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Lowering the heat on CARICOM travel and trade

  Foreign Ministers Aj Nicholson (Jamaica) and Winston Dookeran (Trinidad and Tobago)

Full appreciation is due to Jamaica’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade, A J Nicholson, for taking the initiative to invite Trinidad and Tobago’s Foreign Minister Winston Dookeran for talks over travel and trade issues that had reached boiling point between the two Caribbean Community (CARICOM) countries. Equally, Dookeran deserves credit for the level-headed, unassuming and sympathetic manner in which he treated the discussions with members of the Jamaica government and the private sector.

Between the two men they lowered the heat on these contentious issues that threatened to scorch relations between their two countries. In this sense, they were the right men in the right place at a perilous time. Two different personalities might have poured oil on troubled waters for narrow political gain by playing-up to nationalistic sentiment.

They have been wise in agreeing that in respect of “entry and stay” in CARICOM member countries, immigration officers must be guided by what is now clearly “Community Law” as instituted by Heads of Government and given clarity by the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ). In the case of the 13 Jamaicans who were denied entry to Trinidad and Tobago on 19 November, the rules as set out by the CCJ were not followed. Now, both Nicholson and Dookeran have agreed that the CCJ ruling must be implemented, and the Chief Immigration Officers of CARICOM countries should convene a meeting to review instances of “profiling”. Both sides also agreed that “there is a need for further training of immigration officers to effectively facilitate the hassle-free travel of Community nationals”.
The news that Attorneys-General of the 15-nation Caribbean Community, or their representatives, have also been discussing the implementation of the CCJ ruling is a positive step. In the words of the Jamaica Prime Minister, Portia Simpson-Miller, treating CARICOM nationals at CARICOM airports properly “is a matter of dignity”. The efforts by Nicholson and Dookeran must now be translated into transparent machinery at the bilateral level, but all CARICOM countries must do the same.
At the same time, there should be education in every CARICOM country about precisely what the CCJ ruling means – a task to which the CCJ itself should consider contributing.   An impression appears to have been created that CARICOM nationals need only turn up at entry points in other CARICOM countries to be granted entry and the right to remain for six months. This is not necessarily so.  Heads of Government did not agree to free movement of people across the borders of CARICOM countries as applies, for instance, among the 27 Member States of the European Union. What they agreed to is entitlement “to an automatic stay of six months upon arrival” but subject to “the rights of Member States to refuse undesirable persons entry and to prevent persons from becoming a charge on public funds”.
The CCJ in its decision carefully explained that “in contradistinction to foreigners in general, nationals do have a right of entry to enter the territory of Member States unless they qualify for refusal under the two exceptions mentioned above”. It seems, therefore, that where it is clear that nationals do not have the means to keep themselves and there are no relatives or friends who have provided documentation taking responsibility for them during their stay, immigration authorities would be right in assuming that they could become charges on the public purse and so deny them entry provided they are given a written explanation, the opportunity to call a lawyer or their Consul, and the right to appeal the decision.
The CCJ decision stops capricious or malicious denial of entry to CARICOM nationals by immigration authorities and provides rules by which any denial must be guided. Of course, it does not legislate that CARICOM nationals should be treated with “dignity” as the Jamaican Prime Minister rightly asserted should be part of the process. Treating people with dignity comes only from an appreciation of mankind’s common humanity, and an understanding that in the inter-Caribbean rivalry of past colonial governments and plantation owners, the people of the Caribbean were victims not beneficiaries. That rivalry was the rivalry of “masters” not slaves and servants. Rivalry and antagonism didn’t serve the interests of the Caribbean people then, and it doesn’t do so now.
Treating CARICOM nationals with dignity cannot be legislated, but it can be encouraged and taught. Since many immigration officers have been trained to treat foreign tourists with dignity and respect, perhaps the training should be extended to include the Caribbean people who share the same history, live in the same geographical space and depend on the co-operation and support of each other to forge a beneficial place for themselves in the international community.  
On the trade issues between Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, it is less clear what has been agreed. But, at least the unhelpful proposal of a boycott by Jamaicans of Trinidad and Tobago products appears to have been quietened.  Mr Nicholson is to visit Trinidad and Tobago early next year and maybe by then concrete ways of addressing the trade issue will have been worked out.
But, it is as well to note here that while for the three years 2010-2012, Jamaica had a balance of trade deficit with Trinidad and Tobago of US$2.3 billion, more than 80% of Jamaica’s imports was for mineral fuels, lubricants and related materials that the country would have had to import anyway – and probably at a higher price had it chosen to do so from other places.  When the cost of mineral fuels and related materials are subtracted from the Jamaica trade deficit with Trinidad and Tobago, the figure for the three years 2010 to 2012 is US$329.3 million – still high but not as daunting as US$2.3 billion. Further economic co-operation between the two countries in production integration, mergers and investment would redound to the benefit of both, and to the wider CARICOM region.
Messrs Nicholson and Dookeran in their constructive discussions and in their search for solutions provided a whiff of the aroma that once permeated the Caribbean integration project and excited its people. They have given an example for others to follow.
P.S.    Since writing this commentary I have seen the comments of the Trinidad and Tobago Minister of National Security and Immigration Gary Griffith that questioned the understandings on entry of CARICOM nationals reached by his government's Foreign Minister with the Foreign Minister of Jamaica A J Nicholson.  His remarks are unfortunate, particularly his cavalier statement that “T&T is not a mall, where anyone will be allowed entry.”  They undermine the credibility not only of his government’s Foreign Minister but also of his Prime Minister who authorised Dookeran’s visit to Jamaica to talk with Jamaica’s Foreign Minister and others with a view to finding agreed solutions to the issues of trade and travel.  Mr Griffith has violated the principle of collective responsibility of Cabinet within his own government.  However, judgement on whether he has actually undone the admirable efforts of Dookeran or simply vented his personal spleen, must now await the response of the Trinidad and Tobago government and its Prime Minister.  

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