Cuba is once again the closest partner of Russia with a range of economic and commercial agreements, including investments in energy and offshore oil exploration; the recent cancelling of more than US$35 billion of Cuba’s debt; and intensifying military links. However, what is perhaps more interesting and more recent is the growing cooperation between Russia and countries such as Suriname, Grenada, Guyana, and Jamaica. Russia is keen to develop its interests in the region, whilst CARICOM countries are looking for new partners to support their fragile economies.
The Russian government sees Cuba as its entry point into the Caribbean, but views the countries of CARICOM as natural allies where constructive relationships can be built. Russia is also thankful that Caribbean countries did not impose sanctions after its occupation of Crimea. Suriname, for example, is discussing cooperation in the areas of agriculture, fishing, shipbuilding and education. Trade is also becoming an important element. For instance, Russia is Jamaica’s fourth largest export market; although CARICOM’s overall trade with Russia is still relatively small. In 2014, Russia was CARICOM’s sixth largest export market (4.3%); but did not feature in the top ten importers. More particularly, there are three areas of cooperation that are being promoted at present: tourism, natural resource exploration, and military and security ties.
In relation to tourism there has been a recent agreement to establish a visa-free zone between Russia and all CARICOM countries, building on bilateral agreements over the past few years with Jamaica, Grenada, and St Kitts and Nevis. In particular, Russia is eager to extend those arrangements throughout the Eastern Caribbean and to Suriname. Reciprocal visa-free travel should be in place for those countries in the next 12 months. Other efforts are being made, including charter flights and bespoke tours for Russians, to boost tourism. However, tourist numbers are small, and it is difficult to gain accurate statistics because many Russians come into the region via Cuba, Dominican Republic and Miami, or on cruise ships. Indeed the lack of regular and direct travel connections between Russia and CARICOM is a significant constraint. Jamaica had one for a while, but then the airline Transaero went bankrupt. Flights are also long and expensive and this largely excludes Russian families from the Caribbean tourism market. Russian investment in the tourism industry is also worth noting through the Citizenship by Investment Programmes that several Eastern Caribbean countries have created, but these are controversial and have been criticised by the United States and Canadian governments.
The second priority area is natural resource exploration. Various agreements have been concluded or are in discussion for Russian companies to help facilitate oil and gas exploration in the region. Recently for instance the Russian-backed Global Petroleum Group began to prospect for natural gas in Grenada’s territorial waters. Discussions have also started between Russia and Trinidad and Tobago to boost cooperation in the latter’s oil and gas industries. Further, a majority shareholding of the Bauxite Company of Guyana is held by UC Rusal, and Jamaica is also witnessing increased levels of Russian investment in its bauxite industry.
The third sphere is military and security cooperation. Most recently on 10 October 2017, Alexandr Shetinin, Head of the Department of Latin America, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, announced plans for a military cooperation agreement with Suriname. Then later that month Suriname’s minister of foreign affairs, Yldiz Pollack-Beighle, visited Moscow. One immediate outcome was Suriname’s decision to rescind its recognition of Kosovo as an independent state; something Russia had long urged. More broadly Russia is offering countries enhanced training opportunities for law enforcement personnel, which can then support future Russian-Caribbean cooperation.
Underpinning these developments is a strong regional approach on the part of Russia. Multilateral action is considered a key element of its increasing level of engagement. So for example Russia is encouraging the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) to establish a joint embassy in Moscow; the first Russian-Eurasian-Caribbean economic, media and academic forum was held recently; and there is a Russian and Cuban-sponsored regional centre for training emergency personnel, from which CARICOM members can benefit. Further, Russia has observer status in the Association of Caribbean States (ACS) and since 2015 ties between Russia and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) have deepened.
So, how should Russia’s growing links with the countries of CARICOM be assessed? Well, there has clearly been a step-change in recent years, and both sides see benefits in developing the relationship further. For Russia there are commercial and diplomatic advantages, whilst for the Caribbean it is part of an attempt to establish a more plural foreign policy beyond the old and possibly declining partnerships with the United States and Europe. The United States for its part is worried about the growing role of Russia at the expense of its own. Russia’s strategic plan for CARICOM remains unclear.