Editorial: Forty-five years later

Montego Bay, Jamaica recently hosted the 39th regular meeting of the Conference of Heads of Government of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). The occasion also marked the 45th anniversary of the founding of the regional body and that close-to half a century mark got us to reflecting on all that has been accomplished and questioning whether the body has lived up to, and achieved, its potential.

CARICOM is the follow-up to the ill-fated West Indies Federation, which lasted just four short years, from 3 January 1958 to 31 May 1962. Its demise was triggered by Jamaica’s discontent with the arrangement and the countries’ colonial status, which eventually led to its departure. That triggered the famous “one from ten leaves nought” quote from then Trinidad and Tobago Premiere, Dr. Eric Williams. 

CARICOM was born nine years after the West Indies Federation failed. The prime ministers of Trinidad and Tobago (Eric Williams), Barbados (Errol Barrow), Guyana (Forbes Burnham) and Jamaica (Michael Manley) signed the Treaty of Chaguaramas on 4 July 1973. In 2002, the Treaty was revised to allow for the eventual establishment of a single market and a single economy. If you are into conspiracy theories then you can have your fill with CARICOM, including the establishment of CARICOM on the U.S. Independence Day and Chaguaramas being a former U.S. military base in Trinidad and Tobago.

Integration is at the heart of CARICOM; however, what have we accomplished in the 45 years since that auspicious treaty has been signed? Today, we still hear all the gripes of the stuttering integration process, and it has become such a repetition that our leaders now seek to convince us that their meetings are more than an annual talk shop filled with photo opportunities. This year, newly minted Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley described the three day summit as “Action, not a bag a words,” in an indirect acknowledgement of the public’s perception.

Meanwhile, Andrew Holness of Jamaica, who is also the present chairman of CARICOM, was more explicit. He said, “There is a sense that CARICOM is all about talk, and so, yes, there is sometimes much talk. But what we have seen here is we, as leaders, have had to confront the implementation deficit.” If we may take the opportunity to translate the Chairman’s smooth political words, it is equivalent to saying we have not done what we should have over the years, but we are addressing that now. Gosh! How many times have we heard that?

Prime Minister Gaston Browne probably was most direct and summed it up best when he said, “As we convene as leaders of our Caribbean countries, we should not deceive ourselves that the people of our region have great hope for the outcome of our ritual meeting. After 53 years of crawling through the process of integration, disappointment has replaced hope and skepticism has overwhelmed belief.” (His reference to 53 years being the establishment of CARIFTA).

It is exactly that implementation deficit that we are talking about when we question the progress of CARICOM. A look back at some of the factors that contributed toward the demise of the West Indies Federation, we can see some eerie similarities today. Core to the discontent at the time was the feeling of inequality within the body. Some countries felt that the free movement of people would disadvantage them, and others felt that the free movement of goods would be a crushing blow economically. No action was taken to address the

perceptions or the issues, and a lot boiled down self-preservation as politicians felt the need to introduce some protectionist measures to safeguard what existed for their populations, even though the very purpose of the Federation was about change.

Today, we hear very similar words from our very own Prime Minister. At the recent meeting he called on CARICOM to address the unbalanced movement of people that is borne by the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS). He said that OECS countries have borne the brunt of the implementation of the Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME).  In pointing out that small island states had “borne a disproportionate burden in the movement of goods, services and people in the region,” he referenced Jamaica, Guyana and the Dominican Republic as countries whose nationals are “absorbed” by the OECS.

This is no criticism of the PM as he is simply stating the reality of the situation and the need for some acknowledgement of this and other issues “to guide our decisions for the future.” And we are walking lock-step and in sync with the PM when he asks, “Surely, in 53 years, we should have been further along the road to economic integration than we are now.”  Against the frank talk of PM Browne, we hear Caribbean leaders talk from the podium of the CARICOM meeting, giving the perception that everyone is in-sync, but actions speak louder than words … or in this case, inaction.

Click here to read Prime Minister Gaston Browne’s address to the Caribbean heads of government.

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