Several commentators have lamented in recent years the seeming timidity of Caribbean leaders in not more aggressively defending and advancing the economic interests of Caribbean countries in the global community.
This apparent timidity has been evident in a number of areas including the surrender to bullying by the European Union (EU) when Caribbean governments signed up to an Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) which went beyond the requirements of World Trade Organization (WTO) rules, and in the submission to the dictation of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) over the operations of the financial services sector.
These capitulations will hurt the Caribbean now and haunt the region’s economic future for some time to come. Essentially, the space for making and implementing decisions in the Caribbean’s interest is either being severely restricted or lost altogether.
This malaise is weakening the once vibrant Caribbean Community which was led by courageous men and women who were not averse to standing up to the most powerful countries and agencies in defense of matters of importance to their nations and to the region.
While they sought strategic alliances with other nations and groups of countries, such as the pact with African and Pacific countries in the original negotiations with the EU, the motivation was the furtherance of their domestic and regional interest. They recognized that each of them was stronger for the support of the others, and they made unity not only a virtue but a tool, gathering together their best brains from government, the private sector and academia to map out their strategies and to implement them.
Somewhere along the path in recent years, the region has lost its way. The resolve to act collectively in the common interest of all appears to have been pushed to one side, as governments seek individual salvation. Collective action, long a strength of CARICOM, is paid only lip service. Worse yet, the collective use of the Caribbean’s best brains in government, business, and academia has disappeared.
So, the OECS countries join Japan to vote for commercial whaling even though there is a thriving tourism whale watching industry in the region; some countries have joined the Venezuelan-initiated ALBA – often taking positions within that group before discussing it in CARICOM; and the region remains divided on the issue of diplomatic recognition of China or Taiwan.
But, above all, bold leadership has diminished in the region, and it has reduced among Caribbean people the ambition to reach for the stars; to push the envelope so as to stride out of the shadows and into the global sunlight. The region is weaker for it. And, it will become weaker still unless the leadership of the region returns to the fundamentals of collective thinking and collective action, and asserts the Caribbean’s interest boldly; not surrendering to imposed rules in which they have not had a say; refusing to be bullied; and not allowing their governments to be captured by the inducements of others.
In this connection, a statement made to me by the Prime Minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines, Ralph Gonsalves, is warmly welcomed. The Prime Minister told me on the record that “Venezuela had nothing to do with St Vincent’s decision to offer itself for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council for the 2011-2012 term”.
Our discussion followed my commentary: “Serve the Caribbean’s interest, not some other country’s”.
Dr Gonsalves placed his government’s decision in the context of the need for small Caribbean states to be bold in order to reverse the idea that they are “little nothings”, and he was adamant that, should St Vincent and the Grenadines – one of the smallest of the Caribbean nations - succeed in this quest, its seat on the Security Council will be a CARICOM seat dedicated to advancing the region’s interest even as it deliberates, and helps to arbitrate on, global hot-spot issues.
Gonsalves looked forward to St Vincent’s UN mission being strengthened by personnel from other CARICOM countries and benefitting from advice and consultations with experienced present and former diplomats from the region. While he expected support from the ALBA countries, he declared: “We are not an ALBA candidate”. In this, the Prime Minister was prudently distancing his country from the controversial relations between Venezuela and Colombia, since it is Colombia against whom St Vincent will be competing for the single seat available to the Latin American and Caribbean group.
If, indeed, the St Vincent government is pursuing the Security Council non-permanent seat in a spirit of boldness and to assert the right of small countries to be represented and heard at the highest levels of global decision-making, then all Caribbean people should support it. When Guyana ran for - and got – the seat in 1975 as the first CARICOM state to do so, it was because the government at the time also felt that the domination by the larger Latin American states should end and the capacity of small states to contribute to thinking and solutions at the global level should be demonstrated.
None of this ignores the costs that the St Vincent government will face, and in this connection, every CARICOM government should pitch-in with money and qualified people. The quest must be a Caribbean one, for Caribbean purposes, financed by the Caribbean to assert the region’s independence.
And, as part of this resurgence of Caribbean boldness, regional governments should reject the recent offer made by the European Union to pay for Caribbean delegates to attend a Meeting of the CARIFORUM-EU EPA Joint Council, at ministerial level, on 17 May 2010 in Madrid.
This meeting was hastily proposed by the Commission of the European Union to be held on the day of the scheduled CARIFORUM-EU Summit in order “to adopt the two sets of Rules of Procedures” for the Joint Council.
But, CARICOM countries have not collectively addressed these rules. Worse yet, the European Commission (EC) has scheduled only one and a half hours to consider these complex legal rules whose application will have far reaching implications for the work of the Joint Council.
It is obvious that the EC expects the Caribbean to do nothing but rubber stamp the rules. And, it is time that regional governments call a halt to being railroaded.
They should reject the proposal for a hurried meeting of the Joint Council for which they are not prepared, and they should use the Summit to boldly tell the EU leadership of their dissatisfaction with the treatment the Caribbean has received for sugar, bananas and rum.
It is time again for collective and informed Caribbean boldness.