Guyana and the Caribbean Community
Ambassador Ronald Austin
Ambassador Ronald Austin

By Ambassador Ronald Austin
THE Caribbean Community (CARICOM) is one of the oldest regional integration movements, which is supported by a complex of institutions and staffed by competent professionals. Now multilingual in nature and relatively mature in existence, the integration Movement, after renewing itself, is pressing towards the mark of serving the needs and interests of the peoples of the Region.

It was a long and difficult road that had to be followed for the CARICOM to get to where it is today. There is therefore a rich and informative history to the background of the integration movement. At every point in its existence, this country played an important role; if not the country itself, then its sons and daughters who have served the integration movement in one capacity or another.

Professionals like Sir Shridath Ramphal, Rashleigh Jackson, Rudy Collins, Lloyd Searwar, Brandy Isaacs, Carl Greenidge, and Sheila Chan, among so many others, have laboured creatively and long in the vineyard of regional unity. They have carved their names imperishably in the annals of Caribbean unity and progress. Sir Shridath Ramphal, in particular, will be remembered for chairing and producing the Report of the West Indian Commission in 1994, which was a charter for the renewal of CARICOM.

The Government and people of Guyana have had a long and fruitful association and working relationship with CARICOM. A founding member of the regional integration movement, Guyana has benefitted directly from this institution in terms of support for the nation’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, coordination of diplomatic activity in a number of international fora, and services of experts in various fields, among others. This relationship between Guyana and CARICOM spans some 44 years.

In that period, Guyana has seen the Community go from the high point of the signing of the Treaty of Chaguaramas in 1973, to the challenging and testing developments of the 80s, to its recovery in the late 80s and 90s and its movement from a closed form of integration to a more open and structured institutional response to the requirements of the 21st century. This article cannot encompass the entire gamut of these developments and transformations. The writer is only qualified to deal intelligently with the early period of the Community, its response to the crisis of the 80s and the re-establishment of the nation’s primacy in regional affairs after the Summit Conference in Ocho Rios, Jamaica, in 1981.

The Fourth Summit Conference of the Heads of State or Government of the English-speaking Caribbean met in Trinidad and Tobago in 1973 to settle several crucial questions concerning the establishment of CARICOM. After what can be considered a productive meeting, especially on several important institutional problems, the conference had to deal with the issue of where the CARICOM headquarters would be located. One of the great architects of the regional integration projects, Dr Eric Williams, who was at the time chairing this historic meeting, refused to entertain an extended discussion on the matter.

He asserted that in recognition of the contribution of Guyana and its leader to the integration of CARICOM, the headquarters must be sited in Guyana. And Guyana has retained its position as the headquarters of CARICOM for the last 44 years without controversy, except for a period in the 80s, when ideological enemies of the country seemed to cooperate with external forces to threaten the establishment of Caribbean Community II. The fact that this campaign did not succeed is attributable to the general recognition by the rest of the Region that Guyana’s primacy in the integration process is not easily challenged.

No rational person can suggest that Guyana and its President at the time, Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham, were the only major contributors and supporters of the integration process. This would be to fly in the face of the facts. Many committed and gifted individuals, such as our own Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow, T. A. Marryshow of Grenada, and Uriah Butler and C. L. R. James of Trinidad and Tobago, as well as other labour and private sector organisations were early pioneers of regional integration. Similarly, many states in the Region such as Antigua, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, and several of the smaller territories had added their weight to the search for regional unity.

The lamp of regional unity was burning low after the collapse of the West Indies Federation in 1960. It regained some of its glow when Dr Eric Williams organised several conferences of Heads of State and Government, which grappled with the related problems of getting the integration process going again. Mr Burnham recognised the sterling efforts of Dr Williams and commended him for his commitment and persistence, saying, “It required some courage to have thought of the idea, let alone formulate it immediately after the break-up of the West Indies Federation.”

Dr Williams had embarked on this exercise, because he recognised that independence could not be an end in itself. It had to be a foundation for regional unity. During the first conference, he explained why regional unity must be an issue in the external orientation of the English-speaking Caribbean nations.
“As our countries achieve independence or proceed to independence, we enter into a world dominated increasingly by regional groupings, both economic and political. Western Europe has succeeded. Africa is succeeding, and efforts are being made to translate the political association in the Western Hemisphere into regional economic groupings — the Latin American Free Trade Area and Central American Common Market. Small countries such as ours encounter great difficulty in establishing their influence in a world dominated by power and regional associations.”

Student of history and politics that he was, Dr Williams also recognised that Britain had withdrawn the welcoming mat, prompted by the growing internal opposition to immigration, after the initial period when the sons and daughters of the Region rushed to Britain to meet the demand for labour. With the opportunity for immigration gradually disappearing, the Region would have to look to the integration mechanism as the means of bringing prosperity to its peoples.
But the sterling efforts of Dr Williams were not enough. Forbes Burnham and Errol Barrow, Prime Minister of Barbados, friends from the days when they were students in Britain and burning with the desire to see the dream of regional unity become a reality, considered that the momentum and pace of West Indian integration must be stepped up.

Errol has revealed his thinking at the time. At the signing of the Treaty of Chaguaramas, he made the following revelation, “I can now disclose that it was on the 4th July, 1965, that the Prime Minister of Guyana met me in Barbados, at my invitation, to discuss the possibility of establishing a free trade area between our two countries in the first instance, and the rest of the Caribbean at such time as they be ready to follow our example.”
But before I proceed to detail their exploits in the cause of regional integration, it would be necessary to say a word or two about Forbes Burnham.

A West Indian by education and temperament, Forbes Burnham was bitterly disappointed over the fact that the Jagan administration could not see the benefit or reason for joining the West Indian Federation. Its demise was also a source of disappointment and anguish, as those who knew him would testify. He had delivered one of his best speeches in the Legislative Assembly on the need for the then colony of British Guiana to join the Federation. That commitment was very much alive when he became Premier in 1964 and ripened into a declaration in 1971, that he was prepared to accept an abridgement in the sovereignty of Guyana if this meant the advancement of regional unity.

Therefore, it was not difficult for him and Errol Barrow to quickly put together the instruments of Caribbean unity by signing the 1965 Dickenson Bay Agreement, along with Vere Bird of Antigua, which paved the way for the establishment of the Caribbean Free Trade Area (CARIFTA). As a result, three important integration instruments were created — a Council of Ministers, the Caribbean Development Bank and a Regional Secretariat; these would become essential building blocks for Caribbean unity.

But matters did not end there. Guyana played a leading role in getting the other states in the Region not only to join CARIFTA, but to forge ahead and establish CARICOM by signing the Treaty of Chaguaramas in 1973. This was the high noon of the integration process as Barrow, Burnham, Michael Manley (then Jamaican Prime Minister) and Eric Williams signed this Treaty. One should note here that there was a sense of optimism throughout the Region that at last the house of unity was being built on a solid and lasting foundation.

But forces beyond the Region were to test Caribbean unity. The ink was hardly on the parchment of the Treaty when what one economist has described as the most challenging economic crisis supervened as a result of the initial four-fold increase in the price of petroleum, a development brought about by the decision of the oil-producing states of the Middle East to punish the supporters of Israel after the Yom Kippur war of 1973.
Caribbean States scrambled to establish some sense of order as the crisis battered their economies.

These measures triggered a toxic brew of a major decline in the personal relationships among the leaders of the Region, a deepening of the ideological divisions between states pursuing a socialist path to development, such as Guyana and Jamaica, and most of the other Member States of the Community, which opted for a course of capitalist development, coupled with retaliatory economic measures by some states against others and the general decline in belief of the capacity of the Caribbean to solve
the problems of the Region and usher in a period of prosperity for the peoples of the community.

Faced with these ominous problems, CARICOM did not meet for eight years. In the meantime, as the ideological pendulum swung to the right and as the Reagan administration emerged in Washington, clear efforts were being made to drive a wedge between the states of CARICOM on the basis of ideology, through such instruments as the Caribbean Basin Initiative. This was when there was talk of moving the headquarters of the Community from Guyana. Even though the leaders did not meet, they kept in touch with each other by telegram and by other means. Dr Williams encouraged the other institutions of the Community to meet on a regular basis.

A leading Caribbean scholar of the integration process, Professor Kenneth O Hall, in his writings has highlighted this development. And more than this, the Region got down to an examination of the problems facing CARICOM by appointing several experts to look into the social and economic problems of the community. Several prudent recommendations were made to get the regional integration movement restarted.
While these ruminations on the means to drive CARICOM forward were taking place, Forbes Burnham took practical action.

He dispatched his representatives to the Region to drum up support for the holding of a summit. He invited other CARICOM leaders, such as Milton Cato of St Vincent and the Grenadines, and George Price of Belize, to Kimbia, where he made his case for a CARICOM summit to be held. Burnham appeared to be successful. Agreement was reached to hold a summit in Guyana. However, on the very eve of this event, two of the smaller states of the Community signalled that they could not attend a summit in Guyana, because they understood that a retreat was to be held in the Essequibo, which, according to them, was claimed by Venezuela. They felt that their presence there would complicate their relations with Caracas.

The telegrams dispatched to Mr Burnham by the Prime Ministers of these two states were identical in structure and content. Consequently, a decision was made to hold the summit in Jamaica. Edward Seaga had replaced Michael Manley as Prime Minister and it was well known that he was close to the Reagan administration. Burnham agreed to attend. But even those in his delegation had no inkling of his strategic objective. When it was his turn to address the Summit, he proposed that CARICOM summits should be held annually as did the European Community. Agreement came readily.

But Burnham had achieved his objective; following the Summit in Ocho Rios, Guyana could not be prevented from hosting a Summit.
Unfortunately, when the time came due for a summit to be held in Guyana in 1986, Forbes Burnham was deceased. Desmond Hoyte, who succeeded him as President of Guyana, made a significant contribution to the development of the regional movement, especially in the area of the creation of a single market for the Region.

If today CARICOM summits are annual events, if CARICOM seems more at peace with itself, further, if the institutions of the integration movement seem to function better than in the past and, finally, if the regional movement seems more durable, this is certainly attributable to struggles of the leaders of the Region in the past to lay a foundation for a successful future.
Ambassador Ronald Austin currently heads the Foreign Service Institute at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs

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