The Caribbean as a Diplomatic Zone Editorial
Stabroek News
May 22, 2002

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Almost thirty years ago in December l972 the then independent states of Caricom, namely Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago established diplomatic relations with Cuba. At that time, Mexico alone among Latin American states maintained relations with Cuba. At the height of the cold war this decision by Caricom states was an act of high political courage. The risk was taken in the deep perception that there could be no diplomatic coherence in the region which did not include Cuba. It also responded to the fact that, at the time, so many regional intellectuals saw Cuba as a paradigm for rapid development and the assertion of smallstate sovereignty. Cuba was in the vanguard of the Non-Aligned Movement.

There has been since then profound change in the international system and in the region but Caricom leaders still beat a path to Havana. At least since l997 half the number of Caricom Heads of Government, the most recent being President Jagdeo, have visited President Castro. And President Castro has in turn visited Barbados, Jamaica and Grenada. There is a Caricom/Cuba Joint Commission and Caricom Member States rely heavily through bilateral contracts on Cuba for technical assistance and for the training in Havana of Caricom nationals. Moreover Cuba is now no longer diplomatically isolated. Over the last decade, there has been vast European Union investment in Cuba (some 400 joint ventures) and Cuba has concluded Bilateral Investment Protection Treaties with several EU states including the UK, Germany, France, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands.

It is therefore all the more surprising that Caricom Foreign Ministers meeting in Castries, St Lucia, just over two weeks ago, had nothing to say about current efforts of elements in the Bush administration to demonise Cuba as part of a wider "Axis of Evil". Despite President Carter's findings that there was no evidence of any biological skills being passed on as alleged to Syria or Libya as a basis for bio-terrorism, one can expect the campaign to continue. As the tourist in Denver or Montreal or Chicago cannot be expected to make fine discriminations in Caribbean tourist destinations, the bioterrorism allegation could have even more devastating effects on Caribbean tourism and air travel than the September ll events. Yet there was not a "peep" out of the Caricom Foreign Ministers, not even a general paragraph on Cuba's contribution to the region which, as it is said in diplomacy, would send the appropriate signal.

The question of Cuba, as was recognised three decades ago, must remain central to Caricom diplomacy. In this connection Caricom should not be distracted (as it apparently now is) from the need to define a Caribbean diplomatic zone on the basis of which it projects its own identity and its needs, both security and economic, to the world.

The present situation is confused as the Caribbean can be defined in several ways. There is the English speaking mainly insular Caribbean but including Guyana and Belize and there is the wider archipelago which includes Cuba, and Haiti and the Dominican Republic which together constitute a distinct "culture area", which Demas once defined as the true Caribbean. It is characterised by common ethnicity, the colonial past, slavery and indentureship and the dominance of sugar plantation economy.

This Caribbean which includes Caricom is not only a matter of geography, although that will always be important, it is defined inwardly by the characteristics mentioned above. On the other hand the wider Caribbean as described in the US Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI) which includes Central America and the major littoral states is defined by external perceptions about politics and strategy. The distinction is of crucial importance for foreign policy.

The member states of the Caribbean as defined above have particular needs and vulnerabilities which derive importantly from their history. While it is essential that its diplomacy be developed on the basis of such separate and unique needs - it will of course continue to be necessary if the objectives are to be pursued effectively to find a basis for cooperation with other wider groupings. The ACP's diplomacy with the European Union is a striking example of how the base of separate identity (the C in ACP) provides for clarity of objectives and energy in the pursuit of such objectives within a wider cooperative framework, the ACP.

From this perspective it is imperative to ensure that there is no dilution of diplomatic objectives when acting within the Association of Caribbean States whose major member states, Colombia, Mexico and Venezuela, differ not only in size but derive from an utterly different culture area. Similar considerations apply to the still wider grouping of Latin America and the negotiations of the trade framework, the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).

Both the ACS and Caricom seem to be relying heavily on the Consultative Group on Smaller Economies established within the framework of the FTAA negotiations to ensure economic security for the very small economies of Caricom States, but the other small states (not so small as some Caricom states) which fall within that Consultative Group's concerns are those of Central America which are a kettle of quite different fish. In any event it should be noted that under the so called Puebla

Panama Plan which apparently aims to implement key provisions of the FTAA, in advance of the conclusion of the negotiations, in the southern half of Mexico and Central America, the options being discussed in the Consultative Group on Smaller Economies in which Caricom's urgent trade and economic concerns are focussed may already have been foreclosed.

The Caricom Foreign Ministers in their Castries communique noted that the question of Special and Differential (S&D) treatment for Smaller Economies had not been satisfactorily addressed at the recent UN conference in Mexico for Financing for Development. But S&D treatment in international trade arrangements including WTO, it is generally agreed, is essential for the survival of Caricom economies including sugar. Hence the need for ensuring the efficacy of the diplomatic base from which Caricom pursues this now overarching foreign policy objective.

On the matter of the need for the Caribbean diplomatic zone it should be observed that Latin America is itself divided into zones as for example the Andean Countries, the Southern Cone, Central America and so on.

The Caribbean as a separate zone would thus fit into that configuration.

A Caribbean diplomatic zone would be immeasurably weightier if Cuba played a part in it, as was perceived by Caricom leaders some thirty years ago. A mechanism should therefore be found to associate Cuba (and the Dominican Republic, Haiti is already in COFCOR) with the work of the Caricom Council for Foreign and Community Relations (COFCOR). There are eminent and recent precedents available.Only last week NATO (the most sacrosanct of Cold War institutions) established at a meeting in Madrid an arrangement which would permit Russia to participate in some measure in its decision making.

As having perhaps the largest number of working democracies to be found in any similar region in the world, there is no need for Caricom to be defensive about the relationship with Cuba - even though we live in the shadow of the Superpower bitterly opposed to its current leadership. On the other hand, Caricom cannot condone the suppression of dissent and the imprisonment of dissidents or the elimination of the Opposition or the lack of press freedom.

Caricom must therefore steadily muster its influence to bring about fundamental democratic change in Cuba. But on this, two things must be said. The first is President Carter's remark last week that the US should make the first move by lifting sanctions. And second, there is the profound observation of Sir Shridath Ramphal in Havana in December l997 that "We will all travel more safely and securely if you prepare to put in place the post-revolutionary democracy that almost certainly would have been here already had you not been harassed and sanctioned and threatened these many years..."

As the Bush administration has itself remarked, when the allegation was made against Cuba, Cuba has indeed achieved the highest levels of skill in such fields as biochemistry. It has produced medical drugs which have benefitted all mankind as for example, Interferon, among the first anti-viral drugs and more recently the first effective vaccination against meningitis. Cuba is recognised as having the most efficient medical service in Latin America and as a result among other things the lowest infant mortality rate. There are high nationwide levels of nutrition and competence in education and training from which Caricom and other developing states benefit. Such achievements also define freedom.