Brief encounter
Stabroek News
February 20, 2002

Sometimes on a very dark night the powerful beams of a car's headlights will for a few seconds illuminate the scene. If you are in a wide open space a sudden flash of lightning opens up an even wider vista. So it is with certain events.

On Thursday, 7th February in Nassau, Caricom Foreign Ministers met with the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell. Two aspects of the meeting have in particular attracted critical comment. First the Secretary of State could find only two hours for the meeting which had been long planned. Second there was the reported out of hand rejection of the Caricom's Heads of Government recommendation that international economic assistance for Haiti should be defrozen. Other proposals including the unblocking by the US of soft loans from the Inter-American Development Bank for Caribbean States received similar short shrift.

It is considered in some quarters that Caricom foreign ministers have been treated with less than the expected level of respect and attention.

Two hours could be sufficient if issues had been previously processed at official level but this was apparently not the case. In any case it is expected on such occasions that there would be one to one opportunities for exchange of views and ideas. The dismissal of the request for the release of economic assistance for Haiti is far more serious in its implications. Haiti is virtually a member state of Caricom. The recommendation came from the Heads of Government of l4 democratic states which constitute an integration grouping. Caricom has been carefully monitoring the Haiti situation. Based on the views of the distinguished leader of the Caricom Team of Five to Haiti, the Caricom Heads of Government recommended that the Haitian government should be given access to funds to help build the very democratic institutions which the international community is demanding. Moreso, it should be noted that it is a well established international practice that the international community is guided by the leaders of the states in the best position to known namely the neighbouring states in the same region. However, Powell adhered to his position that there is a political crisis in Haiti and that until that is resolved the funds must remain frozen.

The reality is that although President Aristide has made concession after concession, there is a small intransigent group, the so-called Convergence Democratique, which has the ears of the White House and therefore refuses to co-operate in resolving the crisis.

However, the situation which unfolded in Nassau may have been mainly due not to disrespect but to the complex and diffuse nature of US Foreign Affairs decision-making. First it should be noted that a US Secretary of State is not in any usual sense a Foreign Minister. He is not the main focus or even the main conduit for foreign policy matters and decision making. That role is shared with the Security Advisers in the White House, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the Defence Secretary and the Trade Officer, among others. In an encounter such as that in Nassau the Secretary of state could perhaps do little more than listen.

Caricom has never really come to grips with the US system. The individual Caricom Foreign Ministries are accustomed to dealing with a unified system of government capable of implementing a decision once it has been taken. To cope with the US system it would be as if in foreign affairs exchanges with the UK one had to reckon with separate thinking in Downing street and lobbyists dealing with powerful groups in the House of Commons.

In addition to coping with the complexities of the US system there are other major elements in the current foreign policy predicament of Caricom States which derive from the changing international milieu. Foremost is the fact that the Caribbean is no longer perceived as a geo-strategic region in which there was once Super Power competition for the allegiance of Caribbean States. Where the Caricom State once found itself as a woman with two suitors, now there are no suitors at all!

It is also the case that international attention is now focussed away from the region, and indeed the hemisphere, towards Asia and the massive poverty in Africa. Mainly at the initiative of Sridath Ramphal and the Commonwealth in the eighties particular attention was given to the problems and needs of small states, including island states. A majority of Commonwealth States are small states but concerns with smallness, like Caricom, no longer find a place on international agendas.

What must the small states do, located as they are in a sub-region where the concerns of the Super Power are limited to narcotics, money-laundering and immigration? Foreign Minister Rudy Insanally. Chairman of the Caricom Council for Foreign and Community Relations (COFCOR) concluding his remarks at the press conference held at the end of the meeting in Nassau with Colin Powell quoted the American essayist Emerson who had said that sometimes a scream is better than a thesis. Mr Insanally added "I ask that you forgive us if we screamed a lot this morning'.

If you are small and have been hurt, what else is there to do but scream!

At the Fourth Meeting of COFCOR held in Georgetown last May the Caricom Foreign Ministers in reviewing Caricom's relations with the USA affirmed their belief that there was need for "the development of a strengthened strategic partnership with the United States, based on a clear undertaking of and sensitive response to the priority interests and concerns of both sides of the partnership, and guided by the shared good of building a secure, stable and successful Caribbean neighbourhood".

The question is how to pursue such objectives effectively. The co-ordination of Foreign Policy positions and speaking with one voice as seen in the outcome of Nassau is clearly insufficient.

Caricom should therefore find the resources to do in diplomatic terms at least two other things. First, Caricom must recover some of its former diplomatic prestige by again playing a vanguard role in a few carefully selected global issues as it did in the first years after independence. One such could be the Financing for Development on which a UN conference will be held in Mexico in five weeks time.

Second, it must be recognised that Washington rather than the UN must become the main focus of Caricom diplomacy. Caricom Missions in Washington should work together to establish joint diplomatic teams suitably augmented as necessary from home ministries to pursue in a concerted way and wherever power and influence is located, the issues vital to Caricom. One would expect such teams or working groups to be in touch not only with formal representatives of the US government but also with lobbyists, congressional caucuses and not least the Caribbean immigrant groups who in some areas exercise powerful influences on politics.

The brief encounter in Nassau was a bright light which illuminated the current ineffectiveness of Caricom States in dealing with the relationship with the United States.