Paddling our own kayak
October 26, 2000
In his last two Sunday columns Mr David Jessop, the Executive Director of the Caribbean Council for Europe has given us much food for thought. In the first, he pointed out that the Lamy `everything but arms' Initiative posed a serious threat to our sugar, rice and rum industries, The governments of the region and the sugar industry will of course mobilise against this initiative but it brought home to us all once again, if we needed a reminder, how fragile these industries will always be insofar as they depend on export markets in Europe (or anywhere else). Historically, we have always been price takers and anyone familiar with the history of the sugar industry over the last two hundred years knows how vulnerable this leaves us and the resulting peaks and troughs.
The next week Mr Jessop referred to a private meeting between high level European and Caribbean persons discussing the future in general terms. The broad consensus seemed to be that the Caribbean would have to take an increasingly independent course instead of sheltering under the umbrella of the former colonial powers. The Caribbean persons present seemed to accept that the region was on the edge of fundamental change. As Mr Jessop put it:
"Usually in such elite gatherings the true voice of Caribbean nationalism is hidden by politeness. But this time, participants from the region were vocal, even strident. For them externally led solutions no longer offered any way forward. While they may not have had to hand the new Caribbean agenda about which they spoke eloquently, they seemed to have a determination to devise regional solutions to regional problems from a regional perspective.
This was a new generation talking, renaissance Caribbean man and woman, graduates of the University of the West Indies seeking solutions that owed little to history whether it be out of Europe or North America.
Their responses recognised emotionally if not practically that Europe was pulling the plug. This was demonstrated by the EU's decision to end prematurely the special trade relationship that has prevailed since independence for much of the anglophone Caribbean. As a result there was a sombre response but no sense of shock when a senior European told a working group bluntly: "we have had this relationship for twenty-five years - now it's over".
This was not, of course, the official voice of the Caribbean. Yet it is impossible not to feel a nationalist flutter in one's heart at the sentiments expressed. In a Guyana in which seeking debt relief has become a preoccupation of governments, in which economic programmes depend on IMF and World Bank guidance, advice and approval, in which even our elections depend on aid and various forms of assistance, it is nice to remember that we are, technically, an independent nation. In a peculiar way Europe pushing us out into the cold might mean that we have to start doing some hard and imaginative thinking for ourselves. Do we dare? Is this something we can discuss with our colleagues at the Caribbean level?
Of course it is far more complicated than this. Some form of EU relationship will continue. And there is the Free Trade Area of the Americas to come by 2005, whatever that may portend. Interestingly enough, Mr Jessop says there were also some Americans at the meeting and their primary concern with the region seemed to be on the issue of security (drugs and immigration). In this post cold war era the Caribbean is not on the American front burner.
There could be some challenges ahead. If the sugar and rice industries are threatened, not now but in five or ten years time, what would we do? Should we start thinking of alternatives now? Can we break these inherited trading patterns which still dominate our lives? Does the region offer any hope? Can we think outside the parameters with which we have become so familiar?
Let Mr Jessop have the last word:
"Europe was interested but not very interested in the Caribbean. The special trade relationship was nearing an end and all that might be reasonably expected of Europe was financial support to achieve some sort of transition to the new economy. Europe would increasingly see the Caribbean as a sub-set of Latin America and would hope that the region saw deeper integration into the Americas as its future. The region was not so sure about this but was encouraged by some senior Caribbean figures to feel that Latin America offered a better future than either Europe or North America. Regional integration was not much of an issue. It would move at different paces and in different ways depending on the actors involved. But it would be fostered by the real sense of regional identity that was emerging. As a result it was now genuinely possible for the Anglophone Caribbean to embrace the Hispanic Caribbean in general and Cuba in particular. With suitable interlocutors it was also possible to relate more closely to the French Caribbean. But despite this new thinking there was something close to silence about the new economy of services. This suggested that many from the region had yet to develop a clear vision of what would make the region's future economy work.
As one might expect, there were important exceptions to this and most especially from energy rich Trinidad. But even then there was a sense of uncertainty as to whether the Republic really wanted to play any role outside its shores. There was a real feeling that many governments, their bureaucracies and existing regional structures now stood in the way of the region adapting rapidly to the new economy and the place in the world that the region now has to find for itself. And as always there was deep and serious concern that rising levels of criminality, mostly narcotics driven, would subvert whole nations and economies and no one seemed able to offer solutions.
But above all there was a new confidence that the moment had come or was near at hand when the region itself, rather than external players, would set the agenda for change. That moment it seems is not quite now. But if those present were a reliable cross section of tomorrow's Caribbean then it was clear in the next ten years a new culture will emerge".
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