St Vincent PM says T&T extracts most from CARICOM

St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves

Stating that outstanding issues such as free movement of people and a co-ordinated foreign policy have to be resolved before CARICOM  can move to a Single Economy, St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves also cited Trinidad for drawing the most from the integration movement in an uneven relationship.

Gonsalves, who has led the SVG for 17 years and signed on to the 2001 Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas that established the CARICOM Single Market and Economy (CSME), on Friday said at a high-level stakeholders’ meeting at the Ramada Georgetown Princess Hotel, Providence on the way forward for the CSME that he does not believe the region will move to a single economy unless the revised treaty is further amended to accommodate uneven development and less developed economies in the region.

Unemployment is a key determining factor to free movement, Gonsalves said questioning the region’s preparation to accommodate the unemployed while citing the Jamaican Shanique Myrie’s case of denial of entry to Barbados and the subsequent ruling of the Caribbean Court of Justice in her favour.

Jamaica alone has about 200,000 unemployed people which, he said, is “twice the population of St Vincent and the Grenadines, near three times the population of Dominica, four times the population of St Kitts and Nevis, and 70 percent of the population of Barbados.”

Over 13 percent of Haiti’s 11 million population is unemployed and when Haiti signs on to the CSME, he said, if there is going to be an influx of people from Jamaica and Haiti, “the domestic populations are not going to allow that. Let us be honest about that.”

At present, several

CARICOM countries have imposed visa restrictions in relation to Haitians. “From the moment you say freedom of movement and you have 200,000 unemployed Jamaicans,” he said, people are reminded that Jamaica pulled out of the failed West Indian Federation in 1961. At that time Jamaica’s economy was thriving and Jamaicans said that “small islands’ people would have moved to Jamaica”.

From the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States’ (OECS) standpoint, Gonsalves said, “the principal beneficiary of CARICOM’s trade and single market is Trinidad and Tobago (TT).”

In recent years the OECS countries bought  EC$150 million or US$60 million  in goods. Up to two years ago, he said, the OECS countries sold to TT, EC$20 million mainly in agricultural products. “That figure has fallen now to EC$10 million.”

Both aggregate value and the volume of goods, he said, “have fallen significantly because we cannot get foreign exchange for our goods sold by small traders in Trinidad.”

He raised the matter at the level of the CARICOM Heads of Government conference and through the Central Bank of TT.

“There is no solution. We pay TT in hard currency US$46 million for foreign currency controls,” he said, “but our traders have to stand in the queue in the banks in Trinidad with Tom, Dick and Harry, Mary, Elizabeth and Sharon to get foreign exchange, no doubt to buy among other things perfumes and cheeses.”

He continued, “But the gals that sells tannia, bananas and eddoes and the fruits, which they eat, they cannot get foreign exchange. So, my traders have a lot of TT dollars in the bank in Trinidad.”

In TT, he said, energy costs to manufacturers, service providers and the transportation sectors are subsidised. “How could you have a basic commodity like that in the process of production, subsidised?  How do you expect us to compete?”

The OECS countries and SVG have liabilities, too, he said, amounting to 17 percent of the organisation’s member states’ GDP as a consequence of the collapse of the Trinidad and Tobago-owned CL Financial and the Colonial Life Insurance Company (CLICO).

“There is a species of persons on these islands including St Vincent and the Grenadines whom I have called, ‘the gentile poor’,” he said, because they put their savings into the collapsed insurance giant. The TT government under then prime minister Patrick Manning paid over US$100 million, the Kamla Persad Bissessar government paid out US$36 million and, he said, they cannot get the rest for reasons not provided.

It was painful to watch people’s independence slip away, he said, “strong middle class retired professionals in gentile poverty. That is a fact.”

When mention was made by a Trinidad and Tobago head of government being an ATM machine for the OECS, Gonsalves said, “I was sorry I was not in Jamaica for that meeting.” This was a reference to a statement that Persad Bissessar had made.

Trinidad and Tobago, he said, “draws most from the Caribbean integration movement.”

Because of the experiences of the Single Market, he said, “Your blueprint has to go back to the drawing board.”

The subject of the CSME, he said, has made “nice discussions” at universities’ seminars but “unfortunately governments do not come to the university for a seminar.”

The future of the CARICOM integration movement, he said, will revolve around certain blocs and based on geographical locations.

Post-Donald Trump, he said, The Bahamas, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, Cuba and even Puerto Rico will coalesce among each other in economic terms, Barbados will move to the OECS, Guyana and Suriname and TT will come together because of oil and Belize is already wrapped up in the Central American integration system.