Is this the CARICOM we want at fifty?

By Dr. Kai-Ann Skeete

Forty-nine years ago, regional Prime Ministers agreed to the establishment of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). Since then the region has had numerous successes and advancements in deepening regional integration. As the region counts down to CARICOM’s 50th Anniversary, the author is pondering: What is in store for CARICOM at 50? Will there be an acceleration of integration? Or, will there be a meaningful pause on our progress? This current generation of leadership inherited several trade barriers as a result of outdated legislation prohibiting intra-regional trading within the region. We need to prioritise trading within the region and removing the outdated barriers to regional trade so that goods may move freely.

We continue to speak about achieving food security but the only way this can be achieved is by comprehensively determining the external and internal factors affecting our countries’ food system. Within CARICOM, the regional Presidents and Prime Ministers comprise the main decision makers, however they are guided by several technical organs. There is a need to move beyond the ministerial meetings and convene business to business meetings, distributor sessions, trade missions and establish regional consumer watchdogs.  The region has been missing a dedicated voice of the people, for the people, by the people who will argue that we do want cheaper chicken in our supermarkets from Guyana or Trinidad. The regional consumer watchdog should be the entity to argue that we want access to the cheapest high nutrient fruits and vegetables across the region, even if it means we can get Belizean oranges that usually sell 10 for US.50cents or Trinidadian locally grown pineapples that dwarf any imported ones. We need an entity that is truly interested in working around trade barriers to ensure that a basket of goods for a 4-person household in any single CARICOM member state should not exceed a week of minimum pay.

The Private Sector would argue that trading within the region has its unique challenges due to logistics and its desire to trade in large volumes via containers. I would argue that regional businesses should first establish demand within the CSME Member States and settle on at least 2-3 pallets per destination rather than a container load. Rather than imports from the Canadian Manufacturer, Lassonde Industries, the owner of the popular Adam and Eve Fruit Juices, our supermarkets should stock the entire TruJuice line owned by TradeWinds Citrus Limited from Jamaica. Larger private sector entities should consider establishing intra-regional distribution points as a means of sharing the contents of a bi-monthly container which should then be distributed across the Caribbean.  

The future must include the reduction of regional asymmetries. I remain concerned

that the majority of the Caribbean population do not have access to affordable and modern medical science or health care. I’m concerned that in Haiti, the Covid-19 pandemic will live on past the 2022 regional timeline because of the lack of data being collated as to the number of Covid-19 patients and survivors; I’m concerned that in Jamaica the ordinary man’s access to vaccines will be determined by a capitalist way of thinking rather than a welfarist position and I’m concerned that in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the right of a mother to safely deliver a baby in the public system is woefully inadequate and does not meet a basic regional standard. Could it be that we’ve dropped the ball and refused to impose standards or even regulations? Could it be that we’ve stopped being our neighbour’s keeper and prefer to operate as islands alone in the big Atlantic Ocean? Could it be that we’ve stopped prioritising our CARICOM Community?

There must come a time where we choose to look within the region first, research and determine what services and goods can be provided within the region. Formal policymakers may not consider this, but it is hoped that this message reaches them that the Caribbean region can provide for our needs and wants. Let us not venture out extra-regionally to Third States but consider what can be found intra-regionally. A perfect example of this, the enterprising Barbadian fishermen are now forced to venture 178km to Kingstown, St. Vincent and the Grenadines to refuel their fishing boats with cheaper diesel than in Barbados.

We need immediate bridges, whether air or via sea or physical bridges connecting the landmasses of the CARICOM region. We need immediate 24-hour connectivity for our goods, people and services to move. With this connectivity, we need a single domestic space to reduce pressure on the ports of entry to ensure that they can truly function and focus on our regional development. Let us create spaces for those amongst us who work directly with cargo; we need to train stevedores and truckers who can facilitate this hourly movement across and within our borders. We need businesses and service providers specialising in sustainable transport and the blue economy.

As the Summer of 2022 approaches and the Caribbean Community plans to launch the 50th Anniversary Celebrations, the region is at the proverbial fork in the road. To the left, we continue doing business as usual and failing to implement and advance the regional initiatives. To the right of the fork, we build on our initiatives and chip away the national sovereignty and forever build the regional pool of sovereignty. Choosing the unbeaten path will be difficult but it will be worth it due to our countless gains in the areas of functional cooperation and collective security.

CARICOM at 50 years old should ensure that the CSME must address practical issues that tangibly benefit our respective pockets, purses and budgets. Caribbean regional integration has to be responsive, it requires systems and measures that will immediately troubleshoot and alleviate problems affecting businesses and the average CARICOM citizen operating across the Caribbean.

Dr. Kai-Ann Skeete is committed to solving regional problems as the Trade Research Fellow of the Shridath Ramphal Centre.