The other crisis

Stabroek News
June 27, 2001

The enactment of constitutional amendments, the continuing dialogue between the President and the Leader of the Opposition, the efforts to implement urgently the steps identified by the Committees established to study problem areas, the now weekly "mutiny" of particular communities who seek though demonstrations to attract urgent highest level interest in these problems, are all elements in the struggle to devise new forms of governance which go beyond the ballot box as we seek to deepen our democracy. Those developments are regularly in the headlines.

But there is another far reaching less visible crisis which we and our Caricom neighbours confront. It is the growing number of threats to the ways in which Guyana makes a living through exports, what the economists call the manner of the insertion of the Guyana economy into the world economy. We still earn our keep by producing and selling/exporting commodities, sugar, rice, rum, bauxite and timber. Moreover because we are a high cost producer we cannot sell on the world market where the prices are low. We need safe, preferential markets with higher prices.

The crisis lies in the fact that global economic change and the doctrines which shape it are committed to the abolition of preferential markets and pay scant attention to the intrinsic disabilities of small developing states. As the main preferential markets for Guyana and the other Caricom states are in Europe, the negotiations with the European Union for a new Trade and Aid Treaty (a successor to Lome) was seen to be of decisive importance for Caricom economies. Realising that the then forthcoming economic negotiations would be prolonged and of the utmost complexity, Caricom Heads of Government took the wise and imaginative decision to entrust such negotiations to a special mechanism which came to be known as the Regional Negotiating Machinery (RNM). They were also fortunate in recruiting Sir Shridath Ramphal as Chief Negotiator and Head of the RNM. Although outside national and Caricom institutions, the RNM retained close linkages with member states. It reported to a special Prime-Ministerial sub-committee of the Caricom Summit. At national level, special advisory committees ensured that the RNM was kept steadily in touch with national interests. The representatives of sugar, rice, rum and other industries were members of Guyana's Committee, the National Advisory Committee on External Negotiations (NACEN).

However from the very outset, the RNM attracted hostility. Some of it may have been due to bureaucratic competition, some of it may have derived from separatist feelings which continue to undermine efforts to promote cohesion through regional institutions. The RNM even attracted academic analysis as to its legitimacy.

However by bringing to bear some of the ablest Caricom intellects on the analysis of issues and the preparation of briefs, the RNM enabled Caricom to play the vanguard role in the negotiations with the European Union and in securing the "we-can-live-with-outcome" which led to conclusion of the COTONOU Treaty.

In the meantime, the Caricom States were becoming willy-nilly involved (perhaps engulfed) in two other sets of negotiations which threaten their economic existence namely the negotiations for the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) and the next ministerial round of the World Trade Organistion (WTO). In the case of the latter, the deadlock of Seattle is likely to be broken at the forthcoming WTO meeting in November in Qatar. Both of these sets of negotiations, with which the RNM has also been assisting, will if anything be more difficult and complex than those with the European Union. Moreover, Caricom will not start from the basis of the understandings which flowed in the case of the EU negotiations from the former colonial relationships .

Now has come the profoundly disturbing news not only of Sir Shridath's resignation as Head of the RNM but of recommendations by senior officials to dismantle or miniaturise the RNM. Without the RNM the Caricom negotiator will be hobbled before he even ventures into treacherous terrain.

The initial recommendation to retain only the RNM office in Washington would seem to indicate that there is the mistaken perception that the negotiations with the EU are at an end. Nothing could be further from reality. There is the need for the utmost vigilance in policing the agreement so far reached, as the recent EU decision (Everything But Arms) which erodes the safeguards for the markets for sugar and bananas has shown.

More importantly, further down the road the ACP will be required as part of the agreement to enter into further negotiations leading to the establishment of Regional Economic Partnership Agreements (REPA), one or more for each of three regions of the ACP, an arangement which requires ACP solidarity. The REPA is deemed essential to meet WTO requirements if the relationship with the EU is to be maintained. As the effects of the REPA on Caricom, including Guyana, may be more destructive than enhancing the REPA will require study and negotiation. The proposed abolition of commodity protocols (including perhaps the sugar protocol) could seriously affect the future of sugar.

On the other hand the radical lowering of import taxes on consumer and capital goods may be of uncertain benefit to the development of Guyana or consumer welfare.

The external crisis facing the region may be only just beginning. In this context the proposed diminution of the RNM would have been a suicidal step. It is therefore welcome that the Prime Ministerial sub-committee meeting in Jamaica two weeks ago has been reported as having decided to restructure the RNM, only abolishing the London Office. One must hope that this decision will be confirmed at the Summit in Nassau early in July. Maybe it is the same situation which bedevils the W.I. Cricket Team. We like to play it by ear, depend on natural talent, evade or avoid training and discipline. Remember the victory chant we once used to sing, "We are the West Indies".