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Immigration and Trade in Politics - Part Two

Owen Arthur, former Barbados Prime Minister

In the first part of this commentary on Immigration and Trade in politics, the focus was on the present primaries of the US Presidential election. Both issues have been hotly debated particularly because of the extreme position of Donald Trump, the front runner among the Republican Party hopefuls. On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders has also sufficiently elevated trade to the level of a determining election concern. 

Whoever succeeds in winning the nomination as Presidential candidate for each of the parties, it is now clear that the issues of immigration and trade will dominate US political discourse right up to the Presidential elections in November.   Hence, when the US electorate makes a decision on the next President, the issues of immigration and trade will be factors.

As I said in the first part of this commentary: “As far as I am aware, trade has never been an issue in the general elections of the 15 member countries of CARICOM, even though from time to time CARICOM itself has been raised on the political hustings.   On the occasions when CARICOM has been the subject of general election discourse, the focus has been on immigration when some politicians have sought to gain political visibility by climbing on the back of anti-immigrant sentiment”.

But, trade and immigration have had an impact on Caribbean economic development.   Therefore, they are issues that are worthy of inquiry and research at all levels, particularly by academics and journalists. The fact that, apart from opportunistic braying on immigration, the two issues have been avoided by politicians is all the more reason why they should be considered dispassionately and publicly.  

For an example of the need for dispassionate discourse on immigration and trade in the Caribbean, we need go no further than arrangements for a Single Market and Economy (SME) to which Caribbean governments agreed as far back as 1989. It took 17 years until 2006 before the Single Market component was formally brought into being by 12 of the member states, but ten years later in 2016 it is not fully implemented, and a Single Economy is not even in contemplation anymore.   It should also be noted that the Bahamas and Haiti do not participate in the SME. 

There are many reasons why the SME has not been implemented, but lack of political will is undoubtedly the main cause. Elements of the SME would be unpopular unless they are persuasively explained to the populations of the participating countries. The reluctance to carry out a sustained programme of education of the SME stems in great measure from the political fear of dealing with free movement of people.  

As in the US election debate, there will be in the Caribbean demagogues who would jump on free movement of labour as a reason to tear up the CARICOM Treaty. It should be recalled that one of the Caribbean’s finest intellects and visionaries, Norman Manley, was defeated in a referendum in Jamaica over remaining in the West Indies Federation by Alexander Bustamante – a demagogue not unlike Donald Trump. Bustamante claimed that Jamaicans would be taxed to pay for the “little islands” and that the “little islanders” would invade Jamaica. That was sufficient.   Fear in the face of ignorance is a potent persuader.

With fear of immigration very much in mind, the provisions of the revised CARICOM Treaty on free movement of people have been modified to cover only ten categories of workers. But, to date, just two countries – Guyana and Jamaica – have included all ten categories in their law.  The result is that even very limited movement of people within CARICOM is severely restricted. 

Until the countries of CARICOM begin an education programme, the tangible benefits of freedom of movement and intra-regional trade for the economic development of the countries will remain a terrifying spectre.

There is an existing one-sided, disadvantageous trade agreement that many countries of the region should review in their own interests. They have failed to do so even though at least one mandatory review period has come and gone.  The agreement, signed under threat, has never been fully explained in Caribbean countries – not even to the majority of government ministers. Therefore, the extent to which the agreement is one-sided goes unattended in the political discourse of the region.

Owen Arthur, the former Prime Minister of Barbados, who in my view should be heading a well-funded, permanent, regional Think-Tank on the grave issues that confront the Caribbean, recently made the following observation: “It is inconceivable to really contemplate strong, balanced growth in the economies of the region, unless sensible forms and levels of protection for our industries are allowed to us under trade law, as they are to the agricultural sector of the advanced economies”.

Mr Arthur went on to say: “Indeed, the experience has shown that the Caribbean economy can no more accommodate full blown trade liberalization today, than could the present advanced economies when they themselves were developing countries many years ago”.   That, incidentally, was my view and the view of many others, such as the late and revered Professor Norman Girvan, when CARICOM countries individually signed the Economic Partnership Agreement with the members of the European Union countries (now 28) collectively.

The region should have a discourse on immigration and trade in its political life. There will be no shortage of demagogues, such as Mr Trump. What will be needed are responsible, well informed advocates on the other side. 

Again to cite Mr Arthur, “The region is paying a heavy price for insular nationalism. For the cost of Governance is simply spiralling out of the reach of almost every Caribbean Government, as they individually put in place institutions to give effect to their independence. This lies at the root of much of the fiscal problems being experienced in the region”.  

Yet, if the countries of region did subscribe to a Single Market and Economy that allowed for free movement of capital; free circulation of goods and services; the right of businesses (large and small) to establish in any state without restriction; and freedom of movement of people, the burden of costs would be shared; duplication of facilities would end; and the capacity of the region to bargain more effectively with external powers would be greater.  

A sensible discourse on trade and immigration would be useful in the Caribbean as much as in the US.


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