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Caribbean integration – Imploding?

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The modern integration movement in the Caribbean is almost four decades old. During that time we have moved from the initial Treaty of Chaguaramas to a Caribbean Single Market, have established the CARICOM Secretariat and its related institutions, and embarked on a series of activities and mechanisms to facilitate functional co-operation. While all is far from ideal, it is fair to say that some progress, not enough we will all concede, has been made along the way.{{more}} The frustrating part of it, is that the goal of seamless integration in the region remains as elusive today as it was forty years ago, and our leaders appear to want to shift the goalposts even further.

At a time when the global economic crisis is beginning to bite, CARICOM, at the leadership level, seems unsure of what signals it is giving its people. Critical issues are still not being addressed satisfactorily at the regional level and each country seems too consumed by its own domestic agenda to spare extra time and effort needed for a truly regional initiative. Optimistically, the 49th OECS Heads of Government meeting in the BVI this week, a later CARICOM leadership meeting on the global crisis, and the annual July Heads of Government Summit, may give some pointers as to where we ought to be going.

That sense of cohesion and common purpose is needed now more than ever, for in the face of the herculean challenges before us, there is a sense of confusion and disunity emanating from the various capitals in the region, to judge by the statements of our leaders. Worryingly, a tendency seems to be emerging to counter pose one integration initiative against another, rather than trying to see how they can complement each other.

So the OCES Economic Union is sometimes pitted against CARICOM’s Single Market, the mooted Southern Caribbean Political Union sometimes described as though it is a threat to CARICOM and the links that Dominica and St. Vincent and the Grenadines are forging with the ALBA group considered as if it is undermining the regional integration movement. But none of these should be seen in that light, rather we ought to be looking to see what threads link them and how what is common can serve to jell the whole integration process more tightly together.

The latest indications of stress and strain have risen around the matter of immigration, the movement of Caribbean citizens in our own space. It has long been a common complaint that in some countries, the treatment of Caribbean nationals belie the “CARIBBEAN COMMUNITY” designation on our passports. It starts at the port of entry, by immigration officials, but they do not act in a vacuum, they respond to the internal signals of governments, media and the public. If we encourage xenophobia, it stands to reason that immigration officials will themselves reflect this in their treatment of would-be immigrants. Citizens of some countries are more affected than others, yet we all are guilty at one point or another. The Vincentian who complains about discriminatory treatment in Antigua or Barbados, would himself make disparaging remarks about Guyanese in his own country. How contradictory!

The failure of the regional leadership to handle this issue of freedom of movement in the region is now haunting them. So much so that an apparently very frustrated Prime Minister Gonsalves used Parliament to not only deliver a stinging attack on what he termed “…unfair, unlawful, unconscionable and discriminatory treatment” of his nationals by immigration authorities in some CARICOM member-states. Coming on the heels of Barbados’ announcement that it is to clean up illegal immigration, using a six-month amnesty, the Vincentian leader’s comments have provoked regional reaction.

The Prime Minister is certainly not wrong in his allegations and understandably must defend his citizens. Whether his outburst and the threat to pull out of the Caribbean Single Market, are justified, even as his own Foreign Affairs Ministry is involved in a public promotional and consultative process on it, is another matter. Opposition Leader, Arnhim Eustace, certainly considers Gonsalves’ remarks to be unfortunate and almost shooting ourselves in the foot. It certainly was not the most tactful way of raising the problem, but one senses that even more than the immigration issue, the deep frustration lies in the failure to activate the CARICOM Development Fund, especially in these critical times.

Another set of unfortunate remarks were made recently in Dominica by that country’s Prime Minister, Roosevelt Skerritt. Addressing a National Council Meeting of his Dominica Labour Party to put it on election footing, Skerritt took pot shots at his neighbours to back up his claim that Dominicans are better off than many other nationals in the region. Speaking of St. Lucia, Skerritt said “… every major project in both the public and private sectors is winding down or has been halted, in many cases, permanently.” Turning to Antigua, he said that “… the government there nearly lost the last elections because of the perception of nothing meaningful happening there…”

Comrade Gonsalves, once considered Skerritt’s mentor, will be none too pleased as to what his protégé had to say about St. Vincent and the Grenadines. This is what the media reported the Dominican leader as telling his party “…. the International airport there is being done on a month-to-month basis, because there are not enough funds…”

Is this how we are going about regional unity? Watch it, our integration movement could implode if we are not careful!

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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