‘The infinite unity of our mutual needs’

As Ambassador Irwin LaRocque, Caricom’s new secretary general, assumes office next Monday, he could do no worse than read, if he has not done so already, Sir Shridath Ramphal’s magisterial lecture, delivered at the Bank of Jamaica, on July 22 last.

In the inaugural G Arthur Brown Lecture, entitled ‘Vision and Leadership: The Infinite Unity of Caribbean Needs,’ Sir Shridath, one of the most passionate and eloquent regionalists of our time, places the current slowdown in the regional integration process against the historical and geographical backdrop of separateness and separatism, as well as in the context of outbreaks of political unity across the region and the overarching cultural commonality of our “Caribbean identity.”

In much the same way that he chronicled, in his Sir Archibald Nedd Memorial Lecture in Grenada in January, the collapse of Federation and the failure of Caribbean leaders to realise fully the promise of Carifta and Caricom, Sir Shridath reprises his frustration in the repetition of a phrase – “unfulfilled pledges and promises and unimplemented decisions” and he laments again “the fractured promises of the Treaty of Chaguaramas and Declaration of Grand Anse, and… innumerable pious Declamations, Affirmations and Commitments.” As he bluntly puts it, “the gears of the Caricom Single Market are now in neutral, and gears of the Caricom Single Economy have been put in reverse.”

As such, Sir Shridath excoriates Caricom’s leadership over the years, more especially since the 1989 Grand Anse summit, for “the cloistered immaturity of a political culture fixated by the obsessive compulsions of local control.” In sum, domestic political concerns and narrow self-interest have consistently trumped the more enlightened vision of a community of nations working together for the collective good of their people and the greater strength that unity would entail.

Thus, he finds the “much touted” and jealously guarded sovereignty of each Caricom member meaningless, in that it has not “insulated us from the power of external forces: the World Bank graduating us from concessional financing; the OECD imposing criteria for financial services that are enforced by the IMF; the refusal of the WTO to allow us special and differential treatment; the EPA with the EU which demands reciprocity from us; new relations with China which lack any real negotiation.” In other words, sovereignty is a humbug and “West Indian governments seem more determined to assert it against each other than in the wider world.”

Interestingly enough, in praising the role of former Trinidad and Tobago prime minister, ANR Robinson, in the production for the Grand Anse summit of ‘The West Indies Beyond 1992’ – in Sir Shridath’s words, “a forward-looking paper of exceptional quality on preparing the people of the West Indies for the twenty first century” – which led to a “moment of vision and leadership among Caribbean Heads” and the establishment of the West Indian Commission,  Sir Shridath reminds us that when the heads considered the resulting 1992 report, ‘Time for Action,’ they “choked over the Commission’s central recommendation for an ‘executive authority’ to  shepherd the region’s affairs.” And he archly adds: “Robinson’s successor [Patrick Manning] was in the Chair.” The inference of blame is clear.

Of course, Sir Shridath and many people across the region are completely fed up with the current state of affairs in Caricom. He calls the failure to fulfil commitments “staggering and shameful”; other regional commentators have spoken of a “lack of urgency” and “cowardice.” But the veteran Caribbean statesman still harbours hope that the regional project can be salvaged and thus he throws out a challenge to our leaders and people, paraphrasing Jean Paul Sartre’s famous words from his introduction to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth: “Have we become full grown? Are we ready to define ourselves not as the sum total of so many separate islands in the sea and on the coasts around it, but as the infinite unity of our mutual needs?”

For Secretary General LaRocque, a man who has already dedicated much of his career to the vision of a stronger, united Caribbean Community but takes on a new task at a moment of huge uncertainty for the region, the greatest challenge will be, firstly, as we suggested in our editorial of August 3, 2011, to understand the regional vision – the term is used advisedly – of each one of his new bosses; and, secondly, to put together his executive team and prepare a strategy for convincing the heads of the twin imperatives of fully comprehending the unity of our needs and renewing the thrust towards the unity of our responses.

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