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How seriously must we take CARICOM?

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I couldn’t believe either ears or eyes on hearing and reading the latest CommuniquО on the outcome of the recently held 28th Inter-sessional Meeting of the Heads of State and Government of the CARICOM states held in Guyana,

February 15-16. The Communiqué is supposed to give us, the people of the Caribbean, an idea of the deliberations and, importantly, the DECISIONS of the region’s leaders. But, if one followed what was outlined in that release, one cannot help but understand why so many of the region’s peoples have little faith in CARICOM itself.

It has become a habit for, not just one, but several Heads simultaneously, to miss inter-sessional meetings; so, this time, true to form, the leaders of The Bahamas, Belize, Jamaica, St Lucia and Suriname were absent, being represented by ministerial colleagues.

Among the issues highlighted were: Crime and Regional Security, the Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME), the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), Banking, Regional transportation, and Tourism. On crime, recognized, alongside the economy, as the single greatest threat in the region, our leaders expressed “grave concern at the level of crime and resolved to increase their efforts” to combat it. Their solution? To mandate their Attorneys-General and Ministers of Legal Affairs to “take action to finalize Agreements essential to the implementation of the Regional Crime and Security Agenda”. Now, does this make us feel any safer? Will the people of Trinidad and Tobago, with nearly 80 murders so far for the year, or the Vincentian populace, victims of more than 40 murders in such a small country in 2016, feel comforted about the action(??) proposed to deal with this threat?

On the CSME, there was the usual ‘ole talk’ about its importance and the commitment to it, but, you don’t have to read between the lines, right in the Communiqué, our Heads “reiterated their concern that some previous decisions had not been complied with”, and resolved to take the “necessary action to effect compliance”. How many times have we heard that before? Why should it be different now?

There is similar recitation of the rote on the CCJ issue, the Heads repeating their recognition of its importance to the region, though up to now only a minority of them have signed on to its full jurisdiction. How are we to take them seriously, either on this matter or that of regional transportation, which was also on their agenda? According to the Communiqué, the Heads highlighted the importance of transportation to the region and in their wisdom, “called for a focused discussion” of the issue. Later on, in the release, they refer specifically to air transport, calling on the Council on Trade and Economic Development (COTED) “to meet urgently to discuss air transport issues”.

In the context of all that is happening and not happening where agreement on a regional transport agenda is concerned, one cannot help but be disappointed at this airy-fairy approach. What is more, the same Communiqué stated that there is a need for the various organs and bodies of CARICOM to meet, and for effective consultative mechanisms. Can we be satisfied with this bland call for meeting and “focused discussion”?

On banking, there came perhaps a more decisive position, noting the threat posed to the corresponding banking arrangements, a major threat to our indigenous banks and our ability as a region to conduct international business. Having noted the threat, the Heads have agreed to engage a lobbyist to facilitate our efforts to protect the region’s interests. We can argue whether that alone is enough, but at least it is a recognition of the gravity of the situation.

Here, I must stress that there is another grave threat from the other side of the Atlantic as well. Strangely, the Communiqué does not mention it. I refer to Britain’s decision to leave the European union, the so-called ‘Brexit’. CARICOM and the Dominican Republic signed an Agreement (EPA) with the European Union (UK included) in 2008, for reciprocal preferential trade treatment, giving each side mostly tariff-free access to the other’s markets. When Britain leaves, that will no longer apply to our trade with the UK; our exports will be treated differently unless we move urgently to work out some alternative and equally favourable arrangement with Britain. (I will follow up on Brexit specifically). Amazingly, the Heads made no statement on this. Does it mean that there is no threat? That we are OK?

Finally, two matters. The leaders discussed US-CARICOM relations, including the corresponding banking issue and regional security. Right after their meeting, US President Donald Trump, calls one Prime Minister, given American concerns of ISIS recruiting in one regional state, and invites him to the USA for discussions. Will that leader talk on behalf of the joint position of our Heads, or only on a national basis? We must be careful about being picked off one by one.

The concluding point is the ugly and petty nationalism displayed in depriving a CARICOM citizen, married to a Trinbagonian, the right to participate in the Calypso Monarch finals in Trinidad and Tobago, even though that citizen has been living in T&T for 15 years and is the wife of a citizen of that country. Where are we going under all the CARICOM talk?

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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