By *Jomo Sanga Thomas
(“Plain Talk” July 7, 2023)
“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.
On July 4, 1973, the independent Caribbean countries of Barbados, Jamaica, Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago signed the Treaty of Chaguaramas in Trinidad, launching the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM). At the time of the signing, our country and the remaining islands comprising the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) were still colonies.
Last Tuesday, CARICOM celebrated 50 years of existence. The Caribbean was built on the federation project of 1958 that envisioned a unity of the islands. In 1962, the federation project collapsed after former Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Dr. Eric Williams’ disdainful utterance that one from 10 equals zero. At that time, Trinidad and Tobago was awash with oil. Things were so good in the twin island republic that Dr. Williams boasted that “in Trinidad and Tobago money was not the problem, the problem was money”.
In Jamaica, there was rumbling and grumbling. Alexander Bustamante, who led the country to independence on Aug. 6, 1962, attacked the federation as a “federation of paupers”. He felt Jamaica could move forward independently without the baggage of the smaller, less resourced islands.
By 1965 they began to recognise the folly of the “go it alone” thinking that led to the collapse of the West Indian Federation. In 1965, the Caribbean Free Trade Area (CARIFTA) was formed to make amends. CARIFTA lasted from 1965 to 1972, and CARICOM was established in its place one year later.
That small island nation thought they could exist and thrive as viable independent countries defy comprehension. Even today, 50 years after the CARICOM experiment began, there is still talk of small island exceptionalism. Sections of the political elite in the Bahamas and Jamaica occasionally ring the go-it-alone bell. The Bahamas refused to sign on to CSME when the idea was floated in 2006.
All honest political observers conclude that the British did not prepare its former Caribbean colonies for independence. Also, a body of thought makes the forcefully persuasive argument that the British offered a better pre-independence deal (The Colombo Plan) to its former colonies in Asia than it did to the Caribbean dependencies.
Whatever the case, it will be agreed that 50 years after the formation of CARICOM, the Caribbean is buried under a mountain of debt. Much of the borrowing was to correct the centuries of underdevelopment, which resulted in a non-existent infrastructure, poor economies, high rates of unemployed and illiteracy and a political class which V.S. Naipaul portrayed as “mimic men” and Lloyd Best scorned as “Afro-Saxons”. The core inefficiencies and dependencies which proliferate across the region today are a consequence of our colonial past and the reluctance or failure of a generation of leaders to make a sharp turn from what has not worked.
Conceptually, neither individual Caribbean leaders nor its institutional construct, CARICOM, have a theoretical or practical understanding of development. They all see development as large buildings and legacy projects that rarely touch and concern the lives of the majority of citizens. The sad state of regional travel and West Indies cricket are damning exhibits.
Even as the COVID plandemic exposed the hollowness and unsustainability of tourism as the central economic driver of our economies, all of CARICOM, with the possible exception of Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana, cling to mass tourism as the basis for economic survival and transformation. Big companies play them off against each other. They cannot agree to a single head tax for tourists who come ashore. Each in the race to the bottom undercut the other.
There is no clear division of goals or priorities. There is no understanding that a given island can be the industrial, commercial or service hub. All have or want a beer or flour factory. All give generous tax holidays and concessions to foreign businesses. All allow for gross exploitation, racist exclusion and “sexploitation” of citizens. All allow for anti-union, anti-labour practices. They all claim to have a tripartite government, business and labour contract. However, workers are singularly and continuously asked to make sacrifices.
CARICOM is notorious for studies. In 1992, a comprehensive study titled Time for Action was done by Dr. Shridath Ramphal’s commission. It spanned over 600 pages and looked at all areas of Caribbean life. He would be unhappy with the slow pace of integration.
Take CSME, launched with much fanfare in 2006. Initiated to better position member states to grow by having access to and using the region’s resources as a whole rather than relying only on the resources of the particular member state, there remains a lack of political support for regional economic integration.
Owen Arthur, a former PM of Barbados with responsibility for the CSME, was mocked and scorned in 2011 when he critiqued and campaigned against David Thompson’s wife, Mara, contesting for the seat her husband held. The spurious ground was that Mara was St. Lucian by birth.
Exactly 10 years ago, CARICOM heads proclaimed their intention to demand reparations from former enslavers for the genocide of our indigenous people and enslavement of African ancestors. A prime ministerial committee comprising Mia Mottley and PM Gonsalves was formed in 2013 to lead the CARICOM effort. In 10 years, the committee has met only twice. Reparations rhetoric aside, Gonsalves has steadfastly refused to provide a budget so the local reparations committee can carry out its work.
The political class is selfish and deceitful. The regional elite has retarded the forward march of our people.
On March 8, 2021, Camillo Gonsalves announced that the Idea of CARICOM: Solidarity, Sovereignty, and Strength: All for one and one for all, died in 2020.
*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and a former senator and Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
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