CARICOM: A failure of effective leadership

Byron Blake

Leadership – political, institutional and business – has failed the Caribbean integration process and people over the last decade in the thrust to move from common market to single market and economy and to cope in an unsympathetic global environment.

This became crystal clear to me in 2009. Then, in the throes of the global economic and financial crisis, CARICOM political leaders refused to adopt and advance an innovative and internally driven strategy based on collaboration, Caribbean creativity and innate strengths. They consciously and explicitly decided to go visionless and without a strategy to the international financial institutions to provide them with the solution to the crisis as it was manifesting itself in the region.

Byron Blake

That, together with their retreat from the CARICOM Single Market and Economy (CSME), which should have been the strategic bulwark of the region in the global crisis, and increasing public cynical statements by leaders, caused me to fear for the Caribbean. I, however, decided to avoid writing, or commenting, as far as possible, lest I added fodder for the cynicism of the general population.

Three recent pieces of writing have caused me to reconsider. These are:

(i) Bits and pieces from Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves’ letter to CARICOM’s secretary general, Ambassador Irwin La Rocque,

(ii) Two articles by veteran Caribbean journalist and long-time integration observer Ricky Singh, and

(iii) The editorial in the Observer of February 29, titled ‘CARICOM must be enlarged to survive’.

I fear that these are again laying tracks for debate, apportioning of blame, avoidance of responsibility and action and the further disillusionment of the population, especially the young ones. I have, therefore, decided to break my self-imposed silence to offer a few suggestions for action.

Accountability and agriculture

First, political leaders, at their next opportunity, must make this short declaration, without preamble: “We are all culpable, we are all responsible for the state of the Caribbean economy. We commit to work together to raise the CARICOM economic boat on which we are all adrift.”

Second, political and business leaders must recognise that even with the various global crises, there are significant economic opportunities for Brand Caribbean. Important here, are:

CARICOM has a large and unsustainable food-import bill. In addition to this large and growing regional market, there is an insatiable international market for food – especially foods produced under environmentally healthy conditions such as those which still exist in the Caribbean.

Further, unlike the situation which prevailed in the 1980s, 1990s and the first half of the 2000s, when areas such as the Caribbean were discouraged and punished for indulging in food production, the international community is now encouraging and facilitating investment in agricultural production for food and other global benefits such as mitigation of environmental degradation and climate change; the provision of raw material for alternative energy; pharmaceutical and nutraceutical production; and for the achievement of several of the Millennium Development Goals.

Investment in agriculture is a private-sector, not budget-driven, activity. Leaders should agree unequivocally to operationalise the provisions of the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas. This would give investors in agriculture, agro-industry and allied services rights to the resources and to invest as envisaged by the treaty. Also, agree to immediately reconstitute the group which has been looking at agriculture for the past 10 years or so to include a much larger private-sector component.

Solving energy woes

Energy is critical to international competitiveness. International competitiveness is one of the foundation objectives that differentiates the CSME from the 1973 Common Market. In a region comprising small, closely located economies, international competitiveness can only be achieved and sustained by combining resources.

Leaders must accept that it is against the letter, intent and spirit of the Revised Treaty to use the existence of a natural resource in a particular jurisdiction to create competitive advantage over other members of the CSME.

A priority of the region should be to put in place an appropriately structured technical group to advise on how best to utilise resources such as the sun, sea and airspaces, fisheries, forests, bauxite, oil and natural gas to drive sustainable and balanced development. Balanced development is a fundamental concept in both the 1973 and 2001 versions of the treaty.

Export Services

The CARICOM Secretariat has had in its possession, since January 2011, the final report of a study it commissioned on ‘New Export Services’. The study, among other things, recommended five broad areas in which the region can collaborate for immediate, spread and sustained benefits. These benefits would include not just increased income and employment but the stimulation of the region’s creativity and entrepreneurial talents, and the linking of the culture, music, athletic and sporting prowess of the young persons, especially in urban areas.

These recommendations require relatively small financial outlays. In any event, the region is not short of financial resources for export promotion. In addition to the resources it expends annually in areas like tourism promotion, it has access to more than €28.1 million from the European Union through Caribbean Export and US$40 million from the Inter-American Development Bank, the Canadian International Develop-ment Agency, and the Department For International Development under the Compete Caribbean Programme. These are two relatively new facilities. The resources should be largely untapped so that governments should agree to direct their use to areas of likely greatest impact.

One of the priority recommendations relates to London 2012. The basis of the recommendation is the serendipitous coincidence of XXX Olympiad, the Special Olympics and the associated Cultural Olympiad; the burst of the Caribbean (through Jamaica) on to the Olympic stage in London in 1948, followed by Helsinki 60 years ago, and the expected excellence of the Caribbean in sprint events in London, based on performances in Beijing and Berlin.

Add to this the 50th anniversary of independence from Britain, of Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, and the 40th anniversary of CARIFESTA, together with the large Caribbean diaspora population in the United Kingdom, it creates a one-time opportunity to project all aspects of Caribbean life. The spin-off benefits for creativity, culture, music, cuisine, investment opportunities, export potential, tourist attractions, and Caribbean people in general, would be tremendous.

This would not only create a lasting legacy in the UK but provide the basis for a Caribbean programme at the 2014 football World Cup and 2016 Olympics, both in Brazil.

Three months out from the Olympics, which opens on July 27, there is no Caribbean or even national programme to take advantage of the unique opportunity. It is late. But in the words of the chair of the Cultural Olympiad, “It is never late for a good idea.” A strong Caribbean participation was considered by her to be “a good idea”.

CARICOM leaders must now resolve to work together and launch a specially selected task force to pull together a rescue programme. Pieces of work have been done and there are individuals who have worked with key persons in the UK who were, up to late 2011, anxious to work with the Caribbean. The task force would have responsibility to coordinate the implementation.


Third, political leaders must complete the implementation of some high-profile outstanding decisions such as the full implementation of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ).

The Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) is a financially costless act through which CARICOM leaders can demonstrate their seriousness about Caribbean integration.

In the 50th anniversary of the independence movement in the English-speaking Caribbean, leaders should resolve to make the CCJ their final court of Appeal. Jamaica, with the largest caseload, and Trinidad and Tobago, the seat of the court, should complete the process before the end of the anniversary year.

Fourth, leaders must seek quick resolution or defusing of differences before they become disputes.

The Reverend Wes Hall will confirm that in 1971 when the prime minister of Guyana, Forbes Burnham, decided to ban Gary Sobers from playing cricket in Guyana, the then prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago presented him with airline tickets and a letter of apology, over Sobers’ signature, to take to Barbados for Gary to sign and then to Guyana to Prime Minister Burnham. Burnham accepted Sobers’ apology; matter resolved.

Few but those directly involved knew about Eric Williams’ hand in the resolution.

Fast-forward to today. A misunderstanding between Chris Gayle and the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) has been left for a year to balloon into a dispute between Jamaica, the Jamaican prime minister and the WICB, with no intervention at leadership level – political business or civil. Leaders must put in place mechanisms to resolve this and be vigilant in the future.

Fifth, political leadership must resolve to appoint institutional leaders based on proven competence and experience; provide them with clear mandates and resources; and hold them responsible. In a time of crisis, a new secretary general has been in office for six months without issuing a statement of vision or direction. This will not instill confidence in a region and an institution under siege.

Byron Blake is a former assistant secretary general of the CARICOM Secretariat.


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