The Bahamas: A Close but Unfamiliar U.S. Partner
Relative to much of the world, The Bahamas is doing fine. Located just 50 miles off Florida’s shore, this archipelago nation is not at risk of descending into violence or being taken over by China. In fact, it continues to quietly host an important U.S. submarine facility, and just held elections that went so smoothly no one in Washington even noticed.
Indeed, by the conventions of foreign policy punditry, there is no need for an alarmed article on The Bahamas right now. Which is exactly why Washington should take this opportunity to deepen its cooperation with Nassau and make sure we never have to read one in the future.
On Sept. 16, The Bahamas had a general election that saw the opposition party make sweeping gains. The timing was a surprise, as the incumbent prime minister called a snap election amid rampant COVID-19 cases months before the constitutionally mandated date of May 2022. His strategy failed. Progressive Liberal Party leader Philip “Brave” Davis won the election and 32 of 39 seats in Parliament. Within hours of polls closing, the outgoing prime minister conceded defeat to Davis, paving the way for a peaceful transfer of power in this stable democracy.
Nonetheless, the new Bahamian government faces a number of challenges, including the pandemic, a faltering economy, and a persistent hurricane threat. Washington can help by providing pandemic and hurricane relief, greater investment, tailored security cooperation, and high-level diplomatic engagement. Rather than taking The Bahamas for granted, the Biden administration should instead help take this successful relationship to the next level.
Most Americans probably associate The Bahamas with idyllic tropical vacations, Beach Boys lyrics, or perhaps college football’s annual Bahamas bowl game. Some may even know about its famous swimming pigs.
But what many Americans don’t realize is that the same factors that make The Bahamas a tourist paradise also give it a unique strategic importance. With over 700 islands and a location on the western edge of the Caribbean, The Bahamas is an easy hop for vacationing Americans. And it is also a key drug corridor through which smugglers move their products to U.S. markets. Both of these are factors in the country’s enduring and multifaceted relationship with America.
Tourism provides a vital source of government revenue to The Bahamas, comprising over half the country’s GDP. A number of U.S. citizens also live in The Bahamas, some drawn to its lower tax liability. These ties have created close cultural connections that are bonded by a common English language. Even the National Basketball Association, whose ranks include several Bahamian players, reportedly considered resuming its suspended season in The Bahamas after its COVID-19-induced hiatus in 2020..
The Bahamas, whose 400,000-strong population is smaller than Wyoming’s, is also a close U.S. political and security partner. Since the 1980s, the U.S. Coast Guard has worked with The Bahamas and neighboring Turks and Caicos on a counterdrug partnership aptly called Operation Bahamas Turks and Caicos. The Bahamas also quietly hosts a U.S. Navy submarine testing center on Andros Island. The testing area spans a deep water basin known as the Tongue of the Ocean, which makes it ideal for submarine testing. The outgoing administration of Prime Minister Hubert Minnis, who was elected in 2017, was a strong U.S. political ally and supported U.S. positions on Venezuela and Nicaragua in the United Nations and Organization of American States, respectively.
China too has recognized the geographic significance of The Bahamas and has aggressively sought to deepen its influence in the archipelago. Around 2009, the Progressive Liberal Party-led government that left office in 2017 attracted Chinese investment, which today is most visible in several marquee construction projects in the tourism sector. One of these projects is a $2.4 billion megaresort in Nassau, dubbed the Baha Mar — a reference to the origin of the country’s name in the Spanish for “shallow waters.” The project was mired in controversy and faced several delays until it finally opened in 2017. In the 1990s, a Hong Kong-based company opened a deep water container port in Freeport, an important hub in the northern Bahamas. In 2014, the Chinese Harbor Engineering Company built a port in Abaco, which languished for several years because dredging went unfinished. Then, in 2016, China donated $1.2 million to help the Bahamian military buy equipment, a move likely aimed to currying favor with the security sector. In 2020, China extended its mask diplomacy to The Bahamas to aid its COVID-19 response. It has subsequently delivered six shipments of medical supplies, which mirrors the support it provided after a hurricane in 2019. Most recently, in July 2021, China and The Bahamas signed a $12 million grant for infrastructure upgrades.
China’s goals underpinning this litany of investments are probably economic and political, and not in pursuit of a naval base to project power. And The Bahamas has still not signed on to China’s ambitious foreign policy infrastructure project known as the Belt and Road Initiative. However, the long-term risk of China’s soft power campaign is that it will slowly erode U.S.-Bahamian ties in favor of Beijing. China’s success in establishing partnerships in other Caribbean nations, such as Jamaica, provides some indication of where this could lead.
Don’t Take the Bahamas for Granted
Washington cannot take for granted that the strong U.S.-Bahamian partnership will automatically endure with the change in government in Nassau. The United States needs to swiftly support the new government to help it uphold The Bahamas’ stability and deny China opportunities to deepen the influence it has built over the past decade. China may see opportunity from the Progressive Liberal Party’s election win because the party has historically been more open to Chinese engagement.
The new government takes power in the shadow of twin crises over the last two years that pummeled The Bahamas and probably lingered on voters’ minds as they filled in their ballots. In late 2019, the Category 5 Hurricane Dorian tore through two populated northern islands and left $3.4 billion of damage in its wake. When COVID-19 arrived in March 2020 it hit a country still struggling with storm recovery. The government moved quickly to stamp out the virus but could not halt its spread from island to island. During the height of the outbreak, Minnis, a physician, even offered to treat patients on the front lines.
Countering China’s influence should inform Washington’s approach, but should not be the sole lens through which it engages. This post-election partnership does not require radical policy changes, but simply deepens existing programs. There are a number of potential avenues for engagement.
The Bahamas sits in what has been called “hurricane alley.” It will always be vulnerable to seasonal storms whose devastation will likely require serious help from foreign partners. U.S. assistance after Hurricane Dorian was laudable, involving mobilization from USAID, Department of Defense, and the Coast Guard, which rescued over 400 people. Private citizens and businesses in Florida also responded with donations and fundraising events, uniting under the hashtag #Bahamasstrong. In addition to being ready with disaster relief, Washington should also seek ways to boost The Bahamas’ resiliency – for example, by supporting badly needed investment in the country’s dated power sector or storm-proof solar power farms.
The Bahamas’ geography did not spare it from the pandemic, which revealed the country’s public health deficiencies. The Global Health Security Index, which ranks countries’ health capabilities, placed The Bahamas as among the “least prepared” countries in its most recent report. The pandemic validated this ranking, as the country’s aging health infrastructure was pushed to its limits. The United States has provided much-needed vaccines to The Bahamas and should look for ways to help The Bahamas upgrade its health infrastructure, including on the lesser populated islands.
In addition to the economic wreckage from Hurricane Dorian, the pandemic is projected to cost The Bahamas as much as $1 billion. The pandemic left hotel rooms empty for months and forced cruise ships to cease port calls in Nassau. In September, Moody’s downgraded The Bahamas’ credit rating, citing the economic erosion caused by the pandemic. U.S. investment and the return of American tourists will be critical to The Bahamas’ recovery, particularly as China is eying new economic opportunities.
The Royal Bahamas Defense Force has also been a stalwart U.S. partner that will benefit from additional, tailored security cooperation. U.S. assistance, including a recent $5.9 million equipment delivery, has helped the small, largely maritime force grow its capabilities. Humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, logistics, education exchanges, and domain awareness represent promising areas for future cooperation.
Lastly, The Bahamas needs more love from senior U.S. officials, who should do more to acknowledge the islands’ importance to U.S. national security. The USAID Administrator’s September 2019 visit to The Bahamas after Hurricane Dorian showed valuable solidarity from a senior U.S. official. The Secretary of State should do a similar visit to demonstrate that the U.S.-Bahamian partnership transcends hurricanes. Ideally, it would come on the heels of the confirmation of a U.S. ambassador to The Bahamas, a posting that has been vacant for years. The president should be prepared to invite his Bahamian counterpart to Washington for a bilateral meeting to scope the partnership for the next few years.
Renewed instability in Cuba and Haiti this year underscores the importance of a stable U.S. partner in the Caribbean, which some have called the United States’ third border. The Bahamas sits astride this border and will forever be linked to the United States by cultural, political, and historical ties. The United States should do more to embrace this close but often overlooked Caribbean neighbor.
John Mohr is a former Air Force officer and a 17-year veteran of the Intelligence Community who previously served a tour as a director on the NSC staff. He currently serves in the Defense Intelligence Agency where his portfolio includes The Bahamas.
The views in this article do not reflect any official position or opinions of the Defense Department or the Defense Intelligence Agency.