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Time to care again for CARICOM

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It seems that every time the countries of the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) make one step forward in the quest for deeper integration, they take two steps backward and the goal becomes even more elusive.

There have been several recent manifestations of this, one of them being the approach to ALBA – the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas – created by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.{{more}}

One member government of CARICOM is formally a member of ALBA and two others have indicated that they might join the organisation.

The government that has joined ALBA is Dominica and the governments that have announced their intention to do so are St Vincent & the Grenadines and Antigua and Barbuda.

In the case of Antigua and Barbuda, the government announced in March that it will “be engaging Venezuela and the other members of ALBA with the view towards formalizing its participation”.

Meantime, the Prime Minister of St Vincent & the Grenadines, Dr Ralph Gonsalves, attended a meeting of ALBA in Venezuela that preceded the Summit of the Americas and he is reported to have said that his government is ready to join.

The known members of ALBA are: Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Dominica.

When ALBA was conceived, it was not a Treaty organisation and its principles resided in economic cooperation arrangements which appeared to benefit countries that joined it with Venezuela being the principal donor.

As Professor Norman Girvan argued in a May 2008 paper, “ALBA does not take the form of an international or intergovernmental organisation, treaty or integration scheme in the normal sense. There is no set of ALBA statutes or obligations by which adhering states agree to be legally bound under international treaty law. ‘Principles’ and ‘agreements’ appear to be of a political nature; they are bilateral or trilateral documents to which specific Heads of government subscribe”.

Since then, however, a military dimension has crept into the organisation. Both Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega have argued that the member countries of ALBA “should work to form a joint defence strategy and start joining our armed forces, air forces, armies, navies, National Guards, and intelligence forces, because the enemy is the same, the empire (meaning the United States).”

Given the present stridency in the attitude toward the United States by the governments of Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua in particular, this military alliance may indeed be formed even though by any rational analysis there is no evidence of a military threat to these countries from the current administration of Barack Obama.

Indeed, if his words are to be taken as his bond, Obama stated quite clearly at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago that US bullying will not occur under him. He said: “I pledge to you that we seek an equal partnership. There is no senior partner and junior partner in our relations; there is simply engagement based on mutual respect and common interests and shared values. So I’m here to launch a new chapter of engagement that will be sustained throughout my administration”.

If the military dimension of ALBA becomes a requirement of membership, the tiny Caribbean countries of Dominica, St Vincent & the Grenadines and Antigua and Barbuda should re-think their positions. The last thing that small countries need is to be embroiled in the politics of militarism – especially when the battle is not their own.

As matters stand, the association by Dominica and St Vincent with ALBA arising from the Venezuela meeting prior to the Summit of the Americas would have posed problems for CARICOM governments, particularly host government Trinidad and Tobago, which spent millions of dollars on the event.

Although representatives of all 34 governments had agreed the joint Declaration before the Summit, the ALBA countries decided at their Venezuela meeting that it was “unacceptable” because it does not provide answers to the global financial crisis and “unfairly excludes Cuba”. Both Dominica and St Vincent & the Grenadines participated in the ALBA decision even before there was a caucus of CARICOM Heads of Government on the eve of the Summit. There was, therefore, no joint CARICOM position as there should have been.

The reality is that the joint Declaration was a poor document and it did fail to address the crucial issues that face the entire Hemisphere and particularly small countries. But, every government had the opportunity to involve itself actively in negotiating its formulation for over a year. Instead of giving the Declaration the close political attention it required, many governments left it to bureaucrats who did the best they could without serious political direction. The result was a document that satisfied no one.

What all of this indicates is an apparent readiness by some CARICOM governments to pursue opportunities for individual short-term economic benefits, even if the pursuit of these opportunities diverges from the commitment to joint CARICOM policies and actions. It is as if CARICOM is the enduring and reliable family to which the prodigal son can always return after wasting his effort elsewhere.

But the truth is that when these countries act on their own to seize short-tem opportunistic advantages, they weaken CARICOM as an instrument for their joint advancement. It is already severely weakened and its survival endangered.

It is time for all the member governments to care for CARICOM again in their individual and collective interest, based on policies that they debate and agree frankly and fully in recognition of their peoples’ need for solidarity in a highly competitive world.

Trade amongst each other is not the underpinning of the Caribbean Community; the main pillar is the strength that meaningful unity can bring to bargaining with more powerful countries and regions which no longer pretend to care about size and vulnerabilities and whose main objective is their own interest.

Sir Ronald Saunders is a business consultant and former Caribbean diplomat.
(responses to: ronaldsanders29@hotmail.com)

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