Caricom heads of government, in Trinidad for their 34th regular meeting, commemorated yesterday the 40th anniversary of the signing of the founding Treaty of Chaguaramas. Whatever celebratory mood they reflected would have been tempered somewhat by the knowledge that this is a critical time for the Community, not least because of the economic stagnation of most Caricom members.
It has been reported that a – if not the – major agenda item of this week’s meeting is consideration of the continuing effects of the global financial crisis on member states and the framework within which they might achieve growth and development. The challenges of regional travel are also on the front burner. As Secretary-General Irwin LaRocque has himself acknowledged, the future is fraught with uncertainty and most of us would be forgiven for thinking that the future is even more uncertain given past experience.
It is as yet unclear what outcomes will result from the deliberations of the heads, especially in light of widespread scepticism regarding the efficacy of these meetings and the lack of progress in Caricom over the past few years. Notwithstanding some successes in functional cooperation in areas such as health and education, meeting after meeting and communiqué after communiqué have done nothing to assuage the public’s fears regarding the lack of political will to adopt and implement bold decisions. And talk about “re-energising” Caricom has been little more than empty rhetoric.
Now, the spotlight is on Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar of Trinidad and Tobago, who assumed the chairmanship of Caricom on July 1 for the next six months. On Wednesday evening, at the opening ceremony of the conference, she would have set out her stall and, presumably, issued a statement of intent with regard to the leadership role she will play. At the time of writing, the text of her opening address was not yet available but, against a backdrop of mixed signals emanating from Port of Spain since her election in May 2010, it is not so much what she would have had to say as what she will do that will mark her term in the chair and determine her success or lack thereof.
Trinidad and Tobago, because of its oil wealth and related economic development, not to mention the intellectual contributions to the regional integration project by such luminaries as former prime minister, Dr Eric Williams and Caricom’s first secretary-general, William Demas, has always been of central importance to the Community. Interest on the part of Mrs Persad-Bissessar and her People’s Partnership government seems, however, to have waned in recent times, a perception made worse by a series of unfortunate statements.
At her first Caricom summit in Jamaica, in July 2010, Ms Persad-Bissessar said that her country should not be regarded as an “ATM card” for the region and in November that year, she linked hurricane relief to St Vincent and St Lucia with profit for Trinidad and Tobago companies.
In terms of concrete initiatives, moreover, the Trinidad and Tobago prime minister has appeared less than committed to her lead responsibility for security, distancing her government from some of her predecessor’s admittedly ambitious and costly undertakings. She has also demonstrated marked ambivalence about fully signing on to the Caribbean Court of Justice as the country’s final appellate court. Neither did she deign to participate in the May 2011 Caricom retreat in Guyana, when those in attendance infamously put the Caricom Single Market and Economy “on pause.” And nothing more has been heard of the fast ferry service for the Eastern Caribbean trumpeted by her government in January 2012.
In the meantime, state-owned Caribbean Airlines, because of the fuel subsidy it enjoys, competes unfairly with Liat and, after acquiring national flag carrier status here has embarked on a policy towards travellers to and from Guyana that can only be politely called price gouging. In addition, the price differentials for oil and gas between Trinidad and Tobago and other Caricom countries, especially Jamaica, continue to be a source of resentment, as manufacturers are being squeezed out of their own local markets by Trinidadian companies.
If Trinidad and Tobago is to play a genuine leadership role in Caricom, Ms Persad-Bissessar and her government may find themselves having to make concessions in the interest of more equitable development across the region. In other words, they would have to subordinate some national interests to the long-term prosperity, stability and unity of the whole Community.