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CARICOM failures not too much ambition: too little action

Irwin La Rocque, CARICOM Secretary-General

A recent statement by the Secretary-General of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), Irwin La Rocque, that the region has been “overly ambitious in its integration targets”, coming from the person who is expected to drive the regional integration process, is cause for disappointment.

The Secretary-General said that “we” (presumably heads of government) “set over ambitious and unrealistic targets” and he describes this as a “mistake”. But, surely the mistake was not setting ambitious targets; the mistake was not taking action to achieve them.

Having declared, as long ago as 1989, that a Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME) was not only desirable but essential if the member states of CARICOM were not to be relegated to the backwater of international economic progress, it took 17 years to launch efforts to establish the CSME.

Five years after its launch, at a Retreat in Guyana in 2011, the Heads decided to “pause” the single economy process – a decision that the Prime Minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines, Ralph Gonsalves, described in a letter to the Secretary-General as “sliding backwards” in a dynamic world.

Everyone would agree that a Single Economy by 2015 cannot now be achieved. Having dithered, delayed and dallied for 22 years since announcing the ambition in 1989, of course its achievement by 2015 is now an unrealistic proposition. But, could it not now have been within the region’s grasp if, over the last 20 years, steady work had been done to integrate the region’s economy more closely and for the benefit of its people?

In his remarks on February 29, the Secretary-General referred to a report of consultants on the restructuring of CARICOM. That report has not been released to the public, but it has been seen by some commentators, including me. The Secretary-General says that it will be discussed by Heads of Government when they hold a meeting in Suriname in early March. But, it would have been much better if the report had been released ahead of the meeting to the public, and sent to civil society organisations, private sector groupings and trade unions for their comments. Had this been done, heads of government would have been able to take account of a wide cross-section of Caribbean opinion in deciding how to respond to the report. Hopefully, the leaders might still decide that such a wide consultation process would be beneficial.

The report itself is very useful as a basis for discussion on the way forward for CARICOM, but it is not without its weaknesses. In its mechanical approach to the well-known difficulties and its reiteration of many of the reforms that have been tirelessly proposed over the years, the report fails to make the point that CARICOM is the only viable instrument open to its member-countries to maintain their identity, strengthen their bargaining capacity in the international community, and collectively improve the quality of life of their people. Individual nations may flirt with this organization or that grouping of nations for the temporary and transient benefits they receive, but at the end of the day, it is CARICOM alone that gives them each an equal voice free of threat, and the real opportunity for mutually beneficial programmes.

In this regard, mention should be made of an editorial in the Jamaica Observer published on the same day as the Secretary-General’s speech and entitled “CARICOM must be enlarged to survive”. The editorial argued that “CARICOM’s survival requires that emphasis be placed on widening CARICOM to be truly Caribbean in its ambit” and it calls for the inclusion of the Dominican Republic and Cuba as full members of CARICOM.

Apart from the fact that neither Cuba nor the Dominican Republic would see any particular advantage at this time in joining CARICOM, the current 15 members of CARICOM have failed to make the regional grouping work for themselves; how would they make it work any better with two huge additional partners whose agenda differs considerably from theirs?

There is every good reason for CARICOM member-countries as a group to engage in selected forms of cooperation with countries of the wider Caribbean, but unless they deepen their own arrangements, they would only further weaken themselves by seeking to widen the membership of CARICOM.

Deepening their own arrangements should include: (a) integration of their production; (b) some form of industry allocation; (c) full freedom of movement of people -- at least from the OECS to other CARICOM countries for at least 10 years to begin with; (d) establishment of regional institutions for regulating certain activities such as banking and insurance; (e) establishment of a region-wide regional security system that would include a rapid response unit for serious crimes; (f) joint bargaining in the international community not only on trade, but also on debt and climate change; and (g) harmonizing foreign policy against a backdrop of agreed principles.

Secretary-General La Rocque was very firm that “we need to agree on critical things that must get done; focus on them; get them done”. No quarrel there.

Neither he nor heads of government need look any further than the paper entitled “Re-energizing CARICOM” that Grenada Prime Minister, Tillman Thomas, commissioned in 2011 during his tenure as chairman of the organization. It was set aside by heads of government when they “mistakenly”, as Prime Minister Gonsalves has emphasized, decided to put the single market and economy on “pause”.

The Thomas paper identified several areas as priorities. Among them is Governance: the creation of a legal basis for implementing decisions of heads of government in: (i) the Common Market/Free Trade Area, (ii) External Trade Policy, (iii) Regional Security and (iv) Environment and Climate Change Policy. Prioritizing the benefits of economic integration was another and it included: priority action for a regional agricultural production and food security programme; maritime transport services and a renewable energy production programme. It also called for the Caribbean Development Bank to convene a consortium of the principal regional public sector agencies and interested private sector entities for setting up public-private partnerships, and for more coherent and consistent access to and use of external assistance.

Importantly, the paper also identified mobilizing civil society in support of regional integration as a critical factor.

The Thomas paper, too, should be put in the public domain, and at the risk of losing three months, when heads meet in Suriname they might consider putting on the agenda of their July meeting only two subjects – the Tillman Thomas paper and the Consultants report on restructuring CARICOM. They prioritize narrow ambitions that can be achieved by resolve, and actually deliver benefits to the region’s people.

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