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Never a dull moment in Caricom

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As the countries of Caricom try to deepen their relationships and coordinate their foreign and economic policies, issues that create tension and harbour the possibility of generating real divisions seem to emerge quite rapidly.{{more}}

Over the past months the issues have been many- The proposed construction of a nuclear power facility in Suriname; the surge in regional airfares, the continuing battle between China and Taiwan for the souls or perhaps pockets of Caribbean countries and the opposition of hotel and tourism bodies to the continuation of Caricom visas. These are only a few of the issues that have arisen in recent months that appear to run counter to efforts at harmonisation of policies among Caricom states. Of course, the countries that make up Caricom are independent countries and short of some form of political integration, which appears not to be an immediate possibility, the deepening of relations has been the main agenda goal. The Caricom Single Market and Economy is an agreed upon target even with the misgivings of the Bahamas in some areas.

Despite the humiliating performance of the West Indian cricket team, Caricom countries gained enormous praise for their cooperation not only in hosting the World Cup but in the coordination of their security measures which won praise from just about everyone including the head of Interpol. The formula and agreement to host the world cup, however, left much to be desired. The countries sought to bid against each other in hosting the world cup matches rather than accepting the responsibility as a region and then coordinating the internal arrangements. We then heard much later that the governments were not even privy to the contractual arrangements made by the Cricket Board. The Caricom visas for which the governments of the region patted themselves on the back did not find favour with most of the region’s tourism and hotel officials. In fact the desire of some leaders to continue the visa arrangements has been strongly condemned by the Caribbean Hotel Association and other hotel/tourism bodies. Their opposition will of course influence the final outcome.

News of the planned merger of Caribbean Star and Liat appeared to be indicating a new way forward and an end to chaotic regional travel arrangements. But even before this could sink in cries were coming from the Caribbean public and hotel and tourism bodies about the escalating airfares that threaten to reduce inter-regional travel particularly in this ‘summer’ period when there is so much regional activity. There are even fears here at home about the impact this could have on Vincy Carnival. As a reaction to this, St.Lucia has proposed a regional ferry service but seemed to have gone further in a different direction in seeking to entice the American Eagle into travel arrangements between that country and Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago. What is strange about this is that no discussions appeared to have been made with those countries. While the increasing cost of fuel is partly to be blamed for the rising cost of air fares it also appears that high government taxes are a large part of the issue.

While we are on the question of regional travel a recent statement by Rawle Eastmond the Barbadian Labour Minister has touched on another matter related to regional travel. The free movement of people has always been of concern to regional leaders. This was to have been an essential part of the CSME arrangements. It was to have been phased in with certain categories already allowed easy movement and opportunities to work in the region without work permits. Eastmond suggested that Immigration cannot be ‘unfettered and unchecked’. The question of how to control it is therefore a burning issue that he said must be taken to the Caricom heads of government. He went further to point out that there were persons not in the designated categories who were already moving with the intention of getting work and staying. Issues over the movement of labour throughout the region are not new and will continue to haunt regional leaders beset with problems of unemployment in their own countries and having to explain to their voters that the matters are not related.

Perhaps the major bone of contention within the area at this time has to do with the relations with China and Taiwan and what one writer referred to as the cheque book diplomacy being carried out by those two countries. Belize, Haiti, St.Kitts/Nevis, St.Vincent and the Grenadines and St.Lucia have diplomatic relations with Taiwan which China regards as part of its territory and the others with China. Given the relationship between China and Taiwan, the different diplomatic relations between them held by Caricom countries will make it that much harder in coordinating foreign policy especially in matters that relate to those countries. But that apart, what is worrying is the kind of political manoeuvring that has been taking place. St. Lucia’s recent about face is only one example, only to be equalled by China’s reaction. Before that was the case of Dominica switching its allegiance virtually overnight from Taiwan to China. This of course has nothing to do with ideology or anything of that sort. It is sheer cheque book diplomacy.

Along with this China/ Taiwan issue is that with Venezuela and the United States of America. Caribbean countries have diplomatic relations with both countries but the growing hostility between them must be cause for concern since we can be caught somewhere in the net. What complicates the matter is Venezuela’s bid to have an alternative arrangement to the US sponsored Free Trade Area of the Americas and to sponsor a bloc that is opposed to the US route. It is clear that this is cheque book diplomacy at play again. But the matter is not an easy one. The US has taken the Caribbean too much for granted over the years especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Venezuela is prepared to put its money where its mouth lies and issue a challenge to a country which considered us a part of her backyard. The countries of Caricom have obviously got to look after their own interests but what constitutes their own interests is a very complex matter for it involves not only the benefits of the Petro-Caribe agreement but also certain realities like the size of the Caribbean diaspora in the United States of America and the remittances they send home. Is there a possibility that Caricom can come to an agreed formula for its arrangements with Venezuela building on what it did with Petro Caribe although Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago were not willing players in that deal?

Without political integration there will always be divisions and tensions, for domestic matters as they relate to individual countries, will always impact on the workings of Caricom. We are all familiar with agreements at the regional level and the failure on home turf to implement what was agreed on. There certainly will never be a dull moment in Caricom.

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