Frank talk needed

Stabroek News
October 29, 1999

It is fitting that the newest and youngest head of government in Caricom should have injected a note of realism into the Seventh Special Meeting of Caricom Heads of Government in Trinidad which ended on Tuesday. Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago Basdeo Panday reported that President Bharrat Jagdeo had spoken to him with candour soon after arriving in Trinidad and had expressed little hope for the early establishment of either the single market and economy or the Caribbean Court of Justice.

This was refreshingly frank after all the pious platitudes. Those who support and have supported over all the long years the concept of some kind of regional integration have been increasingly depressed by these special meetings and summits. The rituals are always the same, much bonhomie and fervent rhetoric when the leaders are together and when they go home delays, retreats from what was agreed, compromises and a general lack of follow up. So much so that one no longer dares to hope that much will be achieved, there has been so little dynamic leadership from any quarter and a general lack of real commitment to rapid progress.

In his opening address Mr Panday referred to the "excruciatingly slow transformation" of Caricom dreams and decisions into reality that was now " tolerated by an indifferent people." He said it was his hope that the meeting would agree to "the mobilisation of such regional entities as the University of the West Indies in special task forces to support the secretariat in a short-term programme to bring long outstanding matters to the speediest possible conclusion."

Two Caricom states had applied individually for entry to NAFTA. Presumably that can be forgiven or overlooked. There have been other "discrepancies" that have suggested either a lack of seriousness about Caricom or despair at its slow progress and a decision to take independent, possibly incompatible, initiatives. The broadening of Caricom, too, will not have helped the deepening and a new member state like Suriname has felt free to openly breach its commitments to Guyana under the treaty by buying sugar elsewhere. And trying to sell our rice to Trinidad has often been painful, being met with obstructionist tactics such as a demand for excessive quality standards and for large quantities in a time span that could not be met, in an effort to cloak their imports from extra-regional sources. It is good that President Jagdeo also raised this with Prime Minister Panday. There needs to be some frank and open discussion of the various abuses that make nonsense of the members mutual commitments.

Many have felt that a key problem has been the lack of a really strong central body that could push decisions and programmes with authority and get behind recalcitrant governments. The secretariat has never been able to achieve this and the recommendations in the West Indian Commission report, Time For Action, were never implemented. The progress of the much larger European Community has shown what can be achieved.

President Jagdeo should continue to rock the boat a little. There is a desperate need for plain talking. The people throughout the region have become tired of the halting progress. As Prime Minister Panday put it: "We find ourselves in the position that a century and a millennium have caught up with us, finding us and perhaps leaving us with a menu of unfinished business. We dare not enter the twenty-first century on the basis of business as usual".

At the end of the meeting, Prime Minister Owen Arthur of Barbados announced that it was believed the framework for the single market and economy would be in place within fifteen months. He explained that the Treaty of Chaguaramas would have to be amended as the original common market concept did not provide for the movement of labour and capital. That has now changed, he said, noting that by the intersessional meeting of February 21 the remaining two protocols would be signed (seven were signed at the meeting) "forming a legal framework for a single market and economy". Let us hope Prime Minister Arthur, who has established himself as a committed and competent politician and a major player in the region, has got it right and that by the end of 2001 at the latest we can celebrate the major achievement of a single market and economy.

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Guyana: Land of Six Peoples