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Don’t blame the people for Caribbean’s failures

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Some leaders of countries of the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) often suggest that the slow progress of regional integration is due to a lack of “trust and understanding” among the people.{{more}}

Certainly this was a view expressed by Bruce Golding, the Prime Minister of Jamaica, at the opening of the 31st CARICOM Heads of Government Conference in Jamaica. Interestingly Golding also said that integration also requires “building trust and understanding” among the leaders themselves.

He is right on both counts. But, if the people of CARICOM countries lack trust and understanding of the benefits of regional integration, the blame lies with the leaders.

Over the last 20 years of CARICOM’s existence, the people of the region have been fed a regular diet of CARICOM bashing in the media. That bashing was – and is – conducted by CARICOM leaders. The media simply report it.

Instead of resolving trade disputes at the table of quiet diplomacy, government representatives choose to amplify them with heated exchanges through the media, creating the impression that CARICOM’s trade arrangements don’t work fairly. Yet, the CARICOM Treaty provides for the amicable settlement of disputes through consultation with recourse to the Caribbean Court of Justice only a last resort.

New governments in CARICOM do not appear to be immune from the virus of injudicious public statements. Thus, the new Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Kamla Persaud-Bissessar, declared publicly that her country was not an “ATM machine” from which other CARICOM countries could draw money as they want it.

Such statements would not endear Trinidad and Tobago to the rest of the CARICOM countries, nor would it encourage citizens of Trinidad and Tobago to regard other CARICOM citizens with anything but contempt.

In reality, the relationship between Trinidad and Tobago and other CARICOM countries, particularly the smaller nations of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), is far more mutually beneficial than is conveyed by the analogy of the “ATM machine”. Other CARICOM countries are a lucrative and protected market for Trinidad and Tobago’s manufactured products and financial services under the CARICOM Treaty. Were it not for their membership of CARICOM, these countries could purchase most of what they buy from Trinidad and Tobago at cheaper prices elsewhere in the world.

Barbados, too, benefits significantly from the export of goods and services to CARICOM. It is Bardados largest area for exports. This is one of the reasons why the Barbados government was concerned with the intention of the previous Patrick Manning government in Trinidad and Tobago to forge an economic union with the members of the OECS.

The point is that membership of CARICOM is not a one-way street, nor indeed is it a one-way street only for the marketing of goods and services. Of equal importance is the bargaining strength which collective negotiations in the international community bring to each of the countries individually.

But, little credit is given to the benefits of regional cooperation. It is seldom, if at all, mentioned by governments in their parliaments or in their media conferences.

The impression left in the minds of the people is that CARICOM is a useless organisation that brings no benefit to them, and that they would be better off shedding it and dealing with the world on their own.

Of course, leaders know better.

That is why none of them have abandoned CARICOM, and more recent leaders, such as Bruce Golding, have significantly altered the almost hostile attitude to CARICOM with which they started out.

There are a multitude of crucial matters that CARICOM countries cannot manage on their own and for which each of them needs to be bolstered by the collective effort of all. Dealing with drug trafficking is one example. There are myriad others such as coping with the effects of natural disasters and bargaining with the international community.

Serious observers within the Caribbean and many more, including governments and international financial institutions, had hoped that the recent summit would address two matters with the gravity and urgency they deserved and so reinvigorate regional integration and reignite interest – if not passion – for it among the Caribbean people and the wider world.

The first is the twin issues of governance and implementation of decisions by CARICOM. Having laboured over the matter since 1992 when the West Indian Commission recommended the creation of a Caribbean Commission (similar to the European Union Commission), leaders pondered it yet again at the Jamaica meeting only to appoint a fifth group to consider the matter and report in February of next year. This new group consists of seven Heads of Government – all of whom are busy with the demands of their domestic constituencies. They are to be advised by a technical group who will have to be miraculously inspired to generate anything more sound than the numerous studies already produced on this matter.

What is certain is that the leaders do not want a Caribbean Commission similar to the European Commission. They have said so. It is reported that they are toying with the idea of a Council of Ambassadors similar to the weak mechanism adopted by the members of the OECS in their yet to be operationalised Economic Union Treaty. Such a mechanism – nationalistic in its composition and representation – would be nothing more than a further layer of delay in decision-making. It would have to await the consent of the most reluctant country to proceed.

The second issue on which urgent action was reasonably expected from the Jamaica summit was a plan to recover from the global financial and economic crisis.

A flame of hope flickered momentarily when the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Mr Dominique Strauss-Kahn, “agreed to review the issue of special and differential treatment” for Caribbean’s small states.

But, no CARICOM government alone and not all of them collectively can turn Strauss-Khan’s “review” to “commitment”. CARICOM requires the best brains in government, the private sector, the trade union movement and the academic community from throughout the region to devise a plan that could command international respect and action.

It would have been hugely beneficial if the Conference had mandated the assembly of such a Caribbean team under a High Representative (otherwise known as a Commissioner) tasked to produce a plan using as a basis the work of three separate task forces that governments commissioned over the last year. Alas, this did not happen.

The people of the Caribbean remain caught in a long tunnel of stagnation with no end in sight. They should not be blamed for the region’s failures.

The writer is a Consultant and former Caribbean diplomat.
Responses and previous commentaries at: www.sirronaldsanders.com

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