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Caribbean leaders: ‘We’re still split between Elizabeth and Isabela’

Some of the most prominent Caribbean leaders who participated in the Clinton Foundation’s two-day gathering in San Juan Wednesday agreed that the region is grossly divided, “still split between Elizabeth and Isabela.”

With that, they supported their arguments that the region needs to come together more cohesively — be them U.S. mainland, French, Dutch or British jurisdictions — to encourage economic growth, resiliency and a better future.

During the “Fortifying the future of the Caribbean economy” plenary session, President Bill Clinton, founder of the nonprofit, and panelists agreed that the Caribbean needs “some sort of common market” related to banking, insurance, energy and technological growth to move forward.

“Despite an increase in regional natural disasters and ongoing global economic uncertainty, the Caribbean economy is projected to grow at 2.1 percent in 2019,” Clinton said in his opening statement.

“This growth represents a bright spot in the overall recovery of the Caribbean region following the 2017 hurricane season. It also represents an opportunity for Caribbean economies to expand into the future in more inclusive, sustainable and diverse ways than ever before,” he said.

From left: Richard Carrión and President Bill Clinton.

Richard Carrión, executive chairman of Banco Popular, said the “Caribbean divide remains… because the cultural and economic policies really are scattered.”

“There is no pan-Caribbean bank, there is no pan-Caribbean airline, there is no pan-Caribbean telecommunications company,” he said during the panel discussion.

“There are so many barriers amongst us and we’re so close, so this is an obstacle that we need to focus on so that there truly can be one Caribbean instead of four or five Caribbeans,” Carrión said.

“And we can create a more potent offer for more people to come down. We have to look at the different problems in the different islands. One problem we all share is clearly energy — we need to get resilient renewable and definitely lower-cost energy,” said Carrión.

Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley said her country, which has experienced stagnant growth for decades, is at a stage now where that could happen, “but it will not be inclusive unless we start to unlock capital from within the region and match it with foreign capital from the outside.”

“If we simply limit capital from the outside, we’re going to impose on the region transit capital that will remit dividends in the short- and medium-term,” she said.

“We have a moral obligation to unlock renewable energy for the benefit of the Caribbean people and unlock the investments that are possible, but we have to create instruments that then can be married with foreign capital to be able to make this a real possibility,” she said.

The panelists also touched on the challenges of insuring their territories to face natural disasters, such as Hurricanes Irma and María in September 2017, which left billions in personal and economic losses in their wake.

“If we want bigger insured pools, then the leaders of the region will have to agree on uniform standards so that the insurers can write policies that can be complied with,” Clinton said, drawing an immediate response from Mottley.

“That’s what we’re trying to do in CARICOM within our own region, but that’s not big enough. And, those common standards and platforms have to be agreed upon at the state level of the United States, which are lost across the different [Caribbean] countries, some of which are French, British and independent territories,” she said.

USVI Gov. Albert Bryan

Meanwhile, U.S. Virgin Islands Gov. Albert Bryan, and Sofia Stolberg, co-founder of Piloto 151 in Puerto Rico, agreed that developing entrepreneurship and exploiting the benefits of technology are also fundamental for regional economic growth.

“When you talk about resilience for the Caribbean, we’ve always seen our commerce come off a plane or off a cruise ship, and we have been ignoring for the most part that there’s another way that has been created for commerce to come to the Caribbean and that’s internet technology,” Bryan said.

“That has really improved our access to the world and because we are so small, tiny little drops of commerce on the internet are huge buckets of water for these islands,” he said.

While in general, talks remain stuck on agriculture and other sectors, Bryan said investing in in technology is the only way “to create the kind of intellectual property that will drive the economy for years to come, and the other thing is that it feeds resilience.”

Sofia Stolberg

For Stolberg, future growth in the Caribbean is tied to entrepreneurship development.

“We need entrepreneurs and especially high-growth entrepreneurs to create the job opportunities and the type of economic growth that will really sustain economic growth in the long-term,” she said.

“Here in Puerto Rico, we’ve seen a very good development of the entrepreneurship ecosystem. Five years ago, we didn’t have startups moving down to Puerto Rico trying to scale from the island, or the world, and so all of that has been changing,” Stolberg said.

“we’re seeing now that companies and startups are raising upward of $1 million, and that’s something that’s never happened before.”

Finally, Clinton said the Caribbean “has to model the behavior you want the world to follow.”

For Carrión, that entails doing more of bringing people together to talk about energy development models and financing, “and share success stories and what we can learn from the failures. It’s the only way. They are small markets but altogether they’re much bigger.”

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