Has Sri Lanka Neglected Latin America and the Caribbean?

November 4, 2019        Reading Time: 8 minutes

Reading Time: 8 min read

Image Credits: Sergio Souza/Unsplash

*D. Laksiri Mendis

The broad focus of this article is to give an overview of Latin America and the Caribbean. It is a neglected area in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy-making, and academic research, and scholarship. The narrow focus is to ascertain as to how Sri Lanka could improve relations with this region in a beneficial manner. This approach would be more relevant than a mere description of Latin America and the Caribbean, since Sri Lanka has recently decided to establish closer relations with this region for a variety of reasons.

First of all, this Blog looks to define the terms ‘Latin America’ and ‘the Caribbean’. The term ‘Latin’ refers to those persons who speak the Spanish language, and thus the term ‘Latin’ refers to the Spanish speaking states in the Americas. The Caribbean has a different definition. It refers to independent and dependent territories in the Caribbean Sea. The independent states belonged to several ex-colonial powers such as Britain, France, and the Netherlands. These island states are also called the West Indies. However, in recent terms, with the birth of the Association of the Caribbean States (1994), the term ‘Caribbean’ is re-defined to include those countries which are abutting the Caribbean Sea in South America and Central America, in the same way as states belonging to the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORAC) are determined.


A short overview by reference to the geography, history, and culture is necessary to understand the major issues confronting this region, before we consider their relevance to Sri Lanka.

Geographically the Latin American states spread from Mexico in North America to Argentina in South America. The land area exceeds 7.9 million square miles, and equals the landmass of Europe, and the US combined. In distance, it covers roughly an area from London to Cape Town. It is quicker to fly from Rio de Janeiro to Johannesburg than from Mexico City to Buenos Aires. This would demonstrate that Latin America and the Caribbean constitute a vast area.

It is important to note that Brazil is bigger than India in size, and Amazonia is the largest repository of biodiversity and constitutes the world’s largest ‘sink’ for carbon dioxide (CO2). The Galapagos is an off-shore island of Ecuador, where Charles Darwin wrote his famous book on The Origins of the Species to dispute the birth of homo sapiens to the horror of theologists.

Latin America can be further classified into several sub-regions such as the Andean States, Central American States, and Rio de la Plata. Similarly, the Caribbean can also be classified into Eastern, Western, Northern, and Southern Caribbean States. Eastern Caribbean is further classified into Windward and Leeward Islands. The Caribbean is now one of the most beautiful, up-market and popular tourist destinations in the world, with a galaxy of off-shore financial centres.

Historically, it must be emphasised that Latin American and the Caribbean civilisations were in existence before the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the New World over 500 years ago. In fact, the Mayans in Belize, Aztecs in Mexico, and the Incas in Peru had sophisticated civilisations. It is, therefore, a myth to say that Christopher Columbus “discovered” the Latin America and the Caribbean as if these civilisations and states were not in existence in the early 16th century. Since the conquest of these areas by the Spanish conquistadors and other colonial powers, the whole face of Latin America and the Caribbean changed rapidly. Approximately 14 million slaves from Africa, and later indentured labour from India, were shipped to this region for sugar and coffee plantation,  and the original inhabitants of this region were decimated by the European powers, through the colonisation of the New World.

This region has contributed to the international community in literature, art, music, and sports in a substantial manner. In the arts—the famous Pablo Casals, Pablo Neruda, and the artist Pablo Picasso lived in Latin America. They have also produced a number of Nobel Prize winners. In sports, the West Indies, the former British Colonies in the Caribbean Sea dominated the game of cricket. Both Argentina and Brazil dominated the soccer scene. In music, the Latin American rhythms such as the Tango, Bossanova, Cha-cha-cha, Rhumba, and many other rhythms are popular in many parts of the world. The Calypso and Reggae rhythms, as well as the wonderful sonorities of the Caribbean Steel Drums, are taught and played in many Western capitals for the listening pleasure of millions of people throughout the world.1

Relations with the US

This region cannot be fully understood without reference to the US. Since the promulgation of the Monroe Doctrine2 (1823), the US excluded any extra-hemispheric rivals from this region. It has followed a ‘hegemonic’ policy in the region in the Cold War period and interceded in the internal affairs of those states. It has sent troops to Dominican Republic, Panama, Nicaragua, Haiti, and Grenada in the recent past.

In the landmark Paramilitary Activities Case in 1986 (Nicaragua v. the US)3 the International Court of Justice (ICJ) held the mining of the Nicaraguan harbours and support to the Contras by the US was contrary to international law. The US continues to hold a tough stance on Cuba. It has passed the Helms-Burton Act to prevent other states from doing business with Cuba in regards to expropriated property.4 However, at present, the most sensitive factor in US-Latin relations is the drug problem. The US holds a very strong position with regard to the extradition of traffickers. Nonetheless, the US is the driving force behind the economic expansion of this region through the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI), and several aid programmes.

Major Issues

It is important to understand the major issues confronting this region, and how the region has dealt with these issues as they are of relevance to Sri Lanka. Firstly, the question of promoting economic development is of paramount importance. The debt crisis in Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s has created difficulties for this region and will continue into the new millennium. The Latin American debt crisis arose because this region was unable to pay their debts which they borrowed from foreign banks. As this crisis began to grow, countries like Argentina and Brazil were really affected as they had to pay at least 50% of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in servicing the debt. The Baker Plan (1986) and Brady Plan (1989) ameliorated this situation but the debt crisis still continues to be a major problem in this region.5

Another important issue is the shift from dictatorship to democracy. In most Latin American countries, there are no tin-pot dictators. Most have gone back to multi-party democracy through Presidential systems or the Westminster model. Under Carlos Menon, Argentina has reverted to a Presidential system of government. Chile, Nicaragua and Panama have now established a democratic system of government. In most Latin American countries, democracy is the order of the day and dictatorships have taken a back-seat.

Finally, the viability of mini-states in the Caribbean is another major issue on the international agenda. These mini-states suffer tremendously in the global economy. The Banana Crisis has created huge trade disputes between the US and the European Union in regard to its preferential treatment.6 The viability of these states has been taken up at several Commonwealth Summits. A recent report on vulnerability by consultative groups of the Commonwealth Secretariat suggests many recommendations to overcome these difficulties, and this is of relevance to Sri Lanka.

Can We Learn from this Region?

Sri Lanka can benefit a great deal from this region. The language barrier, lack of diplomatic representation, and geographic distance elude us from benefiting from their experiences in the following spheres.

Firstly, Latin America has taken a lead role in creating a ‘new platform’ to deal with the questions of globalisation and liberalisation of trade in a more effective manner at international fora. Jorge Castaneda’s initiative Alternativa Lationamericana provides a Latin answer to neo-liberalism. This initiative is of significant value to South Asia, and in particular to Sri Lanka, if it is studied and dovetailed to provide solutions to the country’s economic problems associated with globalisation.

Secondly, some Latin American countries have met the challenge of guerilla warfare, and terrorism, and succeeded to a very large extent to eliminate this cancer from their societies. We, therefore, need to study some of these aspects of guerilla warfare which is predominantly a Latin American phenomenon.

In some Latin countries, in the midst of armed conflict, Protocol II to the Geneva Convention of 1949 has been ratified and third-party intervention has been utilised in a successful manner to negotiate an end to such armed conflict. Amnesties have been provided to guerilla leaders to facilitate the peace process. El Salvador and Guatemala are two classic examples.

Thirdly, the Caribbean experiment with off-shore financial services is relevant to Sri Lanka at this moment. It is indeed a success story. The Caribbean off-shore companies and banks have attracted high net worth individuals and corporate clients. It has created new employment opportunities and numerous benefits to a large number of Caribbean citizens. It is an experiment which can be copied easily and, therefore, it has some value in making Sri Lanka an off-shore financial centre (OFC) in South Asia. If Sri Lanka can be developed as an OFC to India in the same way as Bahamas is to the US or UK, political insecurity may disappear by having closer economic ties with India. This indeed is a better strategy than any constitutional proposals or prosecuting a war with multi-barrel rocket launches.

Improving Relations with this Region

This is a neglected area in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy-making. Successive governments have failed to establish closer relations with this region. It is a must, but intense study and careful cost-benefit analysis should be undertaken. It is an important area in the context of globalisation and liberalisation of trade.

Sri Lanka cannot afford to neglect this region since it provides a veritable avenue for export for manufactured goods, tea, coconut, cinnamon, and rubber products to Latin America, and precious stones especially to the Caribbean destinations, since these island states attract up-market tourist trade, through a network of cruise ships. India dominates the gem trade in the Eastern and Southern Caribbean. St. Maarten and Aruba are havens for gems and jewellery businesses and provide an avenue to market these products to high net-worth individuals. We have a comparative advantage in certain goods and services, too numerous to mention in specific terms in this short article. Hence, the selection of the appropriate countries for trade and diplomatic representation and penetration is of crucial importance.

It is also important to have closer relations, since any Sri Lankan who is vying for an international position in the future has very little chance to succeed without the support of this region. Almost a decade ago, Judge Professor Christy Weeramantry, who was not a traditional diplomat, knew this too well in his election to the ICJ and worked extremely hard through expatriate Sri Lankans to win their support.  On my invitation, he attended the Caribbean Heads of State Meeting in St. Kitts and Nevis and was able to form links with several Heads of State.

It is axiomatic that the country’s relations cannot improve without adequate diplomatic and trade representations. It is unfortunate we have Ambassadors in Brazil and in Cuba and an Honorary Consuls in some Latin American and Caribbean countries. Cuban representation is for political rather than economic reasons, but this Embassy can be upgraded with proper accreditation to establish better relations with the neighbouring English-speaking Caribbean countries in the region. In the long run, Cuba might be the number one tourist destination for North American tourists, and therefore we must get prepared to build good economic relations with Cuba, as the sale point for some of our goods to the tourists who may arrive from North America.  It is unclear as to why the Caribbean states are served from the Sri Lankan Embassy in Washington DC and not from Havana, Cuba—the heart of the Caribbean.

Recently, Sri Lanka obtained Observer status in the Organization of American States (OAS).7 It is a step in the right direction. It is also useful for Sri Lanka to join the Association of Small Island States (AOSIS) at least as an observer to improve relations with small island states in the Caribbean.

It is impossible to improve relations with this region without a good knowledge and understanding of Latin America and the Caribbean. Only then will Sri Lanka be able to make new friends and win trading benefits for the nation via the establishment of embassies, initially, in Caracas, Mexico City, Port of Spain or Kingston. Sri Lanka needs to send ambassadors who can speak the language and understand the culture of Latin America and the Caribbean to maximise the benefits of greater bilateral relations. 


1Colón, C. (2019). History of Latin Music. The Latino Author. [Online] Available at: http://thelatinoauthor.com/songs/history/ [Accessed 01 November 2019].

2National Archives and Records Administration. (1995). 
Milestone Documents. [Online] Available at: https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=23 [Accessed 01 November 2019].

3International Court of Justice. (1986). Case concerning military and paramilitary activities in and against Nicaragua. (Nicaragua v. United States of America). [Online] Available at: https://www.icj-cij.org/files/case-related/70/070-19860627-JUD-01-00-EN.pdf [Accessed 01 November 2019].

4 Carter, M. & Marrocco, D. (2019). The Helms-Burton Act: Maintaining Compliance with U. S. Regulations and Sanctions. Corporate Compliance Insights. [Online] Available at: https://www.corporatecomplianceinsights.com/helms-burton-compliance-sanctions/
[Accessed 01 November 2019].

5Ocampo, J. (2019). The Latin American debt crisis in historical perspective. [Online] Available at: http://policydialogue.org/files/publications/papers/The_Latin_American_Debt_Crisis_in_Historical_Perspective_Jos_Antonio_Ocampo.pdf [Accessed 01 November 2019].

6Stokstad, E. (2019). Devastating banana disease may have reached Latin America, could drive up global prices. Sciencemag.org. [Online] Available at: https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/07/devastating-banana-disease-may-have-reached-latin-america-could-drive-global-prices
[Accessed 01 November 2019].

7Organization of American States. (2019). Permanent Observers. Department of International Affairs. [Online] Available at: http://www.oas.org/en/ser/dia/perm_observers/countries.asp
[Accessed 1 November 2019].

*D. L. Mendis is the former Director of the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies (BCIS). He has worked and travelled extensively in this region as UN Legal Expert/Adviser. He has also lectured on this subject at the Bandaranaike International Diplomatic Training Institute (BIDTI) to Foreign Service recruits. The opinions expressed in this piece are the author’s own and not the institutional views of LKI, and do not necessarily reflect the position of any other institution or individual with which the author is affiliated.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Untitled Document