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A testing year for the Caribbean

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The year 2005 is in many ways a most critical one for the Caribbean. It is THE year when the region ought to complete most of its preparations to fulfill its international trade obligations and to participate more meaningfully in the world economy. This is the year when we are supposed to cement the regional economic bloc, the Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME), when we should be significantly conducting negotiations with the European Union (EU) under the terms of an Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA), when we have to reach an agreement with the same Europeans as to the terms of a new banana marketing regime and when the long-heralded but now postponed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) was to come on stream.{{more}}

Yet, ironically, it is a year in which at least three of the Windward Islands – Dominica, St. Lucia and St. Vincent and the Grenadines – are likely to be more pre-occupied with their local politics and electioneering. The wider, more pressing and impact-laden situation will have to wait, to our detriment, of course. For, we love our politics, our “permanent Carnival” as Sulle so aptly described it, and economy or no economy, trade or poverty, the chance to be in the political limelight will be too big for us to miss. Elections will be our focus, banana or no banana, CSME or EPA.

A big international conference on small island developing states (SIDS) has just concluded in the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius. There, tiny, vulnerable countries like ours were not only raising their concerns before the international community, but also demanding Special and Differential (S and D) treatment in view of their size and vulnerability. These were not only economic or trade-related as is often made out but social problems (HIV/AIDS and the scourge of illegal drug trade) and environmental threats as well as the imminent dangers of natural disasters (highlighted by the Indian Ocean tourism), were also top of the list.

Our apparent not-doing-too-badly status marks the reality of the inherent weaknesses in our economies and social structures. We can topple at the slightest tremor, but most of us seem blissfully unaware and very few of us seem to care. Our patriotic calypsonian Scakes, the band of our 1979 independence, has a nice piece warning us about “Bush, Rum and Rice”, a beautiful pun on the George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfield and Condoleeza Rice trio. But it is rooted in the reality of our trade problems. Sugar, rice, rum and bananas are all under threat. The Caribbean region as a whole stands to lose hundreds of millions in dollars annually, and even more significant losses in humour terms (job losses, break-up of families, drug addiction, prostitution and crime).

It is a grim situation that our leaders knew all too well, even if they do not always admit it to their citizens. Desperate efforts are being made at the officials negotiation and lobbying levels to try and keep our heads above water. But it is not only the responsibility of our governments. We, too, ordinary citizens, civil society, can through your organized efforts play our part. We too must seek to raise the levels of awareness and understanding of our people, strive to grapple with the gravity of the situation facing us.

Banana for the Windward Islands is one such major battlefront. It is more than 10 years now that some have read the final rites over the banana industry, left only to sprinkle the “dust-to-dust…” Amazingly we are still in the market and tens of thousands of our people are still able to earn a living because of it. We did not “lie down and play dead”; we fought and fought and must keep fighting. Bradshaw and Browne won the ICC trophy for the West Indies when just about everyone else had given up, is there not a message in that?

Continuous, consistent, intelligent, co-ordinate struggle can bring positive results. It is what we have to carry to the battlefront for bananas. This year a broad international alliance of small farmers, banana workers, European and North American consumers, environmentalists and activists are again seeking to engage ALL the major players in the international banana industry in detailed discussions about solutions to the on-going banana crisis.

This weekend, the Caribbean segment of this alliance meets here in St. Vincent and the Grenadines in preparation for this old venture. We will host representatives of the Latin American and European sectors as we try to put the pieces in place to arrive at a broad consensus. The fate of tens of thousands can be sealed by our efforts or lack of them. We cannot afford to balk at the task but must put all our resolve and ingenuity to the test. It is a test, which will be replicated many times over for different sectors, a very test of survival. The support of all our citizens is necessary for success.

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