CARICOM: and the media

Stabroek News
May 27, 2001

(a presentation made by Mr David de Caires, editor-in-chief of the Stabroek News, on Thursday at the Fourth Annual Caribbean Media Conference in Grenada)

Reading Time for Action, the 1992 report of the West Indian Commission headed by Sir Shridath Ramphal that was proposed by the CARICOM Heads of Government in the Grand Anse Declaration in 1989 is depressing. It brings home to you how many of their recommendations were not accepted, including of course the crucial one that an executive authority, the CARICOM Commission, be created with the competence to initiate proposals, update consensus, mobilise action and secure the implementation of CARICOM decisions in an expeditious and informed manner.

My own reading of that report is that it was over-ambitious, given the paucity of administrative resources that are available both nationally and at the regional level. It left behind a wide variety of recommendations in every field ranging from the economy to education to health and housing to external relations including joint representation, the bulk of which have been completely ignored. It also spawned the Association of Caribbean States and the expansion of the Community to include Suriname and perhaps soon Haiti, all of which I believe to have been a mistake. The emphasis should have been, I suggest, on deepening CARICOM and putting in place the Single Market and Economy, the original target date for which has long passed. Finally, it explicitly disavowed any interest in political unity. Though the scope of its mandate, which was to advance the goals of the Treaty of Chaguaramas, might not have allowed the consideration of anything as ambitious as another federation, nevertheless I believe this express renunciation of a political dimension went too far. Many still feel that some formal expression of the cultural identity that links us is essential to create the political will to take us forward. CARICOM has never achieved this. Dr Havelock Brewster had proposed a union of West Indian states which would provide West Indian citizenship to all the citizens of CARICOM member states without prejudice to the sovereignty of the individual states. I believe ideas like that should have been taken on board.

The failure of CARICOM to progress faster can be attributed to many causes including the unanimity rule, the lack of real executive power in the secretariat (which would have been at least partly remedied by the CARICOM Commission) and the sluggishness and even opposition of the local bureaucracies many of which were out of sympathy with or at least did not share the regional vision. But the political leaders over the years must take most of the blame. Obsessed with the problems of their own mini-states and the trappings of office, they would often return from heads-of-government meetings without even holding a press conference or reporting to parliament. The rhetoric of regionalism at these meetings became a ritual, the follow up was negligible. On every front from hassle-free travel to the right to work in other territories, implementation has been deplorable.

And the situation continues, despite the valiant efforts of Prime Minister Owen Arthur of Barbados who has been assigned the responsibility for putting the single market and economy in place. One still detects a sluggishness and a lack of a commitment at many levels, there is no overarching vision or sense of urgency. There have also been indications from time to time of a willingness to jump ship, such as when both Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica expressed an interest in joining NAFTA individually some years ago.

As we all know, there are nine Protocols that create the legal framework within which the Caribbean economy will function as a single market and economy. The end result will be a radically different Caribbean environment in which there is freedom of movement and capital, as there is in the European Union. Getting there is the problem. Protocol 1 deals with the Restructuring of the Organs and Institutions of the Community. This should not present a problem. Protocol 11 is the most difficult in terms of implementation including as it does the free movement of goods, services, capital and selected categories of skills and the right of CARICOM nationals to set up business in any CARICOM country. A conference was to be held in Barbados this month to discuss guidelines for implementation of this Protocol. It will, of course, involve the changing of several laws and perhaps the passing of new ones in the various countries. It covers all services except central banking and monetary authorities, social security or public retirement plans, national security and monopolies that may affect the right of establishment of competitive businesses but are considered by a government to be in the public interest. Protocol 111 covers industrial policy, Protocol 1V trade policy, Protocol V agricultural policy, Protocol V1 transportation policy, Protocol V11 disadvantaged countries, regions and sectors, Protocol V111 competition policy, consumer protection and dumping and subsidies and Protocol 1X dispute settlement which will of course involve the Caribbean Court of Justice. Implementation of these protocols will be discussed on an ongoing basis at meetings of the Council for Trade and Economic Development and other organs of CARICOM.

What can we do about this? I am afraid to say that the regional media are themselves profoundly parochial. I have looked at the front-page lead stories and the editorials of the main regional media for two weeks. Not a single editorial dealt with a CARICOM topic and only editorial which referred to trade problems between Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago. How many of us keep in touch with regional issues? How many of us lambasted the politicians editorially for failing to set up the CARICOM Commission or for not complying with a number of agreed deadlines? Have our governments appointed Ministers with special responsibility for CARICOM affairs as recommended by the West Indian Commission? And do the ministers function? If not, have we berated them for not doing so? Have we assigned reporters with special responsibility to cover CARICOM affairs who are aware of the state of play?

We have never really recovered from the disillusionment caused by the collapse of the Federation in 1962, but we still have so much in common ranging from the University of the West Indies, of which Guyana is unfortunately not a part, to our cricket team. Whenever I watch a Merlene Ottey or an Ato Boldon race, I feel as if they are running for me and all my countrymen. When I read a Walcott poem or a Naipaul novel, I empathise at every level. Wilson Harris and Martin Carter belong to the whole Caribbean. Our inspired painter the late Aubrey Williams worked in Jamaica for many years. And I never think of my esteemed colleagues in the media, many of whom helped me to start the Stabroek News, as other than my Caribbean brothers with whom I have a profound rapport.

There is much to protect and preserve and we need to do something about it before the enterprise of CARICOM, modest as it is, is overtaken by events such as the Free Trade Area of the Americas. (FTAA). Indeed as Mr David Jessop, the Executive Director of the Caribbean Council for Europe, pointed out in one of his weekly columns the only thing that may save us here is that if President Bush fails to obtain the support of the US Congress for a fast-track approach to those negotiations the US may opt, given the political and legislative complication of the FTAA process, to reach, with its NAFTA partners, free trade agreements with the larger Latin American economies such as Brazil and Chile, leaving us more time to complete our own integration process. But as of now the end of 2004 would be effectively the deadline for us to have the single market and economy in place.

Can we do anything to help, to increase regional consciousness and push integration? I am not unaware of the achievements that exist such as the Caribbean News Agency and the Caribbean Broadcasting Union, now merged in the Caribbean Media Corporation. And there was a Caribbean Publishing and Broadcasting Association, several of those meetings I had attended in various regional capitals and which had exposed me to the similarity of our interests and concerns. More recently, these annual conferences have been keeping us in touch, but only just. There have also been efforts to create packages for television.

I suggest that we consider a somewhat different project. Let us identify some of the key issues facing CARICOM today, the progress to the single market and economy, the Caribbean Court of Justice, the Regional Negotiating Machinery, External Relations and so on. Let us do our homework and take on board, as a joint project, in our editorial columns and in our news pages, the advocacy of regional integration. Let us explain these issues better to our readers than we are doing now. We can, if necessary, jointly retain someone to do a series of features on these topics, which we can all publish. We can start putting some real pressure on decision-makers in our various territories. At the moment, they are questioned sporadically at heads of government press conferences but that's about it. And there is so much going on, from ministerial meetings, to appointments to regional institutions, to foreign policy issues, to negotiations with Europe and America. These, I suggest, only receive desultory coverage in our columns. We don't follow them closely, in some cases we are not even aware of them or don't appreciate their significance.

Why don't we try to regionalise the news by employing one or two specialist journalists to cover CARICOM in all its manifestations for all our newspapers. A look at Time for Action will show you how much activity there is that can be covered. We could ask the secretariat for a monthly diary of events. We could cover the activities of the Regional Negotiating Machinery at the various international conferences. We could, for a change, take CARICOM firmly on board and bring it home to our readers.

If we are serious about pushing the single market and economy we must do much more than we are doing now. There is work to be done in every area from explaining the Protocols, to the work of the Caribbean Development Bank, to CARICOM trade, to intra-CARICOM tourism, to air and sea transportation in the region, to environmental issues (the conveyance of nuclear waste in the region), to education (the University of the West Indies and the law schools), to regional culture, to sport, to external relations. There is so much work to be done if we are willing to do it.

We could also, of course, publish selected editorials from each other's papers. I know that the Trinidad Guardian has broken ground here and the Guyana Chronicle publishes editorials from the region from time to time when they relate to Guyana.

If we develop something along these lines, we can exert some pressure on politicians who default on their commitments to CARICOM. They have been having an easy ride. If we do our work we can help to create a regional spirit and improve CARICOM's chances of survival.