341. Airgram From the Embassy in Trinidad and Tobago to the Department of State1



  • Foreign Policy of Trinidad and Tobago


  • a) Port of Spain 01120; b) Port of Spain A–7; c) 78 Port of Spain 3268; d) 78 Port of Spain A–11; e) 78 Port of Spain 3338; f) 78 Port of Spain 36912

(C) SUMMARY: Inward-focussed national interests, primarily development, underpin Trinidad and Tobago’s foreign policy. Usually predictable, it nevertheless is highly personalized and thus subject to PM Williams’s recurrent reclusion foibles. Practical issues of economics get close to exclusive GOTT attention. Policies on other issues are determined largely on the basis of precedents. There is skepticism over Caribbean integration. The U.S. retains dominance with respect to trade and investment, but there is fear of U.S. economic hegemony. Our policy options are limited, but where a matter of major importance is involved, a link may be possible though risky. We may be able to draw Williams into Caribbean Group association through a side door. We should follow up on several “Government-to-Government” feelers put to us. END SUMMARY.

II. The Salient Features of a Passive Diplomacy

(C) Opinions of uninformed skeptics notwithstanding, Trinidad and Tobago has a foreign policy. As with other countries, it amounts to an international expression of national (largely economic) goals and interests, as influenced by history, geography, and the internal political structure. Its uniqueness lies in the extent to which all these elements are filtered through the personality and Weltanshaung of Prime Minister [Page 839] Eric Williams. Indeed, the Prime Minister plays the central role in foreign affairs—he is the chief and unchallenged strategist, interpreter, and principal executor of almost all the nation’s policies. What has resulted is a foreign policy that is:

Usually Predictable. Trinidad and Tobago’s foreign policy consists largely of the body of precedents built up through the decision-making process over the years since independence, rather than from a rigidly-conceived theoretical framework. The general approach is non-formalized and, where external events are concerned, usually is reactive rather than assertive. The GOTT’s attachment to precedent, caution about taking initiative, and heavy emphasis on economic matters all contribute to the policy’s general predictability, although Williams’s extensive personal involvement adds an element of uncertainty.

Non-Ideological. Williams has largely rejected ideology as irrelevant to Trinidad and Tobago’s domestic and foreign policies. Heading a basically conservative regime, he nonetheless has been ideologically colorblind where other countries are concerned, deciding on whom to deal with and at what level on the basis of the national interest rather than ideological criteria. For example, he visited and established relations with a number of Communist states when it appeared that expanded trade and technical assistance could result, but he has effectively barred those countries from gaining influence within Trinidad and Tobago.

Nationalistic. Trinidad and Tobago takes a narrow view of its external interests. It energetically seeks external economic relations that will contribute directly to national development goals but not much more than that. Perceiving its total lack of influence in great power politics, Trinidad and Tobago assumes a modest role on the world stage, speaking up when it considers its own interests are at stake but keeping political posturing and empty rhetoric to a minimum.

Non-Interventionist. Trinidad and Tobago resents and firmly resists any foreign interference in its internal affairs or externally-imposed limitations on its sovereignty. By the same token, it disapproves of such interference in the affairs of other countries (its neighbors in particular), whether the U.S.-inspired imposition of sanctions against Cuba, OAS attempts to facilitate political changes within Nicaragua, or a “deal” worked out by others for the cession of a Belizean territory. In a similar vein, Trinidad and Tobago also considers inappropriate the application of human rights criteria in international economic decisions.

Personalized. While the fundamental lines of Trinidad and Tobago’s foreign policy are based on the national interest as Williams sees it, the applications of policy (i.e., tactics, timing, and atmospherics) bear his strong, if at times enigmatic, personal stamp. Since it is the Prime Minister’s style to be inaccessible and uncommunicative except [Page 840] when and as he chooses, the motivations behind specific foreign policy actions at times are difficult to discern. Consequently, while the main lines of policy appear consistent (and hard-headedly nationalistic), the Williams factor complicates and often frustrates the efforts of others to influence his applications of those policies.

III. An International Role without Pretensions

(C) Trinidad and Tobago’s foreign policy is strongly influenced by the country’s perception of itself, its interests and its place in the world (most particularly by the way Eric Williams sees them). At present Williams appears to view Trinidad and Tobago as a small, insignificant country, devoid of influence internationally. Since the elephants of the international scene can sleep where they like, the first rule for small fry like Trinidad and Tobago is to keep out from under them. In Trinidad and Tobago’s case, this means maintaining a low profile, staying away from trouble, and concentrating on internal development.

(C) Through a stroke of geological good fortune, Trinidad and Tobago has some oil and gas reserves which, though minuscule by world standards, are highly important to the country’s well-being and prosperity and differentiate it from most of its neighbors. As a market, Trinidad and Tobago generates some interest abroad, but it is not essential to any nation’s trade. Although Trinidad and Tobago requires foreign markets for its exports and extensive imports of goods and technology, it can pay for what it needs to buy or else negotiate commercial loans. In the circumstances, Williams downplays most traditional forms of foreign relations as unsuited to his goals, yet without retreating into all-out isolationism.

(C) At the time of independence and during the brief life of the abortive West Indies Federation, Williams harbored hopes that Trinidad and Tobago could play a significant international role, at least in the region, in association with the other English-speaking territories. The Prime Minister long has championed the cause of Caribbean integration, a subject on which he is expert. However, with the collapse of the Federation and other disappointments in the region which have followed, he has become increasingly skeptical about the viability of integration efforts. Thus Trinidad and Tobago over the years gradually has become more inward-looking under his leadership as far as the Caribbean is concerned, a tendency which has been reinforced by the internal consequences of the post-1973 oil price boom.

(C) Yet despite the GOTT’s somewhat reduced interest in the Caribbean in recent years, the important links of shared history, culture, ethnic origins, colonial heritage, and familial ties between Trinidad and Tobago and the other English-speaking territories remain. Rivalries, jealousies, and squabbles abound and regional institutions have not [Page 841] been notably successful, but Trinidadians and Tobagonians feel that they are West Indians and that their fate is somehow intertwined with that of their other West Indian brothers. Perhaps it is this sense of shared destiny, of West Indianness, that has helped keep Trinidad and Tobago’s drift away from intra-regional initiatives and activities within limits. Moreover, regardless of current policies and personalities, it is the view of some here that this same sense may someday be mobilized effectively to help strengthen regional cooperation.

(C) In addition, Trinidad and Tobago is confronted with a number of potentially unsettling strains internally in such areas as the relationship between the government and the private sector; the distribution of wealth and of public services; ethnic group interrelationships, and the pressures, dislocations and rising expectations which usually accompany rapid modernization. Under the circumstances, the Prime Minister looks to foreign policy to facilitate the attainment of important domestic goals, primarily economic, and little more. Achieving those objectives is a task more than large enough to absorb the nation’s energies. National independence, dignity, and self-respect must be maintained but quietly, with the minimum of fanfare. In short, for Trinidad and Tobago tilting at windmills and reforming the world definitely are out.

[Omitted here are sections IV through VI, which discuss foreign policies for domestic development, Trinidadian diplomatic missions, delegations, and unofficial government representatives, and the role of the Trinidadian Cabinet in the making of foreign policy.]

VII. A Compatibility, of Sorts, with U.S. Interests

(LOU) The main lines of Trinidad and Tobago’s foreign policy are fairly consistent worldwide. However, within the broad parameters there are national and regional variations, some of which impact on U.S. interests:

(C) a. Relations with the U.S. As Trinidad and Tobago’s major trading partner and source of foreign investment, the U.S. is an inescapable factor in the country’s life. Largely because of its economic pre-eminence, size, and importance to the region and of existing historical, cultural, familial, and other links, the U.S. is viewed by Trinidad and Tobago with an ambivalence—awe as well as fear—which shows up in its approach to our bilateral relations. Trinidad and Tobago recognizes its dependence on the U.S. as its principal market and as an essential source of technology, capital goods, investment, expertise, training, and other key components of the country’s modernization program. At the same time, the GOTT regards the U.S. with a certain suspicion that at times borders on distrust, fearing that the country will slip under the economic hegemony of the U.S., if it in fact has not done so already.

[Page 842]

(C) Williams has been suspicious of U.S. motives and policies over the years, believing, for example, that too often we have ignored Trinidad and Tobago’s interests, very often knowingly. This mistrust was heightened by disagreements with the U.S. over the approach to Caribbean economic problems and the delay in consideration of an Export-Import Bank loan for the iron and steel complex.3 U.S. policies on sugar and rum imports are a minor but continuing example of what he considers to be inconsiderate treatment of the Caribbean. In addition, dissatisfaction with some U.S. contractors on parts of the development program (e.g., Rust Engineering and ITT) have also helped sour the Prime Minister’s attitude towards the U.S.

(C) While Trinidad and Tobago knows that it must maintain its existing U.S. markets and gain entry for the products of the energy-based industries now abuilding, increasingly it is seeking to expand alternative markets, as well as to obtain more of what it needs from non-U.S. sources—not only the EC, Canada, and Japan, but also such non-traditional suppliers as Austria, Brazil, Colombia, and Sweden. Under this policy, U.S. firms continue to win contracts in those major project areas, such as LNG, where American expertise, pricing and/or marketing possibilities offer clear advantages to Trinidad and Tobago. Where these advantages are not critical, however, other countries frequently are getting the nod, often under so-called “government-to-government” arrangements (78 Port of Spain 3268).

(C) Given the nature and structure of the U.S., the GOTT obtains much of what it needs and wants for its development program by negotiating directly with the private sector, without any reference to the USG. Obvious exceptions are such matters as license to import LNG into the U.S., various trade and tariff restrictions (i.e., sugar, rum), and Export-Import Bank loans. Whatever else this situation may mean, it gives the GOTT, for the present at least, a considerable degree of freedom in its dealings with the U.S., with the result that the USG has only minimal leverage in many areas of the bilateral relationship.

(C) On political issues of interest to the U.S., most of which arise in a multilateral context (UN, OAS, LOS, etc.), the GOTT frequently chooses abstention and non-involvement unless it perceives that principles of importance to it are at stake (i.e., decolonization, national independence, non-interference in internal affairs, racial equality, etc.). Although even on issues involving such principles the GOTT’s [Page 843] approach may have a large pragmatic element, the GOTT is unlikely to support U.S. positions which, in its view, conflict with those principles. The best the U.S. can hope for in most cases where voting is involved is a Trinidad and Tobago abstention; the fact that a particular issue may be very important to the U.S. is unlikely in itself to influence the position taken by the GOTT.

[Omitted here are sections VII (b) through VIII, which discuss the Caribbean region as a whole, examine the role of the United Nations, and speculate about the future of Trinidad and Tobago after the Williams government.]

IX. Implications for U.S. Policy—Embassy Recommendations

(U) The preceding considerations have a number of implications for U.S. interests:

1. Exports to the U.S. of LNG and Products of the Energy-Based Industries.

(C) The GOTT expects the U.S. market to play an important role in Trinidad and Tobago’s economic plans. It is counting, for example, on exporting liquified natural gas to the U.S., with the income making up for anticipated declining oil revenues. It also expects to sell in the U.S. market at least some of the iron, steel, alumina, fertilizer, methanol, etc., to be produced by the energy-based industries—the projected output of these items will far exceed domestic or CARICOM area requirements.

(C) U.S. import policies on Trinidad’s LNG and the openness of our market to the other products from this country over the next few years will be critical for the viability of Trinidad and Tobago’s energy-based industries and, indeed, its whole economy. At present, the USG has very little leverage with the GOTT on almost any matter, but this situation could change as key decisions are made within the USG affecting such exports.

(C) A negative decision on LNG and/or effective barriers to other Trinidad and Tobago exports to the U.S. would most certainly have a harmful impact on our bilateral relations. Most importantly, the resulting fallout could endanger U.S. investments here. On the other hand, the carrot of reasonable access to the U.S. market especially could be used to encourage the GOTT to give more attention to improving relations with us.


(C) In the decision-making process relating to an application for approval of the importation into the U.S. of LNG from Trinidad and Tobago, we should factor into the calculations the impact of each of [Page 844] our options on Trinidad and Tobago’s economy, and the potential that favorable decisions could provide to influence GOTT policies of interest to us.

2. U.S. Efforts to Influence GOTT Policies.

(C) We must consider what we should do to obtain increased cooperation with respect to the broad range of bilateral and multilateral issues that we constantly raise with the GOTT.


(C) We do not have the means to revise Trinidad and Tobago’s basic foreign policy posture. We must consider, issue by issue, whether we will benefit from engaging heavy artillery in what usually would be fruitless efforts to induce the GOTT to swing from inaction or abstentions (or “not present”) to the taking of actions or casting of votes along lines we favor. When U.S. interests will not be damaged by typical Williams it’s-none-of-our-businessism, we should limit our pressure to an explanation of our position and the setting forth of the reasons it is in Trinidad and Tobago’s interest to cooperate with us. Our goals in such cases should generally be longer-range than the particular issue at hand. Taking up each issue as it arises, we should apply as much heat as we can without generating a reaction counter-productive to our longer-term campaign.

(C) On individual U.S. objectives of the highest priority where Trinidad and Tobago’s position can make a difference, we should be far less compromising. When we are certain an issue is of such exceptional importance to us to risk a confrontation, we should determine how what we want can be reasonably linked with something Trinidad and Tobago wants. The link should be made clear to the GOTT and, in response to cooperation or non-cooperation, our promises or threats should be carried out in the way that had been indicated.

3. The Caribbean Group for Cooperation in Economic Development.

(C) Despite the GOTT’s continuing—even if somewhat declined—interest in the economic health and political stability of the region, we and the other participants in the Caribbean Group have yet to find a way of inducing this country to participate, other than as an inactive observer.


(C) We should recognize reality: Williams is not going to take Trinidad and Tobago into the Caribbean Group. We should, however, not let opportunity slide by. For the time being, we should go for second best and endeavor to get Trinidad and Tobago’s cooperation—[Page 845]more financial input into the region and improved coordination with other donors—by other means. Unilateral U.S. efforts being a highly unpromising approach, the IBRD should be encouraged by us and possibly other Group participants to try to reach Williams through McNamara. A letter from him could take note of Trinidad and Tobago’s growing assistance efforts in the Caribbean, indicate they are a useful contribution, point out that the Bank can provide technical assistance in project evaluation, etc., and suggest that if Williams would like it, McNamara would send a senior deputy to Port of Spain for exploratory discussions on developing an IBRD/Trinidad and Tobago coordination/facilitation arrangement. Williams may see through this approach, but that alone does not make it unworth the try.

4. “Government-to-Government” Arrangements.

(C) We should decide whether or not to get involved.


(C) Even granting the facts that one of the GOTT’s reasons for emphasizing “government-to-government” arrangements probably is to reduce Trinidad and Tobago’s dependence on the U.S., and that this approach is somewhat new for us, we think that the U.S. could get a piece of the “government-to-government” action. We should pursue actively those feelers about possible “government-to-government” arrangements that have been put to us with regard to agriculture, small business, industrial management, and technology acquisition.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P790050–1476. Confidential; Priority. Repeated for information to Bridgetown, Caracas, Georgetown, and Kingston; passed to Port au Prince, Santo Domingo, and USUN. Drafted by Rickert on April 3; cleared by O’Mahony, Lincoln, and in USICA; approved by Fox on April 6.
  2. Telegram 1120 from Port of Spain is dated March 29. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, [no film number]) Airgram A–7 from Port of Spain is dated February 23. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P790026–2061) Telegram 3268 from Port of Spain is dated November 16, 1978. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780473–0205) Airgram A–11 from Port of Spain is dated March 17, 1978. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P780043–1434) Telegram 3338 from Port of Spain is dated December 12, 1978. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780517–0486) Telegram 3691 from Port of Spain is dated December 23, 1978. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780532–0668)
  3. In telegram 2414 from Port of Spain, August 18, 1977, the Embassy reported that Trinidad and Tobago was preparing paperwork to apply for a loan for an iron and steel mill. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770298–1216) The loan was finally approved in November 1977. (Telegram 281110 to Paramaribo, November 23; National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770435–1048)