February 13, 2014

Yikes, Caribbean islands, take notice for earthquakes and tsunamis

Another headline today got my attention: new study suggests that a mega-tsunami could devastate coastlines from Florida to Brazil following a volcanic eruption in the Canary Islands. Chesapeake Bay Area residents, take note.

And what about the Caribbean islands? Two hundred foot waves are not a good thing for them. Years ago, we saw shells deposited on the highest elevated land in Eleuthera after a freak wave of 100 feet (just prior to "The Perfect Storm" off Gloucester, Massachusetts).

Marigot Bay in St. Lucia
We visited St. Lucia last week and learned about a Christmas Eve mega-storm that wiped out many of their roads, bridges and homes. A few lives were lost as well during the heavy rains. Yet I do not remember the American media covering it. Perhaps Jim Cantore missed it, but we hear little about the Caribbean islands unless it's hurricane season.

Twenty five percent of St. Lucians live in poverty.  So how could this poor country pay for needed repairs? Dollars came from many countries, I learned, but especially from Taiwan. 

St. Lucia maintained diplomatic relations with Taiwan (Republic of China) from 1984 to 1997; switched to China (People's Republic of China) from 1997 to 2006; then re-established diplomatic ties with Taiwan in 2006, much to the chagrin of China. This tug of war of chumminess has been going on for the last few decades, depending on the ruling party of St. Lucia. China regards Taiwan as a renegade province, so is not thrilled with shifting alliances by the St. Lucia government of Prime Minister Kenny Anthony and does not recognize "double recognition."

Over the last few decades, St. Lucia has received multiple grants from both Taiwan and China to finance roadwork, stadium, psychiatric hospital, meat packing plants, economic development projects, etc. A recent grant will light playing fields, construct "Community Access Centres” and develop a Block-Making facility at a St. Lucia correctional facility. Taiwan is also helping St. Lucians propagate new strains of fruits and vegetables, develop livestock, upgrade their fishing industry and create information technology learning centers to combat poverty.

These loans and grants of billions of dollars are common practice in all Caribbean nations, with much of the work done by Chinese labor.  We noticed miles of new roads and much appreciated guard rails in Dominica last year that were funded by China. I wondered then about the rationale behind foreign aid. It is not all humanitarian.

Was China improving Dominica's infrastructure for Chinese tourists? During the last ten years, only a few Chinese shops and restaurants opened on St. Lucia, and the predicted influx of Chinese tourists has not occurred there. We did see quite a few small Chinese grocery stores in Belize last June. Yeah, yeah, we do travel a lot. MANY islands on our bucket list yet!

I was concerned in 2008 during a visit to Dominica about a vacancy for U.S. ambassador to Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean (Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Grenada, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines). Who was watching out for American interests in these islands?President Obama finally filled the post in May 2012 with Larry Leon Palmer. And his Department of State website implies that he is doing his job. But one man? And so many islands? 

I also wonder how these poor islands are going to repay these huge debts. The average public debt for Caribbean nations now amounts to about 84 percent of GDP, with five countries (Barbados, Grenada, Jamaica, St. Kitts-Nevis, and Antigua and Barbuda) experiencing debt-to-GDP ratios of close to 100% and higher. 

How will these countries repay these debts if and when the lending countries demand it? Some are loans extended under Venezuelan oil arrangements. China's loans are concessional with little if any interest charged and there is no indication that China or Venezuela will write-off these loans.  What happens if they default? I am not an expert in foreign aid, but I can only imagine this scenario--especially in the case of that tsunami.