Was it useful? Delegates have their say By Achal Prabhala
Stabroek News
July 4, 2002

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CARICOM Heads of Government held an encounter with members of civil society at the Ocean View Convention Centre, where a range of views was represented. Stabroek News caught up with some of the civil society representatives to gauge their general opinion of the conference.

Ray Roberts - Grenada
Roberts works at the Ministry of Information, as a senior information officer. At the conference, he was representing the Trade Union Council (TUC) of Grenada, as general secretary of the body. He felt that issues discussed at the conference would eventually translate into greater accountability, from both civil society and the government. Today, he says "we are a more informed and educated society." Yet, he sees large masses of people left behind in the wake of common markets and globalisation.
His problem, and the cause he represents, is that with Caribbean integration - in the form of a common market, and a common court of justice - there isn't a parallel educational programme to integrate the rural poor with the "higher echelons." With specific reference to labour, he doesn't believe that standards of health and safety (for workers) are being paid sufficient attention to.
His job in civil society, as he defines it, is to "ensure that there is a dialogue to prevent infringement of the environment and labour rights." Specifically, he believes he can help his constituency of workers in Grenada by getting a picture of the wider Caribbean world, and integrating local issues with regional ones. The Caribbean Congress of Labour (CCL), of which the Grenada TUC is a part, is having separate meetings to concur on issues of policy and action.

Veronica Cenac - St Lucia
Cenac is the president of the Caribbean Federation for Youth (CFY), an umbrella organisation that works with regional youth councils all over the Caribbean, with its secretariat in St Vincent. She is a lawyer by profession, and works in the Attorney General's Chambers in St Lucia. Her work with CFY is purely voluntary.
The goal of CFY is to promote and strengthen regional youth organisations. Its aim is empowerment of the young. Particularly, it promotes participation in issues confronting society at large (crime, economy, common markets) and youth in particular (HIV/AIDS awareness, unemployment, community development). She sees the range of complex issues confronting Caribbean youth as integral issues in civil society at large.
Was the conference a success? Cenac found the civil society meetings particularly good. However, she found the meeting with Heads of Government a "waste of time." The problem, as she sees it, is that the meeting was a token effort - two hours not being enough to fully explore the range of issues on the table. The best she hopes for, out of a conference like this, is the "initiation for further dialogue." In subsequent conferences, she plans to let the youth speak for themselves: this, she feels, will serve as an adequate shock tactic in representing their urgent concerns to the state.

Margaret Ventura - Belize
Ventura is president of the Public Service Union, Belize, and a senator in the government. She represents civil society and trade union interests in Congress, and speaks of Belize's representation model, which has been touted widely at this conference as something other Caribbean countries must look towards.
In Belize, a recent constitutional amendment allows key interest groups to be represented at the state level. Three senatorial seats have been created. One (occupied by Ventura) represents civil society and trade unions, another represents business interest, and the third, religious communities.
Ventura took her oath of office in February this year, and continues to represent the interests of all government employees. She is looking forward to translating talk (including that at the conference) into action, when she returns to Belize. She sees the civil society encounter with Heads of Government as a major step forward, and "hopes it translates into more action."
Yet, she feels that that is up to people like her - representatives of civil society - to push the agenda, rather than the governments. She learnt a great deal through the interaction at the conference, from good economic and social models, to comparing roles within the Caribbean at large. She sees the 'stool' as having three legs: the first being the government; the second, civil society, and the third, private industry. "No government can afford to go on a collision course with labour," she warns.

Jeff Elva - St Lucia
Elva is a representative of the disabled community. He is a paraplegic, and works on a volunteer basis for disabled people. Interestingly, Elva is a professional calypsonian, and regularly participates in competitions in the Caribbean. Previously, he worked as an employee of American Airlines in the USA. On his return to the Caribbean, he was distressed by the lack of access for disabled people, and thus began work in the area.
Elva is a board member of the Council of and for Persons With a Disability (in St Lucia), and of the Disabled Peoples of the Caribbean, a regional body. His position is that disabled people are marginalized, that there are no structures - of any kind, physical, emotional, societal - in place for them.
He fights against the inherent societal discrimination of disabled people, and tries to gain access for the community to education, transport, work and mainstream life at large.
Elva appreciated public transport in the USA, and laments its absence in the Caribbean. He has his doubts as to how much this conference actually cares about the disabled, and by extension, civil society. He interprets comments made by Owen Arthur (Prime Minister, Barbados) as meaning that you will only be heard if you are elected. He quotes Kenny Anthony (Prime Minister, St Lucia) as saying that civil society must not be dependent on the state, but - Elva asks - who else can it be dependent on for resources, if not the state?
Elva found the dialogue with working people in general, excellent. In that sense, he appreciates the opportunity to try and make his voice heard. Together with regional representatives in the Caribbean, he is in the process of putting together a regional policy, which is in the final draft stage.

Delice Contave, Britus Jean Garby, Erlande Pierre Louis and Jean Paul Edmond - Haiti
Contave, Garby, Louis and Edmond represented civil society in Haiti (soon to be CARICOM's newest member). The group was assisted by a translator, and had one member among them who could speak and understand English. Garby is a representative of small farmers, and thus, a trade unionist. He feels that it is good to participate in seminars like this, as he can learn about issues confronting the region at large, and yet feel a part of this larger community. When he returns to Haiti, he says, he will take with him the experiences of this interaction.
Contave is a representative of a Haitian womens' network. She talks of the problems facing her constituency back home: violence, lack of education, bad health and economic peril. She appreciates the opportunity to discuss issues at workshops like this, and looks forward to more.
Edmond, the leader of the delegation, is an adviser at the Ministry of Education and a member of several citizens' groups. He speaks English fluently, and admits that a lot might have been lost to the others due to the language barrier. Yet, the translator was of help, and he feels that the interaction on the whole was beneficial, especially since it was the first such 'Caribbean' experience for them.

Marcia Belgrove - Trinidad
Belgrove founded the Rose Foundation in Trinidad, which she now runs with her sister. They work with all aspects of development - seeking to help people sustain themselves in various ways. To this end, she conducts training seminars, where she imparts entrepreneurial skills, and agricultural training.
She empowers the constituency she works for by encouraging and enabling their participation in national and international forums, where they can speak and be heard. In parallel, she works with youth, particularly in the area of abstinence from sex, which she sees as a major step towards reducing HIV infection and "unwanted" pregnancy. Belgrove is pleased with the conference, and considers this a major step in improving state-society relations.

Kenroy Roach - Guyana
Roach is from Georgetown, and the chairman of the Volunteer Youth Corps (VYC). The group exists at various levels within schools, colleges and youth organisations, and since its establishment in 1996, seeks to enable youth participation in society at large.
Specifically, they have recently worked on HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns, through education, training and outreach - going out into different communities, and spreading the word. He talks of how they cannot specifically work with gay/lesbian communities in Guyana due to the fact that since there is not much "openness," these communities themselves are hard to pinpoint.
Another initiative of the VYC is its Hospital Visitation programme, where volunteers go into two hospitals, to provide social benefits to patients. He sees the conference as an important step towards bettering civil society: yet, observes that there is a lot of work to be done. He is pressing for the institutionalisation of mechanisms of civil society - like forums, discussions and the formation of councils.