How others see us is sometimes hard to accept. Despite this, what they say when we are not present, can play a significant role in creating reputation and identity. It also determines the tone of any response. In the case of nations, especially small states, it contributes to their perceived place in the world and may affect their ability to make progress.
This is not to suggest that image is more important than substance, or that the view of others is always correct, but to try to describe in what follows, the much less positive light in which the Caribbean is seen than was the case a decade or more ago.
While there are of course many bright spots, speaking to many of those in both North America and Europe who make policy, the overall view would be, when it comes to the Caribbean, that the negative outweighs the positive.
To paraphrase multiple conversations, they begin in general by noting that many Caribbean nations have fallen further into debt, many are in IMF programmes, and almost all are heavily dependent on costly imports of energy and food. The consequence, they suggest, has been low rates of growth (there are some exceptions), a failure to complete the Caribbean Single Market and Economy, a significant decline in governments’ ability to provide the social provision that electorates expect, and the growing danger of instability.
They then go on to express the view that fundamental structural problems remain. They express concern that most nations have not yet addressed the interrelated issues of public sector reform, pensions, taxation, public expenditure, education, youth unemployment and growth. The trend towards higher taxation, they observe, is reducing competitiveness. The gap between the English-speaking economies of the region and their counterparts in Central and South America and the Hispanic Caribbean is widening. They worry that most nations cannot achieve agreement on national interest issues in ways that would enable policies to survive from one government to the next. Levels of crime, narcotics related activity and violence continue to increase. Apart from a few Caribbean transnational companies, much of the region’s private sector remains protectionist. The Economic Partnership Agreement with Europe is making little headway, the negotiations with Canada for a new free trade agreement may go the same way, and it is therefore unclear whether a broad-based US initiative to be announced this year will succeed.
That said, on the plus side, there is a consensus that tourism which underwrites most Caribbean economies is returning to growth; a small number of nations may in time join Trinidad in experiencing oil and gas based wealth; Jamaica, against the odds, is managing its tough IMF programme well and this is winning many friends; the overseas territories of the UK are for the most part prospering despite their passing difficulties with London; the much ignored French DOM are moving out into the rest of the region with Paris’ blessing and encouragement; and the Dominican Republic – irrespective of what might be said in some parts of the anglophone Caribbean – and Cuba are seen increasingly as worthy of a significantly upgraded bilateral relationship.
They note too that there are also important new geostrategic developments. They observe that the possibility of a changed US-Cuba relationship could alter regional economic dynamics. The enlargement of the Panama Canal and plans for a possible second canal in Nicaragua makes the Caribbean of continuing strategic importance. The likelihood of new oil and gas finds will change the economic balance of power in the region. Russia has heightened its profile in the region and China and Venezuela have become fundamental to its economic survival.
In summation the view is that unless the Caribbean is able to deliver greater economic dynamism, seriously stimulate private sector led growth, is more focused on implementation, and in some cases less inclined to what is regarded as mendacity, its economies will stagnate and the region will become at greater risk of instability, criminality and failure.
Many outside also observe that there appears to be little awareness that the view of the region’s principal political and economic partners, the US, EU and Canada has moved on in response to the need to cut public expenditure and respond to changing strategic concerns. More recently, the UK, the EC, the US and Canada have recognised for this reason the need to develop new initiatives to work more closely together on issues such as prosperity, security, and energy in the region.
For its part the Caribbean will rightly speak about the importance of the diversification of political relationships; the emphasis it now places on its ties to nations like China and Venezuela; the high cost of meeting its global commitments especially in relation to issues like energy, security, and the environment; and the pressing need to address falling educational levels and developing skills for the future; and of the need to address historic issues through reparations.
To a significant degree the thinking of traditional partners has changed.
There are multiple reasons for this.
It reflects the challenge of austerity, limited financial resources, and new strategic priorities and the draining effect this has on developing new thinking and action in relation to the Caribbean; it speaks to the failure of a significant number of Caribbean politicians to address issues in ways that have resonance in North America and Europe; it speaks to the inability to mobilise those in the diaspora who could play a greater role in policy formulation; and in part, it is a reflection of the departure of a generation of politicians, officials and business people who had an intimate knowledge and attachment to the Caribbean.
If this is a fair statement of a changed perspective on the Caribbean the challenge now is how best to encourage new thinking and action while ensuring that external actors remain engaged within their current financial constraints.
What this suggests is the need for reflection on how others now see the region, some thought being given to the issues that a new generation of regional leaders will have to face, and where there is space for co-operation with external parties.
Previous columns can be found at www.caribbean-council.org