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Heads and no Crowns: The Caribbean in a storm

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Not for the first time in the history of the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM), Heads of Government are conveying mixed signals to the people of the region about how they feel about the CARICOM relationship and, indeed, about themselves.{{more}}

Two incidents brought this reality into sharp focus over the last few days. The first was an inflammatory statement attributed to Trinidad and Tobago’s Prime Minister, Kamla Persaud-Bissessar, that she did not make, and the other was the almost complete turn out of CARICOM Heads of Government to the funeral of David Thompson, the late Prime Minister of Barbados, and the genuine sense of “family” that they showed.

The statement that Persaud-Bissessar is alleged to have made is, “No free help” for the islands of St. Vincent and St Lucia that have been severely battered by Hurricane Tomas, with St Lucia getting the worst of it. Earlier, as a tropical storm, Tomas had also sallied through Barbados uprooting trees, dislodging utility poles and wires, and damaging hundreds of mostly low-cost houses throughout the island.

“No free help” were not Persaud-Bissessar’s words. They were the headline in the Trinidad Express Newspaper on November 1 which did report what the Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister actually said. According to the story and other newspaper reports, the Prime Minister was speaking at a press conference about a request that she had received from the Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Ralph Gonsalves, for assistance after his country was ravaged by the brutal Tomas.

What all the Trinidad and Tobago media reported her to say, was: “We will have to look at ways in which we would be able to assist. But you would recall my comments earlier this year, when I said there must some way in which Trinidad and Tobago would also benefit. So if we are giving assistance with housing for example, and that is one of the areas that we (Prime Minister of St. Vincent and myself ) spoke about, … then we may be able to use Trinidad and Tobago builders and companies, so that whatever money or assistance is given, redounds back in some measure to the people of Trinidad and Tobago.”

She did not say that the Trinidad and Tobago government would not help. Indeed, she is reported as actually saying that her government had already mobilised two containers of foodstuff, and a decision would be made about where to send them but “certainly to St Vincent”.

The issue here is not that she refused to provide assistance. If she had done so, I would have joined the chorus of voices that are now condemning her. When she talked earlier this year of Trinidad and Tobago not being “an ATM machine” for the Caribbean, I was one of the first to criticise that statement drawing attention to the fact that Trinidad and Tobago enjoys almost a monopoly market in the Caribbean for its cheaper-oil subsidised goods because of the CARICOM Treaty and that the Petroleum Fund (badly managed though it is) is as much in Trinidad and Tobago’s interest as the rest of the CARICOM countries since it helps to keep those countries as markets for Trinidad and Tobago’s goods.

The real issue with those who now condemn her is the link she drew between her government’s assistance and the use of “builders and companies” from Trinidad and Tobago.

Heat over that issue should be tempered by two realities. First, other countries (not only the former imperialists) link their assistance to their own materials and people. As examples, Cuban projects in many CARICOM countries use Cuban material and Cuban labour, as do several Venezuelan-funded projects. And, China not only insists upon the use of its material and people in aid projects, it does so for commercial projects too. And, it has long been the condition of many donors – either directly or through the agencies they use to finance aid projects – that their money be used for materials and workers from their countries exclusively.

The second reality is that Kamla Persaud-Bissessar is the leader of a political party and Prime Minister of a country that, like many others, has become sceptical of CARICOM. It is up to her and her Ministers to demonstrate to a large section of the Trinidad and Tobago population that there is benefit in CARICOM for them.

Of course, they need to demonstrate CARICOM’s benefit to them over a very wide range of issues which includes the fact that CARICOM is a very lucrative market for Trinidad and Tobago’s products and services keeping thousands of its people employed; the country needs the support of CARICOM in fighting drug trafficking and crime, and maintaining security; it needs CARICOM in international bargaining in trade against larger entities such as the European Union; and it would not fulfil its international aspirations in the international system without the full backing of CARICOM.

Trinidad and Tobago, too, must realise that it alone does not wear a crown and it is not an island (not even two) onto itself.

But Persaud-Bissessar should not be lynched for what she did not say, or for linking her government’s assistance to use of her country’s material and work force. At no time did she say no help would be forthcoming.

The entire Caribbean is going through what Professor Norman Girvan recently described as “existential threats”. This is a time for cool heads. It is not a time for tit-for-tat statements or for statements whose content sound like “something will not be given for nothing”.

Much of this present controversy is unnecessary and would not happen if CARICOM governments talk to each other on a platform of interdependence and common problems, and with a resolve to solve them collectively, recognising that none of them can go it alone and the task at hand is urgent and huge.

It was significant that at the well-organised and dignified funeral of Barbados David Thompson in the same week of this incident, CARICOM leaders turned out in full force to honour their fallen brother, and CARICOM was given an important role in the proceedings through its Chairman, Jamaica’s Prime Minister Bruce Golding. It is on that sense of CARICOM “family” that the region needs to go forward in its own vital interest.

(The writer is a consultant and former Caribbean diplomat)

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