As much as we talk about “the region” in one context or another, as a kind of given, and as much as some of our political leaders – Forbes Burnham, Owen Arthur, Ralph Gonsalves, etc. – have trumpeted the idea of political and economic union, the concept remains moribund. One can reach this reality by doing extensive research, by reading the various Caribbean pundits in the press and elsewhere, by compiling data, or by simply taking the pulse of the man in the street. That process, probably entailing months or years of application, is one road.
However, there is another process, sometimes lasting only seconds, that produces in that short time a clear picture of where we are on the regional integration aspiration. One such occurred to me last week. I received a note from an avid Caribbean reader of this column who suggested that some of the pieces would have regional appeal, and that I should explore writing for that wider audience. In my reply, I pointed out to him, that that type of distribution is impossible in the Caribbean – we have no mechanism for that.
In less than the time I am taking to write this, the reality hit me like a slap in the face: the fact that after 60 years of talking about “the region,” the fact that there is no platform in “the region” that reaches people of all walks of life in “the region” is instant proof of how much rhetoric that idea of “the region” is. While there are political possibilities in this term “the region,” the underlying assumption of unity in the expression is a myth; the realization, in my response to my friend – that in 2012 we have no means to connect the parts of the whole – only confirms the illusion of regional unity. It has been so from the start of the discussion, going back to the time of Marryshow in Grenada in the 1940s; it is so still. We are “a region” in the geographic sense only. There is no common music, no common cuisine, no common economy, no common dialect; we even cuss differently. We go our own way in the Caribbean, and all the political efforts to conjoin us run into that wall. There is no congruence, anywhere. That is the history. Historically, as well, and tellingly, it is often glossed over that what the Caribbean islands were after 70 years ago was actually independence, and they had only come to embrace the Federation idea because Britain had made it plain that that was the only route to independence she would accept. That the embrace was grudging could be seen in the early rancour surrounding the Federation discussions among the islands. The differences were legion; they included the choice of the first Prime Minister, the capital site, freedom of movement, a Customs union, a common currency, and even a taxation formula. That early federal union effort eventually foundered on clear divisions which have not only remained but have hardened over time.
In that one flash, therefore, following my note to my friend, it occurred to me how clear and how powerful and how incontrovertible the message is: we are proposing a regional union, but we don’t even have a mechanism to communicate? Seventy years down the road, that realization tells you, succinctly, the state of the Caribbean unity idea. It’s a process I call “the instant story.” Here’s another one:
I’m driving into town last week to drop off a CD to a government ministry, and to get my driver’s licence renewed. I pass the Passport Office on Camp Road. There’s a long line of people outside the building, many of them arms folded in the traditional position of patience. Yes, that particular line is not nearly as long as it used to be, but it’s still substantial. Farther along I pass the Law Courts building; on the second floor (I don’t know the office) there is a line of persons on the verandah, many with arms folded, waiting. I get to the Vehicle Licence office on Princes Street. There’s a line of about 20 persons on the steps leading to the office, and another 40 or inside the office itself. To gauge my waiting time, I peep inside. Many of the persons are in line, arms folded, waiting. I have to drop off the CD, so I leave.
I get to the Ministry, and call the officer to come to the security hut. Ten minutes later, I’m still there, arms folded, waiting. Suddenly it hit me; this is Guyana status quo. In the banks, at business places, at government offices, almost every day of the week, the picture of people waiting in long lines is virtually a symbol of life here. It tells you better than any complicated economic study how inefficient our systems are; in one passing look at the folks waiting in lines, you see it revealed.
We are inundated with an array of talk about what we need to succeed in Caribbean life. Heading the list is probably education, but perseverance is on there, and ingenuity, and improvisation, but living here again I would definitely add patience to the list. If you’re not patient in the Caribbean you may well end up babbling on the road and knocking two sticks together.
So in two days in one week, two realizations. On the long lines in Guyana, I have some hope; I remember when they weren’t there. On the Caribbean integration notion, that some persons resolutely cling to, I have very little hope. It doesn’t take a book, or an expensive IDB study, or another ponderous Caricom conference; this week, the sudden realization that there is no regional platform of communication confirmed in a flash where we are on that idea.