Caricom in crisis
July 3, 2002
Some thirty-five years ago UWI published a book by two young Guyanese economists who were at the beginning of their subsequent distinguished careers. The young authors were Havelock Brewster and Clive Thomas, their book, The Dynamics of West Indian Economic Integration was to provide much of the intellectual underpinnings for the regional movement. It was not the sole source of ideas. The Incorporated Chambers of Commerce of the West Indies had been widely advocating "the phased freeing of trade". Brewster and Thomas had insisted that "Integration of the West Indies should not be limited to those conditions which govern the exchange of goods, but should also include in its perspective the integrated production of goods." Nevertheless it would not be amiss to call them the intellectual authors of West Indian integration. So what do Brewster and Thomas say about the regional movement some three and a half decades later?
In a paper The future of the Caribbean Community published by the IDJ (l996) but first delivered at a Harvard Conference, Brewster wrote as follows:
"... neither the traditional conceptions of political unification, nor the present and proposed approaches to economic integration in the Caribbean are likely to succeed..."
"It serves no good purpose to pretend that intra Caricom production and trade are being developed under the impetus of community regimes. Regimes like the Common External Tariff (among others) have neither conferred common protection, nor have they been effective in promoting resource-based industries and trade within the region."
Clive Thomas for his part in a paper published in New Caribbean Thought (UWI 200l) writes:
"Unfortunately, the free trade/customs union approach has not succeeded in increasing intra-regional trade and capital flows as a proportion of regional trade or production significantly above the levels that obtained in the early l970s when Caricom was first established. The result of functional cooperation has also been very disappointing..."
While it is useful to have the views of Brewster and Thomas the evidence of failure and disarray in Caricom are not far to seek.
Witness the fumbling approach to making the proposed two major institutions, the Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME) and the Caribbean Court of Justice operational. Regarding the CSME every succeeding Summit issues, as doubtless this one will, commitments on the way forward - an endless litany.
But there is a growing body of opinion that the Single Market has missed the boat; that it has been overtaken by the global thrust of trade liberalisation. Indeed there is the widening perception that regional integration arrangements will be in practice no more than a transition to full participation in international trade liberalisation - a process which already poses and which will continue to pose enormous difficulties for the small states of Caricom. It can be modified but cannot be turned back. It is not the case that the CSME should be abandoned but it should be recognised, despite the litany, that it can no longer be an important instrument for regional development as the dominant factors determining development are now external to the market.
The overarching predicament for the leaders of the Caricom nations as they meet today in Georgetown is that their states face a desperate problem of survival in an international milieu increasingly hostile or indifferent to their special needs and vulnerabilities.
Owen Arthur, the Prime Minister of Barbados, put it bluntly when he addressed the media conference here two years ago:
"At the start of a new century, and at the start of a new millennium, the Caribbean Community of states faces a situation of being small states standing virtually alone, with only a few firm or reliable alliances in an increasingly unsympathetic and hostile international environment."
It is this hard truth which more than anything else should powerfully shape the deliberations of the Heads of Government. The Heads of Government of the OECS who concluded their twenty-first anniversary meeting two weeks ago were deeply concerned that the Caricom Summit Agenda did not sufficiently reflect the need to shield their vulnerabilities. It is reported that they had discussed the establishment of their own RNM. Confronted with acute budgetary difficulties, the erosion of the preferential market for bananas and the falling off in tourism the OESC states in particular need the protection and succour which can be provided by access to soft loans and special differential treatment measures which will be difficult to negotiate in a hostile or uncaring environment.
Yet an awareness of the external dimension has been remarkably lacking from the Caricom consciousness even as reflected in the great reports, the Wise Mens' report of the eighties or the more recent West Indies Commission. This may be so because the regional movement was as conceived essentially inward looking, relying on the strategy of import substitution long abandoned for export led growth. The lack of awareness of the external environment was fostered by the fact that the colonial economic arrangements likewise (the preferential markets) remained in place. All that is now rapidly changing. It is not only that we have lost or are losing the preferential markets for the regional commodities but that globalisation penetrates, formally and informally, the economies and institutions of Caricom small states.
The one Caricom mechanism for coping with the external world, the co-ordination of foreign policies, started out as the stepchild of the movement, without powers of decision making.
Caricom Heads of Government must confront the fact that their states' external representation is inadequate and messy and often irrelevant and it is not only a question of resources, personnel and money but of methods. Most of it is old-style diplomacy which provides niches for supporters or ex-ministers. By contrast Singapore establishes Economic Offices in which there may be accommodation for two or three traditional type diplomats.
The representation at major conferences is also inadequate as for example, to take but two cases, the Commonwealth Summit in Australia and the UN Conference in Mexico on Financing of Development. An even greater cause for anxiety is that two months ago the Foreign Minister of Barbados identified the lack of preparedness for the forthcoming negotiations with the EU, the WHO and for the FTAA. If one wants to underline the situation of extreme Caricom vulnerability, there is the letter which the US State Department issued last week attempting to rebuke the Caricom states for holding up a certain part of the FTAA negotiations through their insistence on special treatment for smaller economies and to which Dr Bernal who heads the RNM has responded strongly and correctly.
The case is more than obvious that there is need for Caricom resources and energies to be reallocated to create a well-staffed external affairs division in place of the preset virtually non-existent arrangements. The RNM is a good beginning but only a beginning. Such a division as with the EU should have its own Foreign Policy Chief as the EU does in Javier Solana, a former Spanish Prime Minister. Such a division should be responsible also for providing powerful 'back-up' to governments.
It could likewise be entrusted with the management of Common Overseas Offices and for participation where necessary and feasible in relevant international conferences.
Such enhanced external representation would be greatly strengthened if Caricom took creative steps, essentially simple, to move to a Caribbean Union. The Union would not in any particular way be a federation. As in the case of the EU such a Union will not mean any curtailment of sovereignty or separate state voting powers. In terms of constitutional content for the Union, Caricom states could confer on it as much or as little as they wished at this stage. In this respect the African states recently decided to transform the OAU into a Union. A Caribbean Union numbering six million souls and with a strategic geo-political location could be a powerful political assertion of common identity. It is this common identity which after all is the bedrock of integration.
President Jagdeo is to be commended for the initiative which he took recently to bring together in Georgetown a number of Caribbean intellectuals - Sir Shridath Ramphal, a founder of the movement, Professors Denis Benn, Havelock Brewster and Norman Girvan, the latter now being Secretary General of the Association of Caribbean States - to advise on the future of the regional movement. (One is surprised that Professor Clive Thomas was not there; after all when one needs urgent surgery one should not be concerned with the affiliations of the surgeon).
It has been reported that President Jagdeo will put forward a framework for a Plan of Action, apparently reflecting the ideas gleaned at the think-tank session. He will be acting in a great Guyanese tradition. It was Guyana led by Forbes Burnham which provided the catalyst for the restart of the regional movement after the collapse of the Federation. One welcomes this effort to re-ignite the regional political imagination at a moment when effective solidarity is the price of survival.