By Neil Marks
Leaders of CARICOM opened their annual meeting in Georgetown on Monday evening wary about the pessimism some have about the regional integration movement, but eager still to pronounce on its potential to deliver the promise of free movement and a single market and economy.The leaders were keenly aware that the ability to move freely around the 15-nation grouping is the most tangible expression of CARICOM people in the region look to, but the failure of officials at some ports of entry to allow a six-month stay with no questions asked has been a headache for many.
Prime Minister of St Lucia, Allen Chastanet, brought the uncomfortable question to the fore: What if the people of CARICOM ask for a referendum as was seen in Britain? His question drew silence from the auditorium at the National Cultural Centre.
He said that CARICOM must deliver on immediate solutions to poverty in the region; that “people must feel tangible benefits”; and that they demand that their leaders “deliver on a better way of life”.
Chastanet, who was delivering his maiden speech to CARICOM, said that often excuses are proffered about why progress is hampered, but he asked leaders if they could be certain of the response of the people if a referendum on CARICOM were called.
He said that languishing structures must be replaced or strengthened, so that CARICOM can function effectively.
Chastanet warned that his time in CARICOM would be spent demanding more actions than words, and he said that behind his impatience would be the fact that people in St Lucia and those of the Caribbean would be experiencing another day of poverty if the region’s leaders fail to deliver on their mandate of a better life for all.
Chastanet is one of three new Prime Ministers since the last CARICOM Heads of Government meeting.
Dominica Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit, who is chairing the meeting and should have hosted the meeting but was unable to so do as the island is still reeling from the effects of tropical storm Erika, said the fresh perspective of the new leaders can only be helpful to the work of the region.
Dr Ralph Gonsalves, Prime Minister of St Vincent, who was going home from Guyana but had an in-transit stop in April last year, made headlines when it was reported that security officials failed to recognise him and tried to screen him. Speaking at the opening ceremony of the Georgetown confab on Monday evening, he tried to downplay the hiccups with free movement, saying that there was a problem with immigration officials that simply needed to be solved.
Secretary General of CARICOM, Irwin LaRocque, admitted there were challenges with the free movement of people. He noted that while governments have the right to deny entry, the ruling of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) in the case of Jamaican Shanique Myrie provides guidance on how the matter should be dealt with.
BLESSING OF CARICOM
It was a position that Dr Gonsalves agreed with, as he recognised that the CCJ was one of the blessings of CARICOM. He said it was the only supranational body the grouping has created.
Myrie, who claimed to have been subjected to a body cavity search in Barbados, took the island’s Government to court and won, with the CCJ making it definitive that people of CARICOM must be allowed without harassment into any member state for six months; and that if a refusal is made, the person must be given the reason in writing, and must be notified of their right to seek legal redress.
Jamaica Prime Minister Andrew Holness used the meeting to protest the treatment meted out to Jamaicans in Trinidad: “Jamaicans have been expressing concerns of increased cases of denial of entry and treatment at ports of entry at other jurisdictions. This must be urgently addressed in a meaningful way otherwise,” he told the opening ceremony, where his Trinidadian counterpart, Dr Keith Rowley, also addressed the issue.
The two sides have sought dialogue to resolve the issue.
But more than travel for people is demanded of CARICOM, Mr Holness said.
“…regional integration is not an end to itself, it is a means to achieve broader achievement, the economic growth of our countries and improvement of our citizens’ lives,” he said.
His concern was later recognised by the Dominican Prime Minister, who got down to real, tough questions the people of the region have been venting. “Why is it cheaper to travel by air from Dominica to New York than it is to travel from Dominica to Guyana? Why are St Lucian bananas cheaper in London than in Barbados? Why is it cheaper to phone a relative in London from Grenada than it is to phone a friend in St Vincent?”
Mr Gonsalves suggested that the work of regional integration would not be a miracle of CARICOM Government, but that it needed the input of all, including the skeptics.
“Many of the very critics do not want to put in a good day’s work and engage in pushing an agenda. Rather than look to the politicians for miracles, what we should do when we go to work is that we must produce and we must not allow the work place to become a war zone.”
He called for commitment to the process.
“We have a way of beating up on ourselves too much, and then we find ourselves going to church on Saturday or Sunday morning and sing ‘Great is Thy faithfulness’.”
The Trinidad Prime Minister got the first applause of the night from the audience when he said that leaders needed to take the bull by the horns and deliver for the people of the region. He issued the warning that “we have seen nothing in Europe from which we can take solace,” referring to Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, the integration movement on which CARICOM patterned itself and from which it has received crucial support.
“Leadership is not about popularity, but about leading and making tough decisions,” he declared.
He said that CARICOM leaders needed to take ownership of opportunities and put the issue of a single market and economy back on the front burner.
Leaders will pronounce on their discussions on the issue of free movement of people and the single market and economy at the end of their meeting on Wednesday.