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CARICOM: It's leadership that's needed

There should be no doubt that the people of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) are well aware that failure of the regional integration project to contribute to solving the urgent problems, which now beset their countries, is a really a failure of leadership.

In a thoughtful – almost despairing - column last week entitled “A new commitment to regionalism”, my friend and colleague, David Jessop, recorded his troubling conversations with “a wide range of Caribbean visitors on where the regional integration process is going”.  He reported that “to a person, all were concerned that national self-interest and the absence of vision among leaders were pulling the Caribbean apart and removing any ambition for taking the regional project forwards”.
As I was about to write this commentary, I received an email from a distinguished and learned Caribbean person who has held ministerial office in the region and whose regional contacts are wide and diverse.  The email said: ”The real problem is that there is no one among the reigning political class of vision and intellect sufficient to provide the leadership. There is, too, no technician of the calibre of (William) Demas or (Sir Alister) McIntyre. Additionally, the impact of the recession has left the politicians with no time for the integration movement. They are really pushed onto a survival path struggling as they all do with growing unemployment and serious financial problems both on their current and foreign accounts. The virtual abandonment of the integration movement is unfortunate, for a fully functioning, expanded and enriched integration will in the end be the buffer against some of the very problems which we are currently experiencing”.
And, therein lies the rub – there is a lack of understanding that a fully functioning, expanded and enriched integration could help to solve many of the problems that now confront CARICOM countries. 
What the region needs now is more not less integration, for not one of its member countries – not even Trinidad and Tobago with its oil and gas resources – can hope to maintain its autonomy in a globalized world in which the rich and powerful are intent upon a new kind of dominance; one which marginalizes small countries whose concerns become important only when they coincide with the interests of the powerful.
The leaders of CARICOM, therefore, should be strengthening and sharpening the regional integration process as a vital instrument in improving the conditions of their countries individually and collectively.
But, the process has to start with a willingness by leaders to talk with each other frankly, openly and with empathy, and the dialogue has to be infused with an acknowledgment that the regional integration process has been side-tracked  and must put be back on a main track because their countries need it.  The conversation has to be underlined by a desire to reach collective decisions which take account of the circumstances of each in trying to achieve benefits for all. 
The present media squabble over an announcement by those in Trinidad and Tobago who own and control Caribbean Airlines Limited (CAL) that it will compete with LIAT in some Eastern Caribbean destinations, and the response of the Prime Minister of St Vincent & the Grenadines, Ralph Gonsalves, epitomizes the absence of dialogue at appropriate levels in the region.
One would hope that if the region now had a strong Secretary-General as the Chief Executive Officer of the regional movement, he or she would have stepped-in long ago not only to diffuse this issue, but to steer the leaders involved to a path of cooperation that could realize mutually beneficial objectives.   
But the truth is that the regional movement now needs more than a strong Secretary-General, it requires a complete overhaul of the entire CARICOM machinery, beginning with a renewed commitment to regionalism by leaders.  New priorities have to be set for CARICOM and many of its dead-weight issues dropped; both sufficient financial resources and appropriate skills have to employed to accomplish the priorities which must include strategic partnerships with the private sector and with international partners including China, India and Brazil to help crank-up economic growth through investment and employment.
All is not well in CARICOM.  Indeed, much of it is ailing, and while the regional project weakens, all of its member countries are being left behind in the global race for betterment.
There are also some stark realities that should be confronted, not to jab accusatory fingers but to see how best these realities can be used to improve national economies and the region as a whole. 
Here are some of the realities.  Trinidad and Tobago has consistently maintained the smallest percentage of intra-regional imports, as a percentage of total imports, averaging less than 2 per cent each year between 2004 and 2009 and valued at its highest point in 2008 at US$121 million.  On the flip side, Trinidad and Tobago has enjoyed the largest increase in intra-regional exports from US$859 million in 2004 to US$3.2 billion in 2008 (source: Caricom Secretariat Trade and Investment report 2010).  That surplus alone – which many regional producers ascribe to “unfair advantage” due to cheaper sources of energy – should encourage Trinidad and Tobago to work with its CARICOM partners to invest some of that trade surplus not in “give-aways” but in bankable projects that would bring mutual benefits to all.
A further reality is that Jamaica is the largest intra-regional importer, due in part to its larger population size.  Jamaican manufacturers cry out about the unfair advantage of Trinidad manufacturers, but the CARICOM treaty allows Jamaican manufacturers to establish a manufacturing presence in Trinidad and to also take advantage of cheaper energy.     
There are myriad ways in which CARICOM can benefit all its members, if there is a resolve to approach the regional project with a “can do” and not “will not do” attitude.  And, there is much that CARICOM should be doing collectively.  Tourism – the engine of economic growth for the majority of countries – is struggling and desperately needs combined regional action that it is not getting. 
Here again are some facts: Between 1998 and 2008, tourist arrivals in CARICOM grew at an average rate of 2 per cent per year while the world average was 6.5 per cent per year.  Arrivals in CARICOM fell to 5.96 million in 2008 from all time high of 6.16 million in 2007.  The years 2009 and 2010 showed no improvement and introduced many new challenges.  To revitalize the industry and to make it globally competitive requires regional creativity and regional action.
CARICOM needs strong leadership, a new vision and new and relevant priorities in a more dynamic structure.  Only the leaders can begin the process of overhauling it for the benefit of the region’s people.

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