During the second week of July, the United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, issued a policy brief on the impact of COVID-19 on Latin America and the Caribbean. In a press release, the UN said several countries in the region “are now among those with the highest per capita infection rates worldwide” and the brief would focus on how best to recover “in a region already embroiled in poverty, hunger, unemployment and inequality”.
While the intent was to shed light on how the crisis has affected vulnerable groups, it also caused a sense of consternation among some in the Caribbean tourism sector.
“It concerns me greatly that the Caribbean is continuously thrown into the same pot with Latin America,” said Karolin Troubetzkoy, president of the St Lucia Hotel and Tourism Association and a former president of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association. “As we know, COVID-19 cases have spiked in Latin America but not the Caribbean. Who is going to defend our good name?”
The umbilical connection between the Caribbean and Latin America on the international stage had its origin in the UN’s predecessor, the League of Nations – the first global intergovernmental organisation founded in 1920 following the Paris peace conference that ended World War I. Back then, the grouping had determined there was a need to create election slates for the geographic distribution of seats in its council.
The founding of the UN in 1945, along with a series of changes, led to the establishment of five geopolitical regional groups of member states, one of which is Latin America and the Caribbean.
LITTLE IN COMMON
At a conference in June aimed at finding ways to deal with the crisis in the region, Kristalina Georgieva, the International Monetary Fund’s managing director, called for a joint response “for countries that share so much history, language, values, culture, and more recently, a deep and multifaceted economic relationship sustained by several trade agreements and deep trade and investment flows”.
However, regional officials, as well as international experts who specialise in Caribbean affairs, insist there’s little in common as far as language is concerned – only Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico are Spanish-speaking – and little to no trade or investment flows. They also point to the vast gulf between the English-speaking Caribbean and Latin America in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases.
“I see no reason to lump the Caribbean in with Latin America in terms of COVID-19,” Scott MacDonald, chief economist at the US-based Smith’s Research and Gradings, and a Global Americans research fellow, told The Sunday Gleaner.
“Indeed, some of the highest infection rates and deaths have been in Latin America – in particular Brazil, Mexico, Peru and Chile – and the United States. This is vastly different in the Caribbean, where governments generally responded quickly and effectively by shutting down borders, implementing new health measures and seeking to work with their citizens on finding the other side to the pandemic.”
Back in early May, Dr Clive Landis, pro-vice-chancellor for undergraduate studies and research at The University of the West Indies (UWI) Cave Hill campus in Barbados, and the chairman of the UWI COVID-19 task force, announced that the Caribbean Community countries, as well as the British overseas territories, had managed to contain the virus. And although there have been a few more cases since, particularly with the reopening of borders, none of these countries, with the exception of Haiti with 7,544 cases as of August 7, and Jamaica now hitting 1,003, had recorded 1,000 confirmed cases, according to World Health Organization (WHO) statistics. The Bahamas has 751 cases, Guyana (509) and Trinidad and Tobago (207). At least 15 countries within the Caribbean tourism sphere have fewer than 100 cases.
On the other hand, according to the WHO, Brazil, with 2,859,073 cumulative cases as of August 7, is the second worst impacted country in the world, behind only the United States. Mexico (456,100), Peru (447,624), Chile (366,671) and Columbia (345,714) are among the worst-hit countries.
Jennifer D. Johnson, a Jamaican communications expert, told The Sunday Gleaner that linking the Caribbean to Latin America on such matters has long been a vexing issue for the region.
“It’s concerning to know that in spite of continued enlightenment, industry insiders and influencers persist in referencing us as one land mass,” said Johnson, vice-president of the Miami office of Zapwater Communications, an integrated communications agency.
For Caribbean destinations which depend heavily on tourism, image is everything. Therefore, twinning the region with Latin America – as is also often done when reporting crime statistics – is an unfair blow to their brand image.
“As we try to navigate through the uncertainty, we must strive to protect the fragility of our brand – as individual nations and a region,” Johnson explained. “As brand advocates and ambassadors, our work continues not only with showcasing the stand-alone qualities of each nation to would-be travellers but with the continued education on who we are.”
The pandemic’s impact on tourism is clear. According to the Barbados-based Caribbean Tourism Organization, the crisis is likely to push the sector back 25 years. Placing it in the “same boat” as the Latin American countries would be even more damaging, predicted MacDonald.
“The Caribbean has already been hard hit by the collapse of tourism,” he said, “it does not deserve to be put in the same boat as other countries which have not managed the situation as well.”