Caricom doing the dragon dance?
ON February 9th, prime minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines, Ralph Gonsalves, wrote a robust letter to the secretary-general of the Caribbean Community (Caricom), Irwin la Rocque, pointing out the deep malaise in which the regional integration project is mired. His letter was copied to all Caricom Heads of Government.
He did not spare the leadership of Caricom, including himself, in asserting that a decision, taken by leaders at a Retreat in Guyana last year, putting the integration process on "pause" was a mistake. He made the telling point that "pause" in a dynamic world is "a euphemism for standing still".
Touring the critical areas in which Caricom was under-performing or not performing at all, Prime Minister Gonsalves identified weak governance of Caricom and the failure to implement decisions as the two most critical issues facing the regional movement.
On these issues he said: "The informed public has grown weary and cynical of Caricom's efforts on this and other vital matters. Yet the dragon's dance continues. We must be decisive on this, urgently".
The prime minister is a senior statesman in Caricom. With the exception only of the prime minister of St Kitts-Nevis, Denzil Douglas, he has been at the helm of Caricom longer than any of his colleagues. He also has deep involvement in the region as an academic and an analyst.
It was not an unreasonable expectation, therefore, that in the wake of his very public letter, Heads of Government, at their meeting in Suriname on 8 and 9 March, would have shed the cloak of denial that Caricom is not in crisis; accepted publicly that urgent action is necessary; and announce tangible measures to move forward.
That did not occur.
It could be that Gonsalves' view was heard and did receive support, but that the leaders have decided to make no collective announcements to their people until they have had a chance to consider the way forward, including how to fund it.
For sure, few governments in the region — many of them burdened by heavy and unsustainable debt — have much money to contribute to an enhanced Caricom Secretariat and a new programme of action.
It would have been encouraging to hear that Heads had mandated the Ministerial Councils of Caricom to examine all the mandates and work programme of the Secretariat and to retire all except the ones that would convey benefits to the Caribbean people and that these are deliverable over the next five to seven years.
Instead, Heads declared that "the integration movement has continued to make great strides ever since the signing of the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas" — a point that would not find great echoes of support within and outside the region.
Many Caribbean businesspeople are bedevilled every day by the continuing bureaucracy which delays, if not prohibits, the movement of their goods from one Caricom country to another.
Caribbean people also continue to face obstacles to the right of establishment even when they qualify for freedom of movement in the categories identified in the Revised Treaty.
The lack of regional transportation continues to adversely affect the transportation of goods within Caricom, and if any attention is being paid to this serious problem, it is being done by one country with the seeming intention of controlling it from a nationalistic position. The case in point is the glaringly unfair competition that subsidised fuel gives to the Trinidad and Tobago-owned Caribbean Airlines Ltd (CAL), and now to a ferry that will ply from Trinidad to some Eastern Caribbean countries and Barbados.
Food security remains unaddressed even as the cost of importing food escalates for every country, and some Caricom countries such as Guyana, Belize and Dominica dump food that could feed the region, thereby keeping foreign exchange within the area.
A plan for regional energy security utilising regionally produced hydro electricity, solar energy, geothermal energy, and oil and gas also continues to be elusive.
The Heads told the public that in Suriname they considered, in-depth, the recommendations of a report submitted by independent consultants on restructuring Caricom.
They said "the secretary-general would begin the process of restructuring of the Secretariat through the recruitment of a change facilitator to support him in that exercise and the strengthening of the corporate functions in the first instance" and "in a parallel exercise, the Bureau of Conference would work with an internal group from the Secretariat to facilitate improving regional governance and implementation".
On the matter of regional governance and implementation, this would be the fourth (or maybe the fifth) attempt since 1992 to deal with the issue. Therefore, Caribbean people would be forgiven for harbouring no high expectation of its success, especially as once again it is the "Bureau" (three heads of government with no authority to make decisions for the others) that will oversee it.
Prime Minister Gonsalves had warned in his defining letter of February 9th that if Caricom continues to slide backwards, some member countries will seek alliances elsewhere, thus weakening Caricom.
Still, it has to be hoped that the decisions to "begin the process of restructuring the Secretariat" and "to facilitate improving regional governance and implementation" are signs that more radical and fundamental reforms will be implemented.
The vital work is the five-year Strategic Plan that the secretary-general is expected to produce by the next Caricom Summit in July. That plan should be the framework that guides a co-ordinated regional response to the current malaise of weak growth, high debt, stagnating incomes and rising unemployment.
If that is not what is on the cards, then the scramble for what is perceived to be benefits will accelerate through alliances with groups other than Caricom — what the independent consultants report has described as "voting with their feet".
Then where will be the identity, culture and independence of the Caricom people?
Sir Ronald Sanders is a consultant and former Caribbean diplomat
Responses and previous commentaries: www.sirronaldsanders.com