Afghanistan.  BUT our huge diplomatic presence will not be there forever.  The amendment says, when 20% of the diplomats in those countries come home, FIVE — ONLY FIVE — are to be reassigned to the Caribbean countries.

So, I urge the Committee to support this amendment and move ahead with setting up embassies in the Caribbean countries where we have none so that we can take care of our citizens’ needs and the Chavezes of the world won’t be the only ones present.

Tee-hee! You think these guys would make it as stand-up comedians in New York?  Not only do they want five new embassies in the eastern Carribean, they also make no new monies available for standing up these five new embassies. How do they calculate that in their heads? Really, I’d like to know. Sigh…. No wonder we are in such deep shit.

I hope the State Department’s OBO sends them a sketch of an embassy design for Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, St. Lucia, St. Kitts and Nevis and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. From a scratch pad. A design on chalk on black board would do fine, too.

Let’s take a look at these island countries where Congress wants to put up an embassy each:

Antigua and Barbuda, the “Land of 365 Beaches” has an estimated population of 86,754 and a GDP (PPP) of $1.425 billion (2010 estimate). An estimated 4,500 American citizens make their home in the island nation, making their numbers one of the largest American populations in the English-speaking Eastern Caribbean.

I should note that its GDP is about how much we are spending standing up the Afghanistan National Police.

Dominica, known as the “Nature Isle of the Caribbean” for its unspoiled natural beauty has a population of 72,660 and a GDP (PPP) of $758 million.

St. Lucia, visited by majority of tourists as part of a cruise has a population  of some 173,765  and a GDP (PPP) totaling $1.746 billion.

The Federation of Saint Kitts and Nevis is the smallest sovereign state in the Americas, in both area and population; it has about 42,696 inhabitants in July 2000, and a GDP (PPP) of $726 million. Its residents immigrate overseas with the US and UK as primary and secondary destinations respectively.

Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
, composed of partially submerged volcanic mountains has a population of some 104,574.  Mainland St Vincent is reportedly one of the few places on Earth that can boast about having black-sand beaches and white-sand in the same country. Its GDP (PPP, 2009 est.): $1.55 billion.

Representative Engel was concerned that  U.S. citizens living in these island countries do not have fully-accredited consular staff to assist in the event of an emergency.

I have a great response to that.

Indonesia. Not only does it have more islands than the Caribbean, emergencies in that country are not theoritical events.

Providing consular services in Indonesia is a challenge. Vast distances make providing services to American citizens difficult and time-consuming. Crisis management is more than a theoretical possibility. The mission has tackled natural disasters, such as volcanic eruptions and tsunamis, and terrorism.

Indonesia is comprised of 13,466 islands and thirty three provinces. With 240 million people, it is the world’s third largest democracy. About 15,000 Americans live in Indonesia, mostly in Jakarta on 3-4 year business assignments, but there are 1,000-2,000 Americans retired on Bali, either as permanent or part-time residents.

Its GDP in the last few years?  (2009): $539 billion; (2010): $707 billion; (2011 est.): $823 billion. Its exports in 2010 was $158 billion with the U.S. as one of its six major trading partners.

And what’s our diplomatic presence like in that country? We have an embassy in Jakarta, a Consulate General in Surabaya, a Consulate in Medan and a Consular Agency in Bali. So that’s like 3300 islands for every diplomatic post in the country.

For good measure, let’s take a look at another Asian country with about the same number of islands as the Caribbean.

The Philippines, an island country in the East Asian Pacific region with some 7,100 islands.

An estimated 600,000 Americans visit the Philippines each year, while an estimated 300,000 reside in-country. Providing government services to U.S. and other citizens, therefore, constitutes an important aspect of the bilateral relationship.  The State Department’s background note states that the United States competes closely as one of the Philippines’ top two trading partners. Two-way U.S. merchandise trade with the Philippines–which declined from $17 billion in 2008 to $12.6 billion in 2009 following declines in global trade flows–increased to $15.4 billion in 2010 (U.S. Department of Commerce data).

How many diplomatic posts do we have there?  An embassy in Manila and a Virtual Presence Post (VPP) for Mindanao. That’s it.

Congressman Engel’s concern in the East Caribbean that “key events and meetings often pass with no American presence” and that “close working relationships with key leaders never develop because our diplomats are not there to establish them” are certainly true for both Indonesia and the Philippines. But I doubt if there is a substantial number of Filipino-Americans or Indonesian-Americans of voting age in the Bronx.

And when 20% of our diplomats return from Iraq and Afghanistan, “FIVE — ONLY FIVE — are to be reassigned to the Caribbean countries,” according to Representative Engel’s dim light idea. What’s with the 20%? 

Citing the US Embassy in Grenada (which does not even have its own website) apparently staffed by only one Foreign Service Officer and a few locally hired personnel, Congressman Engel says that “this embassy’s operating costs are very low– in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.” He did not cite actual numbers, of course.

It’s technically a sale, cheap but … but ….

Must State invest what limited resources it has over there just because Venezuela and Cuba are there?  At least he did not say, we must be there because Apple expanded its App Store in the Caribbean.  Consular Officials based in Barbados routinely visit the six other island countries under its authority. When the embassy gets a political ambassador with a private plane, the visits are more often, of course; without that largesse, the visits are a bit more sparse.

If Congress wants more Amcit visits, perhaps it should give State more money? Or, here’s an idea. It might convince DOD to hot ship transfer one of its ships to the State Department.  We gave a ship to Pakistan for god-sakes, why not give one to the State Department to enable it to do its traveling business in the Eastern Caribbean.  What a great adventure that would be! Hey! No office rental, but FSOs who bid on the job must know how to drive the ship or command somebody to drive/pilot it.  No residential rental either; and yes, the FSO may bring his/her family and pets onboard.

What?  Oh, sorry … got carried away …. but a ship, a ship in the Caribbean … it really is a great, GREAT idea. Congress can even use it for CODEL visits. I’m sure the FSO, family and pet would not mind sharing the ship for brief visits.

But seriously —

Even if — for the sake of argument that the embassy’s operation cost is say “low” (OBO and the Regional Security Office would presumably disagree), why would you send our FSOs to the Eastern Caribbean?  Not saying its a bad destination; all those gorgeous  beaches! But why would we not send them instead to the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China) whose combined economies could eclipse the combined economies of the current richest countries of the world in 2050?

We currently have four diplomatic posts in Brazil (Brasilia, Rio de Janeiro, Recife; São Paulo) four in Russia (Moscow, St. Petersburg, Vladivostok, Yekaterinburg), five in India (New Delhi, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Chennai, Mumbai) and VPP Bangalore and six in China (Beijing, Chengdu, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Shenyang, Wuhan) and seven Virtual Presence Posts.

Think about these BRIC countries which, if combined, currently account for more than a quarter of the world’s land area and more than 40% of the world’s population. Then  think about opening five embassies in the Eastern Caribbean.

You need some Dramamine?

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