Jamaica’s Caricom Review Commission must understand the elephant
Jamaica’s Caricom Review Commission has been established and has had its first meeting. Quite what is the purpose of the commission is not clear, nor is the prism through which the review will take place. But the work of the commission, headed by former Prime Minister Bruce Golding, and comprised of some of the leading lights of Jamaican business, has to be taken seriously. Its final report could have immediate and long-term consequences for Jamaica and the rest of the 15-member Caricom group.
In this connection, the review commission would be well-advised to ensure that it takes evidence from, and listens to, a broad cross section of knowledgeable views from within Jamaica and the wider Caricom area, or it could reach inadequate conclusions.
The atmosphere in which the Commission has been established and has started its work is unfortunate. There is a prevailing popular belief in Jamaica that Jamaicans travelling in the Caribbean are subjected to discrimination, that Jamaican businesses are disadvantaged in Caricom markets, and that Trinidad and Tobago particularly enjoys an unfair advantage in the Jamaican market.
Rational examination of these issues, rooted in hard information, might present a less jaded perspective. For instance, many Jamaicans travel weekly throughout Caricom. The majority of them experience no difficulty. But the few who encounter problems gain the most publicity. It is also a fact that hundreds of Jamaicans have migrated to other smaller Caribbean countries; many of them have become residents and citizens.
On the trade side, Jamaica is the third-largest exporter of goods to Caricom, after Trinidad and Tobago and Suriname, and it does so without difficulty for the most part. Trinidad and Tobago’s significant share of the Jamaican market is replicated in every other Caricom country — largely because of its oil and gas production — the benefits of which spread throughout its productive sector, including manufacturing. Indeed, more than 60 per cent of Jamaica’s annual Caricom imports come from Trinidad and Tobago. But even if Jamaica stopped importing from that Caricom partner it would be spending the same sum of money to replace these imports from elsewhere. Nonetheless, given its dominance in the Caricom market because of oil subsidies to industry, Trinidad and Tobago should give serious consideration to a fund from which Caribbean countries could borrow on very concessional terms.
In the larger picture, Caricom brings other benefits to Jamaica — as it does to all other member states. The strong alliance with other Caricom countries on crucial issues that confront Jamaica in the international community are invaluable. Among these are the joint struggle for broader-based criteria for concessional financing from the international financial institutions; the collective effort to get sympathetic and effective action on debt rescheduling and write-offs; the co-operative approach to climate change and for securing adequate and timely funding for mitigation and adaptation; the current combined effort to address the challenges posed to the financial services sector of the ‘de-risking’ posture of major banks in the US that are cutting off vital correspondent banking relations with Jamaica and other Caricom countries; a wide array of collaboration in regional institutions, such as the Caribbean Development Bank, that provide resources for social and economic development. Foreign ministers and diplomats in the service of Jamaica on the international stage would also testify to the remarkable utility of shared concerns and common action in advancing the interest of Jamaica and Caricom as a whole.
Caricom has problems
None of this is to say that Caricom is a perfect organisation; it is not. I am among its strongest supporters, but I am also among its strongest constructive critics. I agree with the statement made by Golding at the first meeting of the review commission that “Caricom has problems”. Chief among those problems is the long delay in completing arrangements for the Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME) in which all countries, including Jamaica, are culpable. Whatever consideration the Jamaican review commission gives to the CSME, Caricom countries collectively should undertake a comprehensive analysis of the single market with a view to implementing measures to make it fully operational.
The time for talking and delaying has long since passed; further delays will only serve to create frustration and disenchantment among the business community – and the public — at the national level.
While Golding is right that “Caricom has problems”, the review commission should ensure that its work is not mired in the self-interest of a few. It should remind itself of the story from the Indian subcontinent in which six blind men were asked to determine what an elephant looked like by feeling different parts of the elephant’s body. The blind man who felt a leg said the elephant is like a pillar; the one who felt the tail said the elephant is like a rope; the one who felt the trunk said the elephant is like a tree branch; the one who felt the ear said the elephant is like a hand fan; the one who felt the belly says the elephant is like a wall; and the one who felt the tusk says the elephant is like a solid pipe. They then compared their findings and learnt that they were in complete disagreement. The point of the story is that each man was correct in his assessment based on the information that he processed, but all were wrong because they did not take account of the full body of facts. The elephant is the sum of its parts, not any of its parts by themselves.
So, too, is Caricom. Any constructive and meaningful review must take account of the organisation in its widest and deepest context.
A union broken
Brexit — the referendum vote in the United Kingdom which led to a 52 per cent majority vote to leave the European Union — has no meaningful parallels in Caricom. The European Union is a much deeper economic union than is Caricom, with a delegated authority to a commission to make rules. The issues of immigration and an alleged drain on the British health services by foreigners do not apply in Caricom, and Caricom is not a huge behemoth dictating policy to Jamaica or making incursions into its political autonomy. As for trade and other disputes between member states on the terms of the Caricom arrangement, the Caribbean Court of Justice, in its original jurisdiction, (of which Jamaica is a member) has an admirable track record of arbitrating such disputes. The Shanique Myrie case is a significant example. The means for settling disputes is in place and working.
All Caricom countries should welcome Golding’s review commission, and the institutions of Caricom, including the Caricom Secretariat, the Caribbean Development Bank, the University of the West Indies, the Caribbean Association of Industry and Commerce, and the Caribbean Trade Union Congress, should all provide it with knowledgeable evidence. If Brexit should have taught us one thing in the Caribbean it is that institutional means were confounded by political propaganda and downright lies. In the absence of truth and adequate information, 52 per cent of the British people voted for calamity, and those who either led the campaign of misinformation, or did little to advance the real facts, are now scattered like dust in the wind.
Sir Ronald Sanders is Antigua and Barbuda’s ambassador to the US and Organisation of American States; an international affairs consultant; as well as senior fellow at Massey College, University of Toronto, and the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He previously served as ambassador to the European Union and the World Trade Organisation and as high commissioner to the UK. The views expressed are his own. For responses and to view previous commentaries: