By *Camillo Gonsalves
(Editor’s Note: This commentary was first published on Gonsalves’ blog, “Firm Meditation” on March 8, 2021)
We cannot agree to act together in particular ways and remain free to act as we please or as every passing advantage induces us. . . . CARICOM must command our collective loyalty. Unless it does, all the machinery that we devise will not suffice to make it work optimally.”
Time for Action: The Report of the West Indian Commission, 1992
[Disclaimer: This posting is not in any way meant to represent the official or unofficial views of the Government of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. It is a personal blog posting.]
The idea of CARICOM died on December 16th 2020.
The eulogy was delivered on February 25th 2021, in the form of a Communiqué that studiously avoided any mention of the decomposing corpse in the middle of our integration movement.
Not many people noticed.
CARICOM’s dying breath was disguised as a minor diplomatic squabble over Venezuela – a topic that has ceased to excite anyone but the most strung-out political junkie. But make no mistake, the foundation principles of CARICOM – integration, unity, solidarity, coordination – were swept aside. The idea at the very centre of the CARICOM experiment could not hold, and things fell irretrievably apart.
Oh, the formalistic, institutional façade of CARICOM will continue. There are too many professionals, from too many countries, making too much money, and focussing on too many discrete issues of functional cooperation for the institution to lock up shop and send everyone home.
But the idea of CARICOM was always greater than the sum total of its component institutional arrangements. The idea was that we were one Caribbean people, pooling our sovereignty strategically for the greater good.
“Caribbean First,” if you will.
The idea of CARICOM was that we would settle our disputes internally and face the world collectively. The idea of CARICOM was that even when we could not agree, we certainly would not attack or hijack one another; or engage in internecine conflict to curry favour with neo-colonial overlords.
Over years of post-independence struggle and development, CARICOM leaders established carefully calibrated concentric circles of solidarity to guide our diplomatic engagements. At the core: CARICOM as one unit, united and indivisible. The wider Caribbean as the second circle. African peoples third. Latin Americans fourth. The nations of the developing south fifth. The Western troika of Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom sixth. And the wider developed world seventh. Even as the outer circles and orbits changed over time, CARICOM was conceived to be forever at the center of our diplomatic universe, like the sun, unchanging and immutable.
Until December 16, 2020.
On that day, at the Organisation of American States, an almost implausible series of events destroyed any semblance of CARICOM solidarity. The excellent accounts of former Jamaican Ambassador Curtis Ward and current Antiguan Ambassador Ronald Saunders are worth reading for a full understanding of the farce and its implications. For the purpose of this humble blog posting, the facts are these:
A representative of Venezuelan politician Juan Guaidó, purportedly speaking on behalf of Venezuela, blamed Trinidad and Tobago for the deaths of a boatload of Venezuelan migrants. The Guaidó representative didn’t mince words, calling Trinidad and Tobago “cruel” and “inhuman” in its treatment of Venezuelan migrants. Of course, the real reason for Guaidó’s ire was that Trinidad and Tobago does not recognise his ridiculous claim to be the “interim president” of Venezuela.
Stop there for a minute.
Let’s note a few points:
- Venezuela is not a member of the Organisation of American States. The country filed its withdrawal documents back in 2017.
- Juan Guaidó used to be the head of Venezuela’s National Assembly. When the United States objected to the re-election of Nicolas Maduro as fraudulent in 2018, it declared that it was recognising Guaidó as Venezuela’s “interim president” on the basis of his presidency of the National Assembly. About one quarter of the world’s 193 nations followed the US lead. However, Guaidó did not participate in the subsequent 2020 parliamentary elections, and thus lost his post in the National Assembly. If the US position is that Maduro is illegitimate and that, constitutionally, the president of the National Assembly should be recognised as the interim head of government, that person ain’t Guaidó. Even the European Union – No friend of the Maduro administration – downgraded Guaidó’s status from “interim president” to “privileged interlocutor” based on the fact that he did not run in the last elections.
- Although Guaidó is speaking, accusing, and debating at the OAS, he’s not paying membership dues like the other countries. Because… y’know… he’s not a country.
- The migrants perished in Venezuelan waters, not Trinidadian waters. They were likely en route to Trinidad and Tobago, but they weren’t there yet.
Guaidó launched his broadside against Trinidad and Tobago at a meeting of the OAS Permanent Council. The chair of that meeting was Jamaica, who, as chair, was performing a role similar to that of a parliamentary speaker of the house. In other words, Jamaica could rule on whether to hear, accept or reject the Guaidó attack.
OAS members Antigua and Barbuda and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines objected to Guaidó’s motion on a series of procedural grounds: Guaidó is not a country, nor did he even contest elections. Venezuela is not a member of the OAS. This is foolishness.
Trinidad and Tobago added specifics: We are generously accommodating over 15,000 Venezuelan migrants as we speak. These particular migrants died in Venezuelan waters. You are out of place.
The attack went to a vote. Guaidó’s non-state, “interlocutor” representative was allowed to cast a vote equal to all other OAS members. But even with Guido’s vote, the attack on a CARICOM member state could only succeed if other CARICOM states broke ranks and voted against one of their own. Impossible, right?
Three CARICOM members – the Bahamas, Haiti and Jamaica – all voted against the interest of Trinidad and Tobago. Coupled with the Guaidó ballot, the motion passed by a single vote.
- an unelected Venezuelan opposition politician has a seat at the OAS – a body that only admits States as members, not political parties.
- That unelected politician brought a damning charge against Trinidad and Tobago – a CARICOM member state.
- He blamed Trinidad and Tobago for events that occurred outside of the territory of Trinidad and Tobago.
- Jamaica – a CARICOM member state – was chairing the meeting, with the power to allow or block the charges.
- The legality of the action was challenged by Antigua and Barbuda, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and Trinidad and Tobago – all CARICOM member states.
- When the issue came up for a vote, Jamaica, Haiti, and the Bahamas – all CARICOM member states – sided with Guaidó’s claim.
You may ask yourself: So what? What was new here? Haven’t we argued and disagreed about Venezuela in the past? Aren’t we split on China vs. Taiwan? Don’t some of us always kowtow to Washington more than others? Isn’t Jamaica vs. Trinidad a constant internal tension between the most advanced and largest English-speaking members of the group, anchoring the north and south poles of the Caribbean Community?
The answer to all those questions is that this time, with ample opportunity and just cause to save a fellow member state from international censure, CARICOM member states not only declined to come to the aid of one of their own, but explicitly supported the attack.
This is new and wholly unprecedented territory for CARICOM.
Regional integration bodies don’t behave like this. The European Union, for example, does not behave like this. The EU has high representatives who coordinate their public declarations, and who ensure that they have a common front, however bland and watered down it may be to ensure that no one is offended. EU member states do not practice public diplomatic self-immolation.
Even outside of treaty arrangements, close allies will abstain from criticising each other instead of engaging in frontal attacks. Rarely do the UK and the USA conflict openly with each other. Rarely will you hear the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China) publicly supporting attacks on each other.
Of course, CARICOM’s disunity and disloyalty didn’t spring up organically. The Donald Trump administration in the United States worked hard to deepen divisions among CARICOM, in a single-minded pursuit of regime change in Venezuela. Trump went as far to invite a select group of Caribbean countries to his Mar-a-Lago resort for a mini-summit, while excluding other countries from the party. To hear the invitees tell it, the summit was going to usher in a new era of USA-Caribbean relations – jobs, investments, assistance and the like. The undisguised quid pro quo was those countries’ continued and unquestioning support of American efforts to remove the Maduro government in Venezuela.
Today, Trump is gone, Maduro is still in office, and none of the loftily-promised American goodies have arrived. The only casualties are CARICOM solidarity and our diminished strategic power. Post-Mar-a-Lago, and post-OAS, international actors will be forgiven for believing that CARICOM is not only willing to disagree publicly, but that are willing to turn on each other in pursuit of fleetingly temporary and ill-defined offers of assistance from great powers.
Former American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, echoing British statesman Lord Palmerston from a century earlier, often said that the United States has no permanent friends, only permanent interests. The idea of CARICOM was to refute that adage vis-à-vis our community — to assert that we are bound together by history and by treaty as not only friends, but as a single, sovereign organism of one Caribbean people.
The Black Stalin – “Caribbean Man (Caribbean Unity)”
The Treaty that governs CARICOM relations, the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas, repeatedly stresses the importance of friendly relations and solidarity among member states. According to the Treaty, we’re supposed to “promote the development of friendly . . . relations among the Member States. . . co-ordinate the foreign policies of the Member States. . . and enhance co-ordination of Member States’ foreign and economic policies.” Crucially, the Treaty also advises us to “co-ordinate the positions of the Member States in inter-governmental organisations in whose activities such States participate.” The OAS is one such intergovernmental organisation.
Nothing in the Treaty contemplates a situation where one CARICOM member would blatantly excoriate, attack or ambush another member in public. Quite the opposite. The idea behind CARICOM is that we are a family. We would close ranks around each other in public, and settle our differences in private.
That is what died on Dec. 16.
Another foundational principle CARICOM died on December 16: That of sovereignty. Small island states have often cited sovereign equality and the sovereign right of countries to manage their internal affairs as essential to the international law that allows tiny countries to survive among the mighty and powerful countries of the world. In blessing the interference of a non-state into the affairs of Trinidad and Tobago, in holding Trinidad liable for events that occurred outside its own borders, and in supporting regime change in Venezuela, we have scuppered CARICOM’s reputation as a faithful defender of sovereignty and the rights of states to exist free of external coercion. When sovereignty dies, the idea of pooled sovereignty is the next fatality. When solidarity dies, its every island for itself.
That is where we are now.
Back in the Backyard
Students of CARICOM diplomacy are familiar with the two immutable and oft-repeated laws that guide our regional foreign policy. The first law was uttered in 1966 by Barbadian Prime Minister Errol Barrow; who famously declared that his newly independent country would be “friends of all, satellites of none.”
The second law, espoused a decade later by Grenadian Prime Minister Maurice Bishop, was that his nation was “in nobody’s backyard.” In one of his most famous speeches, Bishop said:
Grenada is a sovereign and independent country, although a tiny speck on the world map, and we expect all countries to strictly respect our independence just as we will respect theirs. No country has the right to tell us what to do or how to run our country or who to be friendly with. We certainly would not attempt to tell any other country what to do.
We are not in anybody’s backyard, and we are definitely not for sale. Anybody who thinks they can bully us or threaten us clearly has no understanding, idea, or clue as to what material we are made of. They clearly have no idea of the tremendous struggles which our people have fought over the past seven years. Though small and poor, we are proud and determined. We would sooner give up our lives before we compromise, sell out, or betray our sovereignty, our independence, our integrity, our manhood, and the right of our people to national self-determination and social progress.
It was stunning, therefore, to hear current Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness declare openly on an American news channel that:
“Jamaica understands the orbit in which we are. We are in the backyard of the United States, so to speak.”
Prime Minister Andrew Holness
Since the declaration of Bishop’s Law over 40 years ago, it is doubtful that any Caribbean leader has so publiclyand emphatically located his nation in the backyard of another country.
The political party that Prime Minister Holness leads boasts fresh infusions of admirable new blood and energy on the domestic front, and the overwhelming endorsement of its governance by the electorate. This has likely emboldened this restatement of his party’s foundational foreign policy philosophy as being based on an unemotional, transactional and entirely pragmatic acceptance of realpolitick. It is a perspective undoubtedly shared by some of Holness’ CARICOM colleagues, even if they lack the courage and the popular backative to so openly challenge longstanding conventional wisdom with this seeming political heresy.
However, in the context of Jamaica, a wholehearted embrace of the diplomacy of might, means, and magnitude lays bare an inherent contradiction in her relationship with CARICOM that has been the subject of episodic and unsuccessful debates: How can you be at once too big to deal with CARICOM, yet too small to deal with the rest of world? In resolving that contradiction, the pursuit of any ephemeral mirage of great power favour will necessarily involve a boss, a subordinate, and a backyard.
The Mighty Sparrow – “Federation”
Of course, now that Trump is (temporarily?) gone, expect some expedient and united CARICOM statements “taking a stand” on this or that issue. But those “stands” will be akin to whispering behind the bully’s back when he’s out of earshot. The time to show true strength and solidarity has passed.
In the aftermath of the abandonment of Trinidad and Tobago at the OAS, regional response has been depressingly muted. Trinidad and Tobago’s Prime Minister loudly declared that his country would not participate in any further OAS votes until Juan Guaidó was removed from the Organisation. A few weeks later, with no other CARICOM country joining Trinidad and Tobago’s just boycott, his Government quietly walked back the declaration. Jamaica’s opposition shadow minister for foreign affairs, demanded an explanation for her country’s seeming “intent on joining others in isolation of sister nations in the region.” Her demands were largely brushed aside.
More troubling was the complete silence emanating from CARICOM member states. CARICOM foreign ministers met in February in advance of a virtual summit with the Canadian foreign minister, and the heads of government of CARICOM have met repeatedly over the last 10 weeks, most recently during a virtual two-day conference. Judging from the Communiqué issued at the end of that meeting, the betrayal of Trinidad and Tobago apparently didn’t come up.
If heads of government of CARICOM can meet for two days and not frontally confront this shocking breach of unity and solidarity, then the integration movement is soulless and empty. Back in 1981, a “Wise Men’s” Commission issued a report entitled The Caribbean Community in the 1980s. In it, they said:
The Roots of the Caribbean Community are not buried in doctrines of integration economics. CARICOM is not just the product of economic regional planning. . . Caribbean regionalism is the outgrowh of more than 300 years of West Indian kinship – the vagaries of the socio-conomic political history of transplanted people from which is evolving a Caribbean identity. Without that element of West Indian identity a Community of the Caribbean would be mere markings on parchment – a Community without a soul, without vision of a shared destiny, without the will to persist and survive.
The Caribbean Community in the 1980s
And here we are.
Will CARICOM as an organisation disappear? Of course not. We are a bunch of islands and small states, clustered closely together. Geography and reality will undoubtedly force us to cooperate in our own self interest on various functional tasks. The logic of integration economics remains compelling. But the idea of CARICOM. The principle of solidarity. The ethos of all for one, and one for all, has died. And with it, the dream of a more perfect union.
1973 – 2020.
(*Editor’s Note 2: Camillo Gonsalves is Minister of Finance in St. Vincent and the Grenadines and is a former Minister of Finance and Ambassador to the United Nations.)
The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the opinions or editorial position of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to [email protected].