PEOPLE & THINGS: Uncertain future in Caricom
The recent 40th birthday of CARICOM was easily its most important to date and was therefore attended by the fanfare consistent with any big birthday party. Birthdays are always good times to celebrate, but also good times to reflect, and a sober reflection should reveal that this “middle-aged adult” known as CARICOM has little to celebrate.
The recreation of the signing of the Treaty of Chaguaramas should take our minds back to the commencement of this institution, which was very much a product of the European Community era. The other major influences of that time were the failed West Indies Federation and the moderate success of the CARIFTA experiment. An appreciation of this environment presented an adventurous group of CARICOM heads with the opportunity to mimic what Europe was doing, since their efforts to follow the US Federation had failed. Moreover, their limited success with CARIFTA suggested that their reproduction of the European Coal and Steel Community could be successful.
The vision of these framers of CARICOM is often commended and nothing here is intended to imply that I do not applaud their courage and vision. One, however, needs to appreciate the extent to which their vision was confined by their regard for existing models and the extent to which these models reflected an economic reality which has since evolved.
In all things context is important and while the institution known as CARICOM was apparently relevant to the challenges facing this region in the 1960s, it seems clear that has not evolved in a way that would be useful in helping us navigate these challenging economic waters.
In this regard, the relevant comments of Prime Minister Freundel Stuart are interesting since he argued that CARICOM and indeed regional integration was the region’s greatest salvation in these times. He, however, neglected to tell us exactly how this salvation would be delivered in much the same way that he is not telling us how the Democratic Labour Party proposes to restructure our economy to ensure that we never go back into recession. Presumably, prime ministers are permitted to make such platitudinous statements, but our reality should demand more immediate attention.
In reality CARICOM is still very much an institution that seeks to facilitate trade in goods in a region where only two or perhaps three countries actually produce significant quantities of goods to trade. The remainder of us (which amounts to a numerical majority) continue to ask what practical use is there in this institution which appears to facilitate Trinidad and Tobago’s ability to unload vast quantities of goods on the rest of us in an ever-expanding trade deficit.
Like the other services-based economies of CARICOM, Barbados’ future is now associated with services generally and specifically tourism and international business, and CARICOM has precious little impact on either of these activities. In a way that was accidental and curious, our closeness to one CARICOM neighbour facilitated the development of our economy not too long ago by providing labour necessary to keep this economy functioning. It would be fortunate if it could be argued that CARICOM facilitated this transfer of skills, but instead it is clear that such a transfer took place in spite of CARICOM and not because of it.
The aspect of CARICOM’s work which would have the greatest impact on the majority of its country members is the freedom of movement, and it is unfortunate that this aspect has seen the slowest development. In spite of the unnecessarily complex approach taken by the Heads of Government Conference as reflected in several protocols, there is nothing that resembles freedom of movement for the average CARICOM citizen.
Hassle-free travel, like free movement, is an attractive phrase which has been proven to have little tangible value by the Shanique Myrie case which is an extreme representation of the type of challenge each of us who travels the region faces daily.
Interestingly, Barbados has lead responsibility for the Single Market, which is related to free movement, and we have moved from a government which appeared inclined to bend the rules to facilitate free movement, to one which appears obsessed with the protection of our borders even if this is to the detriment of our economic well-being.
While it is clear that CARICOM is serving its purpose for some, it is clearly doing little for many more. This is in spite of no fewer than three major reviews by the “distinguished persons” that CARICOM continues to be fascinated with. Our collective future within CARICOM appears quite uncertain.
• Peter W. Wickham is a political consultant and a director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES).