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Facing up to realities

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While we were busy, in one form or another, with celebrations for our 25th anniversary of independence, a stark reminder was served on us as to what the responsibilities of independence entail in the modern world. That came in the form of yet another salvo being fired in the far-from-finished Banana War. The outgoing European Commission, which should have emitted office at the end of October and replaced with a new team, finally laid its proposals for a new banana regime on the table. {{more}}

One will recall that the Commission, following its bruising battles with the United States, its banana transnationals, and some Latin American governments, had bowed to the rulings of the World Trade Organization. It agreed that its banana marketing system, which gives some support (not enough in our opinion) to Caribbean and other African/Caribbean/Pacific (ACP) producers, should be changed further to give the multinationals a freer hand to dominate the market.

The Commission had announced that from January 1, 2006, AT THE LATEST, there would be no more quota reserved for ACP producers. The market is to be opened to all comers, with the single saving grace of the ACP producers not having to pay a tariff (duty). Bananas from other countries would be subject to one tariff. What the level of this tariff remained a not-so-well-kept secret until late October when departing EU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy put his cards on the table.

In the meantime there was all the bluster. The Latin American lobby prompted by the big US business interests made it clear from the outset that they would accept nothing but a low tariff. They want a figure low enough to allow the so-called “dollar” bananas, many dripping with the blood of banana workers from Columbia, Honduras, Guatemala and Costa Rica or stained with the sweat of exploited small farmers and their children in Ecuador, to maintain their unfair advantage over Caribbean bananas.

What is striking about the Latin American approach, at least that of their governments and us multinationals, is their aggressiveness and consistency. They have never taken their eyes off the ball and have seized every opportunity to advance their case. They have had studies funded and published to tell the whole world how much they will suffer if the banana tariff is not very low. They talk of widespread unemployment, misery, hunger as if it is the change in regulations and not the huge profit-taking of the multinationals to be blamed. Whatever the facts, they state their case forcibly.

But us? We, the happy-go-lucky, living-on-borrowed-money (and time), spree-loving Caribbeans? We have no time for such worries. We are busy with grand, get-rich-quick schemes, embroiled in the propaganda of our governments about how well we are doing, and accepting the persuasions of others that the banana battle is a “dead dog”. It is reflected in our inconsistencies, in the half-heartedness of many of our governments, in the shortsightedness of most of our leaders, in the couldn’t-give-a-damn attitude of many bureaucrats and officials, in the ignorant idleness of parliamentarians across the region.

We seem unable to connect, on a day-to-day level, the fight for bananas with all that is happening around us. In the Caribbean we are busy finalizing plans for a Caribbean Single Market (let’s not even put in “Economy”) by next year. With bananas in trouble, sugar on the verge of catastrophe, rice on a sticky wicket, nutmeg gone in Grenada, what will become of our rural population? Where will we absorb them? Will Trinidad continue to be willing to share its swelling coffers of petro dollars with us?

Look around us. George Bush and company, now shed of the “nuisance” moderating claims of Colin Powell, and already highly annoyed by Caribbean leaders taking some independent positions on issues that the US expected us to fall in line, are in for a second term. But many of us, ignorant of our own interests (like a lot of poor Americans) support Bush-Not, that Kerry held any greater hopes but we SUPPORTED Bush. The Free Trade areas of the Americas (what’s that?) looms before us. Last week Caribbean negotiators were locking horns in Barbados with their counterparts from the European Union over terms for an Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA). Ee-Pee-Who? The only Pee we seem to be interested in is either ULP or NDP. The Pee we should be concerned about is getting stale and about to be emptied on us.

I say all this to try and alert us all that we need to be awakened from our slumber of false security. What have we, in the region, done since the Banana Conference of June 2004? Where is the concern of our leaders manifested in the sensitization and mobilization of our people? Our competitors are well prepared; we are still in dreamland. If we can only take up the banana cause with the same zeal as our localized issues, we will be on the way.

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