CARICOM on Saturday July 4, 2020 will mark 47 years as a functioning and unified body, notwithstanding challenges from within and without, is deserving of commendation for the peoples and leaders. Where CARICOM was founded on the principle that the peoples stand to gain more through collective involvement, exploitation and development of the resources within the region, this year amidst global challenges posed by the COVID-19 Pandemic and increasing competition, it behooves intensified focusing on the principles that established the community.
The success of CARICOM beyond its establishment and attendant arms is dependent on the involvement of its peoples. It may help to remember that when the conceptualisation of such a feat was being thought of and apprehension existed among the people, the Caribbean Festival of Arts (CARIFESTA) which in 1972 was first hosted here, provided the surety of the people’s abilities and endless possibilities. Given that the intent of CARIFESTA was to harness the unique cultural skills and talents within the region in a unified way, it set in train not only the celebrating of, but also employment and economic opportunities. At an international level, the Caribbean’s cultural products form part of free trade within the European Union (EU) Economic Partnership Agreement with CARICOM and The Dominican Republic (CARIFORUM). Intra-regionally, the establishment of the CARICOM Single Market and Economy (CSME) which aims to foster free movement of goods, services and people, knowledge of its working has to become widespread and understandable to the ordinary man and woman, lest the region’s peoples continue to harbour perceptions about each other and countries, not informed by facts. While the CSME has been heralded and pursued by member-states, there still exists deficiencies and to some extent, disconnection of its aim among the people. A principal benefit citizens see is that of free movement, yet many are unaware that free movement within the community is guided by two rules: 1) normal movement around the region; and 2) movement of skills around the region within the confines of the CSME rules. Each country, as a matter of importance, should ensure its populace appreciates that free movement is not without obligations on the part of persons moving, participating countries, and host countries. Where free movement is seen as an immediate benefit to the people and opportunities for empowerment, when perceptions are held that such benefits come at the expense of respect for others, or persons can do as they choose without regard to existing laws, it creates angst and imbalance in the system. Allowing this to happen goes against the grain that established the community in the first place.
Amidst grumblings of persons in some countries who feel that they are being overtaken and losing control of their way of life due to free movement, and questioning the wisdom of association in the community, the United Kingdom referendum to exit the EU and the chaos that ensued in the aftermath should serve as a lesson as to how little information can hurt the best collaborative intent. It is important that as regional leaders deliberate to not ignore the evaluation of the community’s performance outside of its peoples it was established to benefit, and in planning ahead ensure systems to realise same. For instance, the recognition that working together will realise benefits for each country did not commence with the establishment of CARIFORUM, but has its genesis years before through initiatives such as a smelter in Trinidad and Tobago, where it was proposed that its electricity capability and Jamaica and Guyana’s bauxite will be used to produce aluminum. A similar initiative was examined in the 1980s on agriculture. And this was in recognition that regional food security in addition to maximising natural resources would prevent food being used as a weapon to destabilise through the consumption of scarce foreign exchange. It was the intent that Guyana would have produced the agricultural products and, Trinidad, using its manufacturing prowess would produce food, thereby minimising importation and diverting exchange to other more deserving areas. The region’s food-import bill presently is over US$2B. The Food and Agriculture Organisation 2015 Report warns that “A continuation of the current CARICOM food import bill trends can only lead to further nutritional and economic impoverishment for the people of the region for generations to come.”