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Making history in Barbados

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The word “hysteria” is a much overused one which I am understandably reluctant to use too freely, but I can’t but co-opt it to describe what took place in Barbados on Tuesday of this week. From as early as 7:00 am, over fifty farmers from the Windward Islands descended on neighboring Barbados, determined to get a message across. Their purpose – to convey to European trade negotiators and their Caribbean counterparts their determination that their livelihood should not become the sacrificial lamb on the altar of any trade agreement.{{more}}

It was historic for a number of reasons. For Barbados it was an eye-opener to see farmers from the so-called “small islands” prepare to make the sacrifice to travel to unfamiliar territory, brave the hot sun and take their concerns right to the doors of the trade negotiators. Though it was a pity that, except for a few trade unions and NGO leaders, there was no Barbadian participation in the day’s activities, the encouraging response of the Barbadian public, the co-operation of the police and the great interest shown by the media made the event a successful venture.

Historic too for the Caribbean. This was Caribbean integration at the level it mattered most: trade union and NGO leaders from Trinidad and Barbados joining farmers from the Windwards to march and rally in the streets of Barbados to take up what is an all-Caribbean issue. You couldn’t wish for a more positive demonstration of regional integration, an issue at the core of the EU-Caribbean trade negotiations.

For our farmers, too, this was another page in their unfolding history of struggle. They had previously been to St. Lucia to challenge the trade negotiators and rallied support in both Dominica and St. Vincent. But this was new territory, in an island considered “conservative” and where there was not much visible evidence of active popular support. Enough to raise doubt and test the mettle of our farmer warriors. Yet this did not daunt them. Led by the “WINFA possee” of militant female farmers, they took the message right on to the steps of the Grand Barbados Hotel where the negotiators were in talks. No praise is too high for our farmers who had to wake up in the wee hours of the morning, travel to airport, from airport, march on hungry stomachs, all to ensure that their views are heard. Those who cannot appreciate the significance of this are on the wrong side of history.

The actions of the farmers and union leaders were largely responsible for sparking off discussion among the Barbadian public on the negotiations and the issues involved. These negotiations are ongoing, but except for occasional Press releases by the Regional Negotiating Machinery (RNM), the body responsible for negotiating on behalf of Caribbean people, little is known about them. As was brought out in a meeting between the leaders of the march and rally and delegations from the RNM and the European Union, much more will have to be done to inform the Caribbean public as to what is going on, the structure of the negotiations and their relevance to the people of the region. Please STEP UP, the respective Ministries of Trade, and play your part in informing our people. Please STEP UP, media houses, and make space and time available to educate the public.

This is a critical task for the matters being discussed are crucial to the development of our region. Because WINFA and the farmers are in the forefront, there are those who believe that the issues are just about bananas and agriculture. Far from it! Governments in the region have particularly significant matters at stake. Trade liberalization will bring about large decreases in government revenue intake which no government can ignore. Public workers too had better take heed. Then there is the issue of removing government’s right to decide on public procurement policies, on contracts supplies etc. And there is the matter of public services being possibly privatized – health, education etc. All of us ought to be very, very concerned about what is being negotiated here.

As for the private sector, the same liberalization of trade, the services issues, the matter of completion policy, the increasing competition from external sources, the whole new environment are more than reason enough to want to KNOW what is being negotiated, and to ensure that private sector concerns are in the mix. And since workers are employed by both public and private sectors, then workers and trade unions MUST take an active interest.

So, thanks to our farmers for being on the front line. But the rest of society is needed. Our intellectuals must play their part in analysis and proposals, our unions must mobilize, educate and make inputs, our women, youth in particular, ALL AH WE must come ABOARD!

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