Meeting Ms Albright

Stabroek News
March 30, 2000

Earlier this month the Caricom leaders at their eleventh inter-sessional meeting in St. Kitts and Nevis ratified and signed the last two protocols to establish the Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME). These related to Competition Policy, Consumer Protection Subsidies and Dumping (Protocol viii) and dispute settlement (Protocol ix). The task now is to implement the provisions of the CSME agreement to allow the free movement of people, goods and services and investment by Caricom nationals throughout the region and to co-ordinate regional external policy. The heads discussed July as a target date to establish programmes to remove existing restrictions on some of these rights and agreed to convene a consultation on implementing the single market and economy in September. The development of this process falls in the portfolio of Prime Minister Owen Arthur of Barbados who has established a reputation for getting things done. President Jagdeo noted at his recent press conference however that many changes have to be made to make the system functional and many countries still have to ratify the protocols. He estimated it could be as long as four years before the system was in force.

At the same time, the Caricom states face major problems. First there is the unresolved threat to the banana industry and the need for a World Trade Organisation (WTO) waiver for the recently negotiated Suva Convention between the European Union and the 7l African, Caribbean and Pacific Nations. More recently, there has been the threat to offshore businesses in Barbados and Antigua. Today, the Caricom foreign ministers meet US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in New Orleans to discuss a range of issues including possible US support for the WTO waiver. In his column last Sunday Mr David Jessop, the Executive Director of the Caribbean Council for Europe, had noted that Panama had indicated it would be opposed unless the outstanding banana dispute between the EU and US was settled and he referred to the question raised by Prime Minister P.J. Patterson of Jamaica of whether Panama was acting in its own interest or as "a proxy for the rich and powerful".

Mr. Jessop noted too that the number of issues that divide the Caribbean and the US has continued to grow. "The banana dispute remains unresolved. The best estimates suggest that over the next five years the US led WTO-compatible solution presently being promoted will result in large scale unemployment as uncompetitive banana farmers go out of business. Cuba and its deepening relationship with the ACP Caribbean and Caricom remains a matter of fundamental disagreement. The US too is at odds with the region over the question of offshore tax regimes in the Caribbean and the opportunity it believes this offers US nationals to avoid taxation. Equally as contentious remains the US approach in the region on narcotics issues, while somewhere not far over the horizon there are possible problems relating to sugar".

Mr. Jessop contends that few in Washington take the trouble to consider the practical problems facing Caricom states. "There is a reluctance to recognise the problems of vulnerability and smallness. All too frequently officials in Washington fall back on unrealistic comparisons with Central America. Policy seems driven by concerns about the danger of large-scale economic migration caused by economic instability in those Western Caribbean nations nearest to the US. Otherwise the only issues that seem to matter to the US relate to trade policy and the need to counter organised crime and narcotics trafficking through the region".

The meeting with Ms Albright is therefore of some importance. It will be disastrous if the US takes a tough position on the waiver. There was a useful meeting with President Jacques Chirac at the Caricom/France summit in Guadeloupe but France is of course on our side on this issue. The meeting today will show if, to use Mr Jessop's words, there is any chance of the US seeing Caricom with fresh eyes or if relations will continue to deteriorate.