Gonsalves’ Caricom salvo

The ferocity of recent widely publicized observations, written in a letter from Prime Minister Gonsalves to Caricom Secretary General Irwin LaRocque on the progress, or lack of it, as he perceives it, of Caricom integration, reflects an obvious frustration on the part of the Prime Minister which is not entirely inconsistent with his demeanour, but is nevertheless surprising. It is surprising that the Prime Minister wrote to LaRocque, a recent entry to the post, and not directly to those whom he must surely consider the sources of the problems that he describes, his colleague prime ministers and presidents.

The letter is also surprising in the sense that in it, Dr Gonsalves reminds us, or confesses, that he was himself present at the Special Heads Conference called to consider Caricom’s direction, in the face of what at least some heads must have felt was an increasing dissatisfaction with the pace at which Caricom was moving, particularly on progress towards a Single Economy, and on the freedom of movement issue. He admits that when the decision was made to “pause” on the Single Economy, he did not demur – a context in which non-demurral is taken as consent.

There is surely, in the relations between heads of government, more to be said for direct personal confrontation in the same room, so to speak, as the heads were at the Special Conference in the Guyana hinterland, than shouting across the seas on microphones to one another, which is the same as writing a letter and then having it publicized. Dr Gonsalves has the reputation of being frank, whether, we are told, in private or in public, and he must know the probable effect of the former line of action, rather than the latter. The sensitivities of politicians being what they are, does he expect that many will be pleased at what will certainly be read as his remonstrations against them? Are some just likely to see the nature of Comrade Ralph’s letter as an attempt at one-upmanship in the face of public perception of their slow-coach approach to regional integration, and an attempt on the part of the Comrade to say to the Caribbean public, “It’s them, not me, who’s holding up the works?

Would it not have been better if Dr Gonsalves had done one of two things? Either sit down, as one who himself has subsequently  observed that “this matter is a matter which has consumed a lot of my professional attention,” and sought to make some proposals about implementation that would directly build on the proposals made by Prime Minister Thomas of Grenada on the advice of a group of longer-serving professionals in the field? Or because these very Thomas proposals have not been widely publicized, could he not have exposed them, on the basis of prior agreement with his colleagues, to a wider public (including other persons in both the private and NGO sectors), and then initiate further discussions with any of those governments willing to proceed on particular items? Will an embarrassed set of prime ministers and presidents, given their nature, wish to have it put about that they have now agreed only under one man’s pressure?

The issues for discussion are even now more than those proposed in the paper presented by Prime Minister Thomas, in the sense that there have been suggestions that geopolitical issues, in particular the adherence of some states to President Chavez’s ALBA could create a situation of multiple directions by various Caricom states, and send what some consider bad signals to the United States. From Dr Gonsalves’ perspective of course, and perhaps of others including the heads of Dominica and Antigua, this would not be an acceptable line of argument, as they perceive themselves to be “taking it where we can get it” as they face, as in St Vincent, pressure to find finance for major capital works, and as in the case of others, difficulties deriving from extensive debt repayments and fiscal pressure from low exports and returns from tourism, especially in a time of Western countries’ recessions and rising prices for petroleum.

Dr Gonsalves‘ strictures in relation to the Caribbean Development Bank also give strength to suggestions that some heads believe that the bank is too orthodox in its approach, and insufficiently alive to the requirements of the smaller states for the creation of new infrastructural arrangements to service replacement economic activities in lieu of the decline of the traditional ones. And there seems to be a fear that the bank is over-concerned with the geopolitical implications of the actions of certain member states, given the sources of its own capital. It should not be forgotten that for many of what were then called the LDC’s (lesser developed countries) of Caricom, the creation of the CDB was in part seen as a quid pro quo for their adherence to the integration process.

What is likely to be the response of the larger Caricom states to Gonsalves’ démarche? There is a perception in some quarters that in Guyana, then President Jagdeo did not exert the kind of pressure for a change of approach to the construction of the CSME which some expected from him, given his own understanding of the importance of new approaches, as Brazil and the South American states put the question of the necessity for new infrastructural integration directly to Guyana. Will President Ramotar be any different?

There seems to be a concern also that the preoccupation of Jamaican governments in recent years, and presumably the present new Portia Simpson-Miller regime, has been and will be, with getting the economy right – that is to the satisfaction of the IMF’s requirements; and in Mrs Simpson-Miller’s case, that she will  be under pressure to accomplish a trick which the last administration failed to achieve. And in Trinidad & Tobago, the complexities of ethnic politics seem to demand the dominant attention of the Prime Minister, though it is fair to say that she has previously proposed the one initiative for infrastructural integration that has been taken seriously by the private sector – the return to movement by ferry across neighbouring islands; and that she seems likely to follow Prime Minister Manning’s efforts at regionalizing air transportation under her country’s guidance.

Prime Minister Gonsalves has called for more “strategic discussion.” But are the heads, with their various preoccupations, and seeming under public pressure from Prime Minister Gonsalves, prepared to make positive responses to the regional public out of such encounters? There is much doubt in the region at this time.

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