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In the midst of

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We are all familiar with the saying “In the midst of life, there is death.” It can be modified to suit comparable situations. Thus we can say, “ In the midst of joy, there is weeping.” It is an analogy which can be made in reference to us and the Carnival season that begins officially from today, June 30th. For while we celebrate the highest expressions of our cultural prowess, it is also true that all around us, events of monumental significance to our future are taking place, regionally and internationally.{{more}}

Even as we kick-start our National Cultural Festival, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, along with its sister islands in the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), are due to formally become members of the Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME). Unfortunately the vast majority of our people are yet to understand what CSME membership means to them, in spite of recent efforts by the Ministry of Trade to carry the message to the wider population. The CSME caravans, targeting the rural population, are certainly quite commendable but much more remains to be done in this regard. In particular civil society organisations can play their part by facilitating discussions among their members on the implications of CSME membership. The Carnival Development Committee (CDC), for instance, in conjunction with its component parts- Pan, Mas and Kaiso-could organize a post-Carnival discussion on the CSME and Carnival or the CSME and Caribbean culture.

Also, over the Carnival season, the Heads of Government of CARICOM are due to meet at their annual mid-year Summit. It is a pity that this Summit is crowded out of Vincentian news space because of Carnival activities, so decisions taken at it, do not get as much local attention as they deserve. This summit in particular is one in which we ought to take a lot of interest since crucial matters of trade and integration will be before it.

In addition to our own Caribbean integration process, our Heads will have to deal with issues relating to the World Trade Organization (WTO), negotiations with the European Union for an Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) and the old problems of sugar and BANANAS. On bananas especially the situation is serious. The Latin American nations are trying to have the 176 euros per tonne tariff which came into force in January, substantially reduced. In spite of the fact that they cannot now claim that it affects their market access negatively, since their exports have increased since then.

As if this problem were not big enough, the ACP countries also have the problem of getting the European Commission firmly on our side. Under the WTO negotiations on agriculture, if agreement is reached on tariff reductions, the banana tariff into the European market would have to be reduced substantially in a short time, undercutting the Caribbean’s effective protection. But it is possible to have a slower, more phased reduction if the EU designates bananas as a “sensitive product”. But the Commission is refusing to do so.

This means that we have our work cut out for us. Our Heads cannot be content with grand pronouncements. It is my view that though the Caribbean has made efforts to defend its interests in trade negotiations, it has not done enough. For one, our Governments do not place emphasis on quality representation at meetings. Sometimes there is little or no Caribbean presence. I do not know what criteria are used to decide which meeting to attend, but our absence weakens our ability to lobby. Nor have we made the sacrifice to beef up our representation abroad. In fact our own Ministries of Trade have not been significantly strengthened to build our capacity to deal with the enormous challenges we face. And even in some Ministries, we are not making the best use of the human resources available. Narrow partisan thinking is still an impediment.

We promised a Banana Mission to Europe. We vowed to meet the Latin Americans in a Summit. What became of those pledges? Yes, there are problems, but not insurmountable ones. On bananas as in sugar, we seem to have succumbed to fatigue. What will our Heads say to the tens of thousands if we fail to protect their livelihood? Can they say with clear consciences that we have done our utmost?

No matter what the odds, to lay down arms is fatal. Our enemies are not magnanimous. We must pursue every avenue, seek every channel, and knock on every door. The situation is critical and a crisis, as our own Prime Minister is fond of saying, requires revolutionary thought and action. We must DEMAND that of our leaders.

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