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No, the idea of Caricom is not dead

By Sir Ronald Sanders 

A commentary, published on March 8 by Camillo Gonsalves, a Minister of the Government of St Vincent and the Grenadines, was headlined “Every Island for itself’.   The first line was unequivocal in stating that “The idea of Caricom died on December 16, 2020”. 

Camillo Gonsalves is a Caribbean man, and an integrationist.  Only deep frustration could have occasioned his decision to publish the commentary on his blogsite.  In the event, his remarks prompted a series of questions to me from Johnson Johnrose, a Caribbean journalist of known repute.   I reproduce below the questions he posed and my answers. 

Q: Do you agree that the idea of Caricom – the principle of solidarity, the ethos of all for one, and one for all – has died?  Why?  

 A: The ‘idea’ of Caricom is not dead. The ‘dream’ of a more perfect union is not lost. The idea and the dream are too basic to our future for them to be abandoned.  Caricom as a whole is extremely rich in natural and human resources, but individual member countries are weak and vulnerable.  In the international community, individual countries have little or no bargaining power; only when they act collectively do they have any strength.  Fourteen votes collectively have a modicum of power; one vote, backed by no military might or economic clout, is by itself of little value.  

Q: What’s your greatest concern about the future of the movement?​  

A: That only the demands of survival, resulting from disaster, will cause leaders of the individual countries to recognize that the ‘sovereignty’ to which they cling is only exercised against each other; it is meaningless in the global power theatre where powerful countries and regions dictate their relationships.   Leaders should see the disaster looming in Climate Change and its threats to the very existence of islands and mainland territories with low lying coasts, to agriculture, to tourism, and to human habitats.   Lack of individual capacity is evident in each country’s inability to respond robustly to pandemics, such as Covid-19.  None of them has large enough populations or enough money to compete with richer nations that have bought the available vaccines, depriving the rest of the world.    

Q: Caricom has endured a lot of internal strife but has managed to survive, could it be that the issue of Venezuela’s sovereignty will be what destroys the movement?​    

It is not Venezuela per se that has caused division and conflicting positions in Caricom.  The real cause is dependency.  Some Caricom countries depended on Venezuela for oil and ran up a large debt in deferred payments; others depend on the US and Canada for aid, markets, and help with borrowing.  When Caricom countries recognize that they could be less dependent on external forces and less obliged if they pool their resources and their sovereignty, they will be more independent in their decisions and action. This same argument applies to the cruise ship industry and to foreign airlines which play them off against each other, resulting in less revenues to each of them and greater advantage to the airlines and cruise operators.   

Q: Why didn’t Antigua and Barbuda join Trinidad and Tobago in boycotting the OAS until Guaido is removed?  ​ 

A: Trinidad and Tobago has not boycotted the OAS ‘until Guaido’s representative is removed’.   Trinidad and Tobago is an active member of the OAS.  Eleven of the 14 independent countries of Caricom at the OAS do not recognize Guaido or his representative’s legitimacy in the OAS.  These 11 countries, including Antigua and Barbuda, do not recognise Guaido’s representative or his vote or participation in any decision making in the OAS.  Jamaica, the Bahamas and Haiti do deal with Guaido’s representative – this latter point was what motivated Gonsalves’ blog. 

Q: How do you feel about Caricom’s current path?   

A: It is not good for the autonomy of individual states in the international community.   Such autonomy as they enjoy is being eroded.  Economically, unless the leadership – at both the political and business levels – acknowledge that their markets are puny and their production minuscule in global terms, and that integrating their markets and production would strengthen each of them as integral parts of a larger, more competitive unit (in terms of raising money on better term and bargaining for better terms of trade) the current path will weaken each of them still further.    

Perhaps the truth is that they all know that, ultimately, they need Caricom which is why none have left it, and none have chosen to destroy it.   It may well be that those who encourage the notion of their own vehicle, keep the engine of the Caricom bus running because they know that they will need to board it to drive to salvation.   

I understand Camillo Gonsalves’ frustration. I share it. But I also know that we cannot pronounce Caricom dead. Its lifeblood continues to pump in the veins of Caribbean people everywhere who long for a single region in which they can travel freely on one passport, move to jobs, set up businesses anywhere in the region, just like the people of the 50 states of the United States do.    

The imperatives of survival rest not in separateness but in togetherness where the bounty of the region is shared by all in a truly integrated single area, and where standing together in the international community gives the Caribbean solid meaning.  This does not mean giving up national identity; it means recognising that we can also benefit from a Caribbean identity – just as people from Texas are Texans and Americans; and people from Italy are Italians and Europeans, so too we can be Jamaicans, Barbadians, Antiguans and yet be Caribbean. 

Thoughts and views expressed in guest opinions do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Observer NewsCo, its management or staff.

(The writer is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States and the Organization of American States.  He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and Massey College in the University of Toronto.  The views expressed are entirely his own) 

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