Tying bundle with Central America Editorial
Stabroek News
February 13, 2002

It may be flippant to say that the Caricom "big boys" have just had the first of their two annual get-togethers.

This time the Summit met in Belize city, not a capital, but a city where the Maya and Latin American influences mingle with the culture of the Caribbean. Belize in fact describes itself in its constitution as a Caribbean State in Central America.

Listening to the stale litany coming out of Belize city spoken this time round by Belize Prime Minister, Said Musa, about getting the Caricom Single Market and Economy (CSME) going, it is difficult not to feel uneasy. The CSME has been so long in gestation that it has been overtaken or will be overtaken soon by World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules, the proposed partnership agreement which the Caribbean must shortly negotiate with the European Union (EU) and the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) in the offing. Other economic spaces have been imposed or impinge on the space of the CSME.

In Belize, the Communique issued at the end of the summit states that the "Community took a giant step towards the establishment of the CSME" with the approval by the Summit of the "Programmes for the Removal of the Restrictions" on certain named key provisions of the CSME. The Communique further states that these commitments are to be effective from March l but alas in the same breath the Communique adds that "Member States have made the commitment that by the year 2005 they would have removed all restrictions which they cannot immediately remove". In short there is a recipe for further delay, until 2005. One cannot therefore be optimistic about the CSME, especially in view of the expulsion last week of a Barbadian journalist from Antigua, on the grounds that he did not have a work permit. A key provision of CSME is that certain classes of person including media workers should have free movement in Member States without the need for work permits.

Out of Belize also came the information that the establishment of the Caribbean Court of Justice is now a question of finding the money. This proposed new institution which is considered essential to the operations of the CSME has been under consideration for at least a decade. Was the question of costs not considered earlier. If that were the case it would be an unfortunate lack of realism in Caricom decision making at the highest level.

However, in Belize there was an event which provokes reflection - the meeting of Caricom Heads with Heads of Government of Central America and Panama. It is a development which points to the need for a major realignment of Caricom diplomacy especially in the way in which we seek to protect the regional economy and the security of Caricom states.

In the early days after independence, those Caricom States which felt threatened through territorial claims or because their internal programmes attracted hostility sought safety and shelter within the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) with its massive Afro-Asian membership.

In more recent times Caricom has sought to preserve its traditional economic structures and markets through the diplomacy of the African Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) grouping with its dominant African majority membership.

Such diplomatic linkages was facilitated by the ethnic composition of Caricom States, together with language, English (or French) and common institutions deriving from Britain (or France).

It would now be realistic to work on the assumption that Caricom small states diplomacy can no longer depend to the same extent on Afro-Asian (especially Afro) solidarity to provide powerful leverage. The NAM is now more or less inactive. On the other hand at the WTO meeting in Doha, African solidarity especially for the ACP, despite European Union blandishments, was mainly responsible for the concessions wrested by the developing world.

However the very structure of the ACP is now under profound challenge. The EU has insisted (and it is more or less agreed) that the negotiations between EU and Caricom which are about to begin will aim at reaching agreement on a Regional Partnership Agreement. In short in place of the present "global" thrust of the ACP grouping, the emphasis in future will be on separate regions each having a separate relationship with the EU. The Caribbean to a significant degree will be on its own.

At the same time Caricom is being thrust in terms of the FTAA arrangements into a grouping with Central America. This could be a difficult relationship. In an important sense the distance between the Caribbean and Central America (although we are geographically closer and in the same hemisphere) is greater than the distance between the Caribbean and Africa and certain Asian States.

It is a matter of cultural distance. The English speaking Caribbean is a distinct culture area - in terms of ethnicity (predominantly African) with a past in slavery or indenture, an economic structure which derives from sugar plantation economy and (in Caricom) institutions which derive from Britain.

By contrast the Central American States (except for Costa Rica) are of different ethnicity, predominantly mestizo, a Spanish/Amerindian mixture. The plantation crop is bananas, hence the term Banana Republic. Spanish speaking, the Catholic Church has shaped the Central American culture institutions. The Catholic Church remains a major agent of change, in contrast to the situation in predominantly Protestant Caricom.

There has been conflict and hostility between the two sub-regions. Guatemala has continued to press its territorial claim to the whole of Belize. Moreover it was Central American States, in particular Guatemala, which initiated action on banana exports into the EU which has threatened the livelihood of Caricom banana farmers, and held up to the WTO waiver for Cotonou until Doha.

Nevertheless Caricom States must work with Central America because Caricom States in trying to secure Special and Differential treatment within the FTAA as very small and vulnerable states have found themselves squeezed into the Consultative Group on Smaller Economies established by the FTAA. That group, it is to be noted, includes the Caricom States and the Central American States. The negotiations are turning on the concept vital for Caricom of special and differential treatment for smaller economies but the outcome could be unfavourable to Caricom small states. Most Caricom States in contrast to the Central American States are very small and share the intrinsic disabilities of island states.

An FTAA definition of Special and Differential which does not cater to the specific vulnerabilities of Caricom small states, may be of little use, may in fact lose the case for securing such treatment within the WTO context.

Yet there could be some advantages in the linkage of the two sub-regions. Thus Caricom and Central America would together control a majority of votes in the OAS. Nevertheless, in terms of the relationship with Central America it could be in Caricom's interest to pursue a wider diplomacy as for example in the Rio Group and in the ACS, both of which groupings include the Central American States. While the Central American States are full members of the Rio Group of Latin American Foreign Ministers Caricom is represented by the State which chairs the Council for Foreign and Community Relations (COFCOR).

It will be recalled that Guyana as Chairman represented Caricom at the Rio Summit in August in Chile. Perhaps even more responsive to Caricom initiatives would be the Association of Caribbean States (ACS)( which owes its existence to a Caricom initiative and which includes in its membership Caricom, the Central American States and the major littoral states of Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela.

The current international context is utterly different to that in which Caricom States had achieved independence. Caricom's regional diplomacy is in need of urgent rethinking and reformulation so that it can pursue in and with the wider region not only sub-regional Free Trade objectives but measures for protecting the economies of the region within an unsupportive international economic system.