As with elections in other countries of the Region, it is natural that the question should be asked as to whether, with the change of government in Barbados, there will be any change in the attitude of the new Democratic Labour Party administration to the regional integration movement.
Former Prime Minister Owen Arthur played a substantial role in bringing the Caricom Single Market and Economy to formal completion. He used his skills as a professional economist to ensure that progress was made steadily. And he utilized his own commitment to the necessity for a CSME to keep other governments on the path to keeping their own commitments to its implementation.
In periodic speeches throughout the Region, Mr Arthur constantly elaborated the rationale for hastening the implementation to a single market, emphasizing that the process of global economic liberalization would not wait for the Region to march to its own beat. Arthur well understood that timely adjustment to liberalization trends was a prerequisite to a beneficial adjustment to the free trade arrangements which the Region was being offered in the 1990’s, whether that of the Free Trade Area of the Americas or the European Union’s innovation of a Regional Economic Partnership Agreement to replace the Lome/Cotonou Conventions.
There is no doubt that the conclusion of Arthur’s government, that Barbados would have to systematically embark on the path of creating a largely services economy, was the mainspring of his commitment to the rapid creation of a CSME. He clearly saw that in spite of the historic contribution of the sugar industry to the economy of Barbados, and indeed the economies of other countries, it would no longer play its traditional role. Therefore while recognizing short-term considerations, the emphasis in negotiating the REPA, for example, should not be, from a long term point of view, on maintaining the protection arrangements for sugar and other agricultural commodities, but on the services industries and other so-called “sunrise” (as against “sunset”) industries.
In taking on the role of “lead Prime Minister” responsible for the implementation of the CSME, Arthur also forced an innovation in the Caricom institutional system, in decentralizing its operations from its Georgetown headquarters, through the creation of a special CSME office in Bridgetown. In that way he could have direct oversight of the process.
It was fortuitous too, that Arthur’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade, Billie Miller, took on a leading role in both the REPA negotiating process as well as in the negotiations towards the still unattained Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Arthur had inherited from the previous Democratic Labour Party government of Erskine Sandiford, the commitment to a focus, in the international sphere, on the need for special consideration of the needs and requirements of small states. The Barbados Declaration on Small Island States (SIDS) therefore provided Arthur with a base for operating as Chairperson of the special Commonwealth Secretariat/World Bank group in the second half of the 1990’s, to advocate for the special requirements of Caribbean states in changing international attitudes to economic aid.
From that perspective, it seems unlikely that the new Democratic Labour Party government of Mr David Thompson, will veer much from these orientations. True, in recent times, there has been controversy in Barbados as to whether that country should accept the implications of the economic globalization process and accept foreign (in particular Trinidad and Tobago) acquisition of Barbadian commercial and financial operations.
Arthur seemed to stick to his guns in emphasizing that this was a necessary aspect of acceptance, not only of the inevitability of international liberalization, but of the logic of the CSME itself. At times recently, Thompson’s DLP appeared to take a more protectionist view on this issue. But one suspects that as time goes on, the new Prime Minister will probably adopt what has seemed to be Arthur’s view: that it is unwise to interfere too substantially in an economic process which appears to have a worldwide, rather than simply Barbadian, logic.
For it has seemed to be his view also, that in playing for a Barbadian private sector presence in the wider regional economic space that is projected to develop, one could not at the same time adopt a protectionist position in respect of the resources of the Barbadian economic space. (Barbadian economic interests, for example, have for some time had a substantial presence in some of the OECS countries).
The orientation of the DLP’s electoral campaign seemed to concentrate more on local or domestic matters than on indicating its attitude to regional matters. The DLP seemed to spot that Arthur’s Achilles heel lay in not appreciating popular anxieties on matters like housing and the rising cost of living. But oddly enough, last week the Inter American Development Bank announced a substantial loan to Barbados for housing. And in respect of the cost of living issue, Arthur seemed to take the view that in the context of an open economy like Barbados, there was a limit, again, to the kind of protectionist policies one could adopt. The hurried special Heads of Government consultation undertaken at the initiative of the Grenada Prime Minister, did not, in the circumstances, do much to assuage popular feelings. The domestic and international aspects of this problem are now on Thompson’s plate.
In general, then, we expect that after a certain period spent on concentration on local arrangements, the new government will largely continue in the path set by Arthur’s approach in the last nearly fifteen years.
The DLP inherits the pro-integration traditions of its founder Errol Barrow, one of the initiators of the Caribbean Free Trade Area (CARIFTA) process. Thompson will face the same issues as Arthur in respect of an appropriate approach to regional and global economic liberalization ;by an open economy. And we expect that his new Foreign Minister, Chris Sinkler, a leader in the Caribbean non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) process advocating better conditions for the Caribbean in international trade, will carry that preoccupation with him into the making of government policy.
Barbados’s leadership in the sphere of the special needs for small island developing states, is therefore likely to continue. And certainly as part of that, it is reasonable to expect that the emphasis on the creation of an effective regional economic space, as the base for playing in the international economic sphere, will also continue.