A rather low-keyed summit
In a speech to the opening of the 36th Regular Meeting of Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Heads of Government last Thursday, Prime Minister Freundel Stuart, as incoming chairman of the 15-nation regional grouping, chided critics who contend that the near 50-year-old integration movement is all talk but little action and practically dead.
“Today, when Heads of Government are meeting twice annually . . . and making concrete decisions, cynics still unabashedly publish obituary notices in respect of the regional integration project,” Stuart remarked. “As leaders for the time being of our respective countries, we must accept the solemn responsibility which devolves on our shoulders to raise the gaze of our people to new and hitherto unimagined regional horizons,” he added.
After hearing these words, anyone who was looking forward to something distinctly different from the summit in terms of exciting new initiatives to give flagging regional development a much-needed boost, must have been sorely disappointed. If anything, the communique issued Saturday night at the end of the three-day meeting may have only served to reinforce, rather than alter, the existing, commonly held perception of CARICOM across the region.
Despite speaking of an opportunity to transform CARICOM into a region of “vibrant societies (and) resilient economies”, the communique outlined no bold and imaginative ideas as the basis of a new vision for achieving these objectives, especially in a context where the region is facing increasing marginalization at the global level. Pursuit of this goal was mainly tied to the region’s participation in three international meetings scheduled for later this year.
These meetings deal with financing for development, sustainable development and climate change. Pledges of generous assistance are always made at such meetings but a pattern has emerged where, almost as soon as the ink dries on the agreements, donors, especially the big wealthy countries, renege on commitments. Remember the first global conference on small island developing states that was held here with much fanfare in 1994? Wasn’t it supposed to usher in an exciting new era for the development of small island states? Twenty years have passed and we are still waiting.
We make this point to say that CARICOM, instead of looking outside, should first look within to see how available resources can be effectively mobilized in the service of regional development at this critical juncture in our history. CARICOM is by no means poor when it comes to being blessed with resources. Our resources, however, have been used historically to generate wealth for outsiders instead of ourselves. Changing the focus and placing the emphasis on ourselves was the original vision of CARICOM’s founding fathers.
It is a point which the newly elected President of Guyana, Brigadier David Granger, emphasized when he spoke of involving the region in tapping the vast natural wealth of Guyana. The communique did not speak specifically to these issues. Even Stuart’s stirring call for the region to place new emphasis on promoting food security by putting the region’s “idle hands” to work to cultivate our “idle lands”, is not mentioned as the subject of any decision or new initiative.
The Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME) is supposed to be CARICOM’s most significant undertaking at the present time. Interestingly, it too received no mention in the communique, leaving the reader to conclude it was not discussed, even though CSME was originally presented as being of great importance to the region’s collective future. Prevailing public perception is that CSME has stalled. When will this project now be completed with the implementation of the single economy phase? By not commenting, the communique leaves the issue hanging in the air.
The only major decision mentioned which can impact favourably on the development of the region, relates to renewable energy. It involves two elements: establishment of a Caribbean Centre for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency, to be based in Barbados, and the endorsement of a Trinidad and Tobago proposal for the establishment of a Multi-Donor Energy Co-Financing Facility for Caribbean Sustainability, aimed at shifting the region away from the consumption of fossil fuels to cleaner alternative energy.
With diminishing public confidence in the integration movement, CARICOM stands at a crossroads. Until the leaders recognize that the people have had enough talk and wish to see more meaningful action that gives them an unmistakable feeling that the integration movement is fully alive and kicking, the negative perception of CARICOM will unfortunately remain and “the gaze of our people (will not reach) new and hitherto unimagined regional horizons”.