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OECS Assembly: Are we missing golden opportunity?

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I laud without reservation every step taken along the road of regional integration. Each action initiated which can help in bringing the Caribbean together is, for me, a positive advance, because one can never over-emphasize how vital is the integration process to our very survival and to our development. Naturally then, the moves towards OECS integration and, hopefully, this unit as a catalyst for wider regional unity, are key factors in realising the Caribbean dream.{{more}}

Congratulations therefore must go out to our leaders in the Eastern Caribbean, on both sides of the respective political divides, for the latest initiative in the establishment of the OECS Assembly, inaugurated in Antigua last Friday evening. Our own Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves, Chairman of the OECS Authority, has played an important role in keeping the process on track, for which he must be commended, especially in his remarks reminding us that our commitment goes beyond narrow insular boundaries.

The remarks made at the inauguration ceremony, whilst very relevant to the task in hand, cannot but make us wonder why are we still stumbling over what is a necessary undertaking. The first Speaker of the Assembly, elected at the opening, Vincentian former Minister of Government and Parliamentarian René Baptiste, (congrats to her!), placed the Assembly in its proper context when she said:

“This is a serious place. We have serious work to do. And, time is of the essence… This is our occasion to write our own history with our own hands and our own voice.”

Noble words indeed! Yet citizens of the region must wonder how these words square with not only the pace of the integration movement, but also with its depth. Just how serious are we in practice? Are the proclamations and agreements of our leaders translated into real, practical measures which enhance the quality of life of our people? Take the issue of freedom of travel for instance. Time and again big decisions have been made in this direction, the latest permitting freedom not only to move between the OECS territories, but to work and do business in whatever territory the OECS citizen chooses. Great move! But does the script ever reach the desks of immigration officers or public servants with whom we have to deal? A Vincentian citizen can’t even travel and re-enter St Vincent without filling out an immigration form and answering questions about how long and where that person has been!

No doubt there are tremendous challenges before us in forging an integrated unit. A major one is rooted in the nature of our all-consuming politics and the winner-take-all system, bequeathed to us by British colonialism, which we seem so reluctant to change. The society is changing rapidly — technologically, economically, socially — but we are still bound to an archaic, divisive and exclusive political system.

Bound politically, we often fail to grasp golden opportunities to move forward and end up missing the boat. The composition of the OECS Assembly is yet another manifestation of this debilitating political disease. The Assembly is made up of Parliamentarians from both Government and Opposition in the respective territories. A regional dose of tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum is the big risk here, the duplication at the regional level of all the specious arguments in the national Parliaments – Arnhim opposing Ralph, Lester Bird attacking Spencer, Keith Mitchell blasting Tillman Thomas, and so on and so forth.

Is that the best recipe for cooking a healthy OECS pot? Wouldn’t it have been more fruitful, more reflective of diverse opinion, more inclusive, to have provided for representation in the regional Parliament for non-partisan voices? Where is the voice of the private sector, so vital for stimulating economic development? How will labour, the workers of the region have its voice heard? Who will bring to bear the views of the women, not behind political blinkers? Or the farmers, the youth, the religious community? What about the indigenous peoples of SVG and Dominica?

Even when under the leadership of Sir James Mitchell, and the late Sir John Compton and Dame Eugenia Charles, the Regional Constituent Assembly was initiated in 1990, representation on it was not confined to the then members of the respective Parliaments. Provision was made for extra-Parliamentary political representation, thereby allowing Dr Gonsalves himself, then not in Parliament, to participate in the work of the RCA. Quite correctly too, the various civil society sectors were guaranteed representation on the body, making their voices heard in the debate. That was almost a quarter of a century ago!

I am afraid that once more we have blown the opportunity to advance collectively. It is as though our politicians are the repository of all wisdom, even though our collective experience tells us otherwise. Surely we could have learnt the lessons and done better!

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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