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Ports Remain a Very Weak Link

Authors: Claire Casey, and Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies
October 11, 2004
Sun-Sentinel

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Americans may think of the Caribbean mainly as our source for Rodgers and Hammerstein's "mangoes and bananas you can pick right off the tree," but the 12 island nations, stretching from Jamaica in the west to Trinidad and Tobago in the east, may also, unwittingly, be sending far more nefarious goods -- drugs, weapons, even terrorists -- from their ports to ours.

Seems like an easy problem for "W" to fix, what with his commitment to homeland security and keeping America safe. But unlike the Reagan administration, which launched the Caribbean Basin Initiative to help these small countries with trade and debt, this administration has utterly failed to keep its promise to help strengthen the systems used by small island states to monitor what goes in and out of their countries.

Back in April 2001, this President Bush launched the "Third Border Initiative," recognizing that these resource-scarce, small-population states cannot alone lessen their (and thus our) exposure to transnational threats that may thrive in the openness of global trade. Under this initiative, mutual security was to be the watchword. And port security was the top priority, especially after 9-11.

An extensive Caribbean port system is part of the 80 percent of world trade that moves around via a maritime network. But the Bush administration's policies on maritime security have been consistently hollow.

Take the innocuous-sounding but important International Ship and Port Facility Security Code. While its goals are necessarily ambitious, the Bush administration, with its priorities thousands of miles away, has left the ISPS underfunded, and thus undermonitored and enforced. Indeed, shipping containers from the Caribbean reach American ports from the Caribbean each day -- yet the Department of Homeland Security, which is responsible for coordinating our port security, has ignored or politicized pleas for help from the Caribbean community.

The administration has refused to provide direct financial support for the Caribbean nations' efforts to implement the new security measures. Nor has anyone in the Bush administration picked up the phone to call on the World Bank or Inter-American Development Bank to help.

Why should Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, or St. Lucia bend over backward to help America in the war on drugs or the war on terror, spending scarce resources to secure their ports, if in truth Bush and his homeland security secretary Tom Ridge are really just blowing hot air at the problem?

Unless it is Haiti, where the ideologues in the Bush administration helped engineer the collapse of the Aristide government, or Cuba, where they are praying for regime change, too, the Bush administration has ignored the Caribbean and left our "third border" a dangerous security vacuum, and our nation vulnerable as a result.

By neglecting its own Third Border Initiative, the Bush administration has allowed shipments from noncompliant ports throughout the Caribbean to arrive in the United States each and every day. Of course, most of these containers carry perfectly legitimate goods to the American consumer. But the sheer volume means that a negligible percentage of these shipments are inspected before they depart or when they arrive. And in recent months shipping containers have been discovered containing everything from trafficked humans to illicit arms.

The 9-11 attacks showed that we face an enemy prepared to exploit such a weakness. Compared to the $200 billion spent in Iraq, a modest investment of a few million dollars in our own neighborhood would be vastly more effective in securing the homeland.

America cannot win the war on terror relying on the bereft homeland security policies of this administration. The Caribbean, much to the chagrin of the region's governments, will increasingly become a haven not for sun-worshippers and honeymooners, but for criminal syndicates, druglords and the terrorists that thrive on their trade.


Julia Sweig is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and Claire Casey is a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

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