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China’s hegemony in the Caribbean will see Cuba follow Barbados into BRI

Rami Rayess

Published: Updated:

The ceremony that took place in Barbados last week that saw the Caribbean nation cut ties with the British Commonwealth and become a fully-fledged republic was heralded as a new dawn for the country.

The horrors of British colonialism is well documented, and Barbados was the victim of many abhorrent practices including slavery.

Democracy is only in the hands of the beholder. Today Barbados is indeed a democratic nation with the shackles of British dependency broken, but what is its democratic future?

In one regard it’s jumping out of the fire and into the pan, if its relationship with China is a barometer of national governance.

As part of the Commonwealth, Britain didn’t rule Barbados, but as more Chinese investment pours into the country, Beijing eventually will be in a position to.

Politically, Beijing plays the long game and is slowly expanding and strengthening its colonial might. It has the military capability to invade Taiwan and gain control, but it also has the financial muscle to follow a soft colonial route.

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Barbados is in the backyard of the United States but will steadily come under Chinese economic tutelage. This could be a new Cuba in the making, but without the need for missiles.

The very idea of China building its presence so close to the US will make Washington nervous. Barbados isn’t a big player in the Caribbean, but Beijing will consider it a stepping stone to bigger rewards.

Is Cuba in its sights? I wonder if China begins ramping up schmoozing Havana whether the US will suddenly lift the economic blockade it has enforced on Cuba for over five decades. It would have been better for Washington - all those years ago to have handled its relationship with Fidel Castro in a better fashion. The door is ajar to let Beijing in.

Generally China and Cuba have shared good relations, but over the years it’s undeniable that the relationship has been complex and difficult.

It would have been better for Washington - all those years ago to have handled its relationship with Fidel Castro in a better fashion, but the door is ajar to let Beijing in. (File photo: AFP)
It would have been better for Washington - all those years ago to have handled its relationship with Fidel Castro in a better fashion, but the door is ajar to let Beijing in. (File photo: AFP)

Beijing already has interests in Cuba, playing a vital role in the Caribbean island’s telecommunication infrastructure. Investment will widen.

Barbados is facing a debt trap. With infrastructure projects being financed by Beijing, what is a trickle at the moment could become a torrent very quickly.

The British Commonwealth itself has lost credibility, and what is basically a club where members can leave without recourse has little relevance in the world today. It’s the remnants of a crumpled empire.

Britain exploited Barbados and in recent times has never committed itself to invest in badly needed infrastructure projects required to function properly. China will happily fill this void.

Yet, there remains something unsettling about being lured into the hands of China. The impression often portrayed is of a loan shark more than willing to lend with the proviso that they take what they want when the schmuck is unable to pay back the loan.

A bit dramatic and stereotypical, but the nuance exists.

Looking at Sri Lanka as an example, following the situation with the port of Hambantota, the claim was made that China took control of the facility when Kotte failed to pay its debt. There was a blurring of the lines in the lending details between the two countries, but it was used widely to push the narrative that China was using its financial muscle to capture footholds in other parts of the world. Territorial collateral can be damaging for small and poor countries.

The West has been slow to combat the threat of Chinese hegemony. The working mechanisms in the West are fundamentally different from those in the East. China simply decides and executes, while in the US and Europe the political process requires rounds and rounds of negotiations.

US President Joe Biden unveiled the "Build Back Better World" (B3W) program with the goal of creating a values-driven, high-standard and transparent infrastructure partnership to help finance projects in developing countries.

You would have thought Barbados could have benefitted from this.

It took years before the West embarked on a fully-fledged plan to counter the threat of the Belt and Road Initiative. The delay was exploited by China. It stretched its economic projects from Africa to Central Asia to South America.

Barbados joined the BRI in 2019. Its exit from the Commonwealth was preordained. Had the country been offered a package deal from the US or the UK, it would have probably not shifted allegiance.

China has a firm presence in Jamaica too. The country’s North-South Highway saw an investment of $730 million from China Harbor. The country is the largest recipient of Chinese loans in the Caribbean, totaling around $770 million.

The loans have been used on infrastructure projects covering housing, roads and commercial venues.

The West is losing its satellite allies one by one. The Domino Effect is happening, and more countries will switch allegiances to Beijing.

Enemies will also join the BRI, and history will show ones that could have enjoyed favourable relations with the West. Cuba falls into this category. Despite the large Cuban diaspora in Miami and the wider US, even if Washington was to try to reach out with the hand of friendship, Havana will join the BRI with all the rewards, and losses it brings.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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