Defining the regional interest
Stabroek News
December 11, 2002

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Belize, a Caricom Member-State, but one whose location and culture gives to it, in part, a Central American identity was the host at the end of November, on the 26th to the 29th, of a meeting of Foreign Ministers and Officials of the Association of Caribbean States (ACS).

Established eight years ago, ACS membership includes all Caricom states except Montserrat, plus all countries in the Caribbean sea including Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, all the Central American States, and Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela. There are in all twenty-five full member-states and three associate members namely Aruba, Netherlands Antilles and France (on behalf of French Guiana, Guadeloupe and Martinique).

The grouping is thus defined by geography; nearly all are located in or washed by the Caribbean Basin. Apart from such more-or-less common geographical location, the grouping is characterized by differentiation in history, languages, nature of institutions and culture. In contrast, Caricom is founded mainly on a common identity - at least until the recent inclusion of Suriname and Haiti.

Although some scholars, both English-speaking and from the Spanish Caribbean had imagined such an entity as the ACS, the concept first got a full spin in US security-thinking. The Caribbean Basin was conceptualised as a geo-strategic region simmering with leftist conspiracy stretching from Nicaragua through Cuba, Jamaica, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana and ending in Bouterse’s Suriname. Such perceptions generated US policy leading to the Caribbean Basin Initiative.

However, the immediate impetus for the creation of the ACS grouping came from the West Indian Commission chaired by Sir Shridath Ramphal. Pondering the compulsions for widening integration into the Caribbean, the W.I. Commission proposed the creation of the ACS as a way of widening the integration space without widening the membership of Caricom. Caricom was at that time (1990) already confronting several applications for membership from states in the wider Caribbean including Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. In its report the W.I. Commission asserted their view “that Caricom should remain the inner core of our relationship in the Region and that we should consciously create space beyond membership of Caricom for development of Caricom’s integrationist relationships with Caribbean countries from Central America to Suriname, from Cuba to Venezuela.” The W.I. Commission perhaps wisely in hindsight had not envisaged membership in Caricom of Haiti and Suriname.

The W.I. Commission was clearly overzealous in projecting Caricom as an inner core or a catalyst within the ACS. In view of the size and levels of development of such ACS states as Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela that would surely have been a case of the tail wagging the dog! Nevertheless, the ACS Secretariat is located in Port-of-Spain and its current Secretary- General is the distinguished W.I. economist Norman Girvan. Caricom is therefore positioned to play at least a shaping role.

But what are the compulsions or benefits to induce such a disparate group to act together? The pulls and pressures seem all to point away from such action. Mexico, the most powerful state in the ACS, is integrated into the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) which includes the USA, Canada and Mexico. And with political direction following trade patterns, gone are the days when Mexico provided the location for offices of radical movements from every part of the developing world. Witness the cooling of the relationship with Cuba; President Castro’s claim to have been disparagingly treated in Mexico at the UN Monetary Conference because of the arrival of President Bush has not been refuted.

The Central American countries have their own Common Market while Colombia and Venezuela are members of the Andean Community. Then there is the group of three - Venezuela, Colombia and Mexico whose objectives are not clear.

A further factor making for lack of cohesion is the penetration of the Grouping by the metropolitan powers through the non-independent Associate members, namely France and the Netherlands. The significance of such metropolitan presence is due to the negative fact that because of the membership of Cuba, the US territories of US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, the most developed territory of the insular Caribbean, are not in the ACS and hence there is no US presence in terms of membership. More than a decade ago, Latin American States created the Latin American Economic System (SELA) precisely as an organization intended as an alternative to the OAS which would include Cuba but exclude the USA. But so pervasive is US power in the hemisphere that SELA has not really ever got off the ground and exists as a Secretariat without political mandate or impact - a situation with implications for the ACS. Nevertheless, despite the divisive factors mentioned above, the validity of the grouping has been demonstrated in that since its foundation it has held three Summit Conferences, in Port-of-Spain in 1995, in Santo Domingo in 1999 and in Margarita, Venezuela in 2001.

The very heterogeneity of ACS membership in terms of location, resources, history and culture could provide opportunities for co-operation. Through its three Summit Conferences and other meetings in a number of specialist areas certain sectors have been identified in a plan of action for such co-operation namely, tourism, trade and transportation.

Especially in the field of transportation, co-operation and planning could enable the ACS to recover control and benefits which now accrue outside the region - a point strongly made by Girvan in his Sealy Memorial lecture ‘El Gran Caribe.’ In this lecture, almost certainly the deepest analysis of the potential of the ACS, Girvan points out that the main location for “trans-shipment and for air connections now lies outside the region in Miami while with planning (and of course the political will) such lucrative business might be handled more efficiently in ACS locations including Panama, Kingston, Puerto Caballo in Venezuela, Port-of-Spain and Bridgetown.”

All such areas of co-operation could conceivably, with planning and support from the private sector, bring benefits for Guyana.

But there is one over-arching vital interest which Guyana and Caricom diplomacy should be seeking to advance at once with ACS support. It is to secure urgently within all relevant fora, but especially within the WTO, the consistent acceptance of Special and Differential Treatment for Caricom export commodities, and in particular sugar, within existing preferential markets.

However, to secure such and similar objectives it is essential that Caricom diplomacy should not be submerged or confused in wider groupings. The arenas for diplomacy should be conceived in concentric circles, with Caricom as the innermost circle with the ACS, the OAS, the ACP, the Commonwealth and the UN etc, being seen as ever widening circles.

The definition of national and regional interests must be made within Caricom and it must be ensured that such interests are not gnawed away or diluted but supported and advanced in the wider concentric circles.

This was a point the late William Demas never tired of making, especially in relation to the ACS. In his final work on West Indian Development and the Deepening and Widening of the Caribbean Community writing as a member of the West Indian Commission, he noted that the proposal to establish the ACS was made “on the understanding that Caricom would always act as a group within that body... The fact is that we need a deeper and more unified Caricom to face up to the much vaster ACS... And much more unified stance on foreign policy.”

It is not far-fetched to seek the diplomatic support of the ACS for this vital Caricom interest. The convention establishing the ACS envisages such joint diplomatic action. Article (2b) of that Convention provides for “discussion on matters of common interest for the purpose of facilitating active and coordinated participation by the region in the various international fora.”

Moreover, at the Third summit of the ACS Heads of Government in their Margarita Declaration had expressed their “greatest interest and support for the multilateral trade negotiations launched at Doha (the WTO Ministerial meeting) to take account in an adequate, effective and binding manner, the principle of special and differential treatment for developing countries, so as to respond to their economic and social development need.”

Moreover, it was disclosed in Belize that the Ford Foundation at the request of the ACS is funding studies for special and differential (S&D) treatment of smaller economies at international trade negotiations.

Was the question of a concerted approach to S&D treatment discussed in Belize? It has been learnt that Guyana was represented in Belize by the Minister of Foreign Affairs. But S&D lies in the portfolio of the Minister of Foreign Trade.

There is little available evidence of co-ordination between these two ministries. S&D treatment is only one of a range of issues which makes clear the irrationality, if not absurdity, of dividing between two ministries the field of external relations, a field in which political and trade and economic issues are inextricably inter-linked.

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