COFCOR - A mechanism for survival

Stabroek News
May 19, 2001

Caricom Foreign Ministers will be meeting here on Monday to discuss the co-ordination of their government's positions on a range of international issues which impact, often severely, on their peoples. They will also consider and try to resolve problems which may have arisen in the relations between Caricom member states.

Haiti will be attending the meeting as the process for its accession to membership of Caricom is almost complete and Heads of Government have accordingly decided that Haiti should be entitled to attend all Caricom meetings.

The foreign ministers will be meeting in the context of one of the newer Caricom bodies, COFCOR, established by the Protocols which seek to raise and update the Treaty of Chaguaramas. COFCOR, or to give it its full name, the Council for Foreign and Community Relations, is a successor body to the Standing Committee of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs (SCMFA). It is a stronger body as while the SCMFA was limited to making recommendations to Heads of Government, COFCOR has decision-making power in respect to relations between Caricom and international organisations and states not members of Caricom.

The significance of the meeting will lie not only in the Agenda issues which have been processed by the senior Foreign Ministry Officials who met here on Thursday and Friday but in the opportunity which it provides for the Foreign Ministries to think hard and together about the situation of deepening crisis in which the Caricom states exist in this rapidly globalising world.

The situation is utterly different from what it was in l973 when Caricom was established. Twenty-eight years ago at the height of the cold war the Caribbean was a region of high geo-strategic significance with the superpowers competing in the support of particular Caricom regimes and in the provision of economic and security assistance. Now the region except for Cuba attracts little attention. Caricom is like a woman without suitors.

In those early, heady days with the superpowers "bracing" each other, small states could manoeuvre in the interstices of power. Articulate Caricom leaders could play great roles on the world stage as Michael Manley and Forbes Burnham did. We were fighting, to use a boxing expression, above our weight.

While our diplomatic space included Africa and Asia there was, surprisingly, hardly a gesture towards our Latin American neighbours.

Now three decades later all that has changed. The concerns of major external powers are focused on criminal activities within the region, narco-trafficking and money laundering. Diplomatically Caricom must now make its way in this hemisphere as a small, less populated subregion of Latin America. Our traditional economic structures are threatened by the impending loss or erosion of preferential markets, including the market for sugar. Economic assistance is dwindling and foreign investment, except in the case of Trinidad and Tobago, is hard to find.

Although it may not have penetrated into the rhetoric and concerns of decision makers we are nothing but small states with contracting economies in which public services are in disrepair or being rapidly retrenched and joblessness is the acute problem.

Who cares? It is not easy to answer. It is the case that even carefully crafted and jointly negotiated agreements such as the COTONOU Agreement with the European Union which it was thought would preserve the preferential markets at least for a transitional period begin to unravel almost before the delegates have got home. The European Union, pursuing its own carefully defined national interest, decided to open up its markets to exports (Everything but Arms) of the least developed countries. In this the EU was acting not only from humanitarian motives but in order to build a strong supportive lobby of developing states in the WTO.

Caricom must therefore rely increasingly in coping with a hostile or indifferent international environment on the co-ordination of foreign policies and external relations. In short, they must speak with one voice or shout or scream together if anyone is to take notice.

Speaking with one voice was in fact envisaged from the very beginning in the Chaguaramas Treaty as an essential foundation of the regional movement. Such machinery, first the SCMFA and now COFCOR, was provided to enable Caricom member states to adopt as far as possible common positions on major international issues and to maintain a common front in relation to the external world.

For some two decades some international agencies, notably the Commonwealth Secretariat and UNCTAD, have sought to focus attention on the special vulnerabilities of small states like Guyana and in particular small island states. Such concerns with smallness and vulnerability have now been kicked sideways or off international agendas. In the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) Caricom has secured, not without difficulty, the establishment of a special committee on small economies but unless there is concerted action and vigilance our internal markets will be disrupted if and when the FTAA is implemented. Hence the increasingly urgent need to speak with one voice.

When Caricom is discussed and debated the main focus is almost always on the Single Market and Economy. There are many who believe that the Single Market has missed its chance, has come too late. Whether this is so or not the situation of creeping crisis which has overtaken the region dictates that co-ordination of foreign policies and indeed all policies must now take centre stage.