A way forward for regional governance at the Suriname meeting?

In a matter of days Caricom heads of government will meet in Suriname. At or near to the top of their agenda will be the discussion of a study that proposes reforming the Caricom Secretariat in a manner that could involve the modernisation of its operations and structure.

The report, which was funded by the EU at Caricom’s request, is understood to make clear that fundamental change is required. This, it suggests, requires the Secretariat to become better focused and to deliver a more narrow range of specific, practical and achievable benefits over shorter periods of time. It also points to the need to improve the monitoring of Community decisions and puts forward ideas for the reorganisation and strengthening of the Secretariat and regional institutions. To achieve this, the report makes clear that the Secretariat must have the unequivocal support of Caricom member states and stability in its future funding. It recommends that once this is achieved there should be a relaunch of Caricom to the Caribbean people and the international community.

Sadly, the document has not been made available in advance either in full, or in summary, for public debate – a simple but significant move that could have started to restore public interest in Caricom and might have offered Caribbean citizens a voice and a sense of involvement in the future of their own region.

As elements of the report have leaked out, details of a long letter sent by the Prime Minister of St Vincent to the Caricom Secretary General, Irwin La Roque have appeared in the Caribbean media. The letter, presumably intended for circulation to fellow heads, points intentionally or otherwise to the political challenges that the region’s leadership will have to address when discussing the restructuring of the Secretariat.

Dr Gonsalves suggests that Caricom has to come to terms with other integration processes under way in the hemisphere. He notes that the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) is moving towards an economic union, ALBA is trying to create a different Latin American-Caribbean economic space, and the recently-formed Community of States of the Caribbean and Latin America (CELAC) is aiming to create greater political, trade, and functional cooperation between member-countries.

He also believes that soon there may be a region of three parts involving closer economic linkages between Jamaica, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and the Bahamas, with Cuba and as unlikely as it may seem, Puerto Rico, increasingly drawn into their orbit; and another pole of integration comprising the Windward and Leeward Islands, the French Overseas Territories, Guyana, Suriname and Trinidad; and perhaps self-servingly, a much deeper form of sub-regional integration in the OECS Economic Union.

All of which leads him to ask whether Caricom should place itself at the confluence of these developments and if it does what will be the implications for Caricom’s arrangements on governance?  His letter raises issues that go far beyond the restructuring of the Caricom Secretariat.  They touch the political heart of what is now happening and raise questions about whether the aspirations and interests of Caribbean nations are now so diverse as to emasculate Caricom and its Secretariat.

In itself, Caricom the institution cannot bring about regional integration. If both the Secretariat and Caricom are to succeed then heads of government (and opposition leaders) have to share similar political, geo-strategic, economic and other key objectives. They require a common vision, a shared and lasting commitment to change, a willingness to compromise for the greater good and acceptance that once decisions are taken they will be supported and delivered at a national level. Without this, committed regionalists at the top of regional institutions will never be able to deliver what is agreed.

All of this is hardly news. Caricom and the regional integration process has been in crisis for many years and despite the still widespread emotional commitment to regionalism and Caribbean identity in the anglophone (and perhaps the Dutch and French Caribbean) the difficulties associated with managing the delivery of an integration process without executive power among often fractious states, suggests that the dream parted company with reality long ago.

This is despite the continuing exhortations for change and leadership by elder statesmen such as Sir Shridath Ramphal and Jamaica’s former Prime Minister, P J Patterson , and the report of the West Indian Commission of twenty years ago, A Time for Action, which provided the practical solutions to many of the problems that Caricom faces.

Caribbean heads may well accept the need to restructure the Secretariat, but they too need to adapt and change.  This may be a big ask at a time at a time of austerity when nations have become inward looking, self-interested and focused on the short term. If the ideas now proposed are what is wanted and are to succeed, Caricom heads will need to be confident that both the funding and the political will for change exists. But even then a restructured secretariat will only be as good as member states sustained commitment to support the role and the authority of the Secretariat on issues on which it will have future competence.

There is also a danger that such fundamental decisions are now so delayed that other issues rising up the Caribbean agenda could cause bilateral responses that rapidly negate or overwhelm any move to restructure the secretariat.

In the region itself, there is a desperate need for a well co-ordinated, enunciated and consistent Caricom approach to crime and security, climate change, the environment, food security, economic indebtedness, inter-regional trade and a raft of pan-Caribbean social issues. There are also pressing matters relating to energy security, external trade and competitiveness, the crisis in the Eurozone, tourism’s place in policy, the implications of Latin American trade access to Europe, relations with new players in the region, the absence of significant growth in the region’s traditional trading partners, and a host of foreign policy issues from the Middle East to the South Atlantic that directly or indirectly threaten the region.

In Suriname Caricom heads of government have the opportunity to agree to a way forward for regional governance, creating perhaps a Caricom ‘lite’ funded on a different basis. However, what is decided will amount to very little if the leadership as a whole is not truly committed to delivering a unified long term strategic vision of regional and external policy and making the dream reality.

Previous columns can be found at www.caribbean-council.org

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