Same Cast, Time for a different script: A Sobering Welcome to Dr. Barnett 

Dr. Kai-Ann Skeete

With the announcement of the upcoming retirement of Ambassador Irwin LaRocque in August 2021 as the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Secretary General (SG), this author waited with bated breath for the confirmation of the selected successor. The moment came earlier this month when CARICOM Chair, Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago made a virtual announcement that Dr. Carla Barnett was unanimously appointed by the Conference of Heads of Government as the 8th CARICOM SG. Immediately, I breathed a sigh of relief that the region was not torn between the competing calls for representation between the Less Developed Countries (LDCs) and More Developed Countries (MDCs) and I smiled as I recalled Dr. Barnett is a national of Belize, a CARICOM LDC situated outside of the Caribbean archipelago.

Belize is a Curious Place

Belize is one of the most beautiful Caribbean countries I have ever visited. It is situated in Central America nestled between Guatemala and Mexico with a geographic area of 8,867 sq m and a population of roughly 400,000 persons. As the lone Anglophone country in Central America, Belize has benefitted from the good in CARICOM ranging from CARICOM’s allegiance in Belize’s defense against its borders from Guatemala to the utilisation of CXC’s Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) Examinations to name a few.

Belizean Prime Minister Briceño in his congratulatory statement put it nicely when he said that ‘Belize’s commitment to our integration, Community and Secretariat is unshakeable’, he further explained that ‘CARICOM is central to Belize’s identity, culture, aspirations and development’ To understand the importance of Caribbean integration, it is useful  to visit Belize and see in person the importance and the value Belizeans place on building their intra-CARICOM relations.

The groundbreaking nature of the announcement was not lost on the author and although regional media has been replete with congratulatory messages, this author has chosen another perspective to discuss.  What is meaningful for this author is what Dr. Barnett represents for the future of Caribbean Regional Integration. It is a future that is embracing of all and a future that sees a greater role and increased engagement with the CARICOM member and associate states on the periphery of the Caribbean.

A Journey to CARICOM Secretary General

Dr. Barnett has been on the Executive Staff of CARICOM since she has served as Deputy SG from 1997-2002 and was up for consideration for SG in 2011. Since then, her regional experience has grown by leaps and bounds with positions at the Caribbean Development Bank, other international organizations? and more recently, several national high-ranking portfolios. Dr. Barnett will likely draw on her experience from previous portfolios to aid in her future decision-making process ranging from experience in Economics, Climate Financing, Quality Assurance, Labour and Portfolio Performance Management.

As a Belizean, Dr. Barnett knows firsthand the struggles of regional transportation and the movement of goods and people especially the fact that to reach the closest CARICOM neighbour of Jamaica requires an in-transit trip through either Miami or Panama, sometimes with a layover. Dr. Barnett becomes SG at a time when the region is battling the world’s most global and fatal epidemic and our best efforts at vaccine diplomacy have shown us that we will be unable to truly determine our recovery without access to vaccines from a developed partner. It is hoped that Dr. Barnett is not merely a convener of meetings and a companion to the Conference, but that she transforms the administrative position of the SG into a predominantly advisory, implementing role similar to that of the Director-General of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS). It must be noted that the Revised Treaty of Basseterre provides the OECS DG with a plethora of powers.   

Recommended Immediate to Short-Term Targets (immediate and up to 2 years)

It is hoped that when Dr. Barnett assumes the SG portfolio she takes to heart the words of the CSME Mission Statement of the Single Development Vision to “envision a Caribbean Community…in which all citizens willingly accept a responsibility to contribute to the welfare of their fellow citizens and to the common good.” The new SG must appeal to the humanity of our regional population and regional leaders and ask them to start not from an econ-political perspective but think about what meaningful changes can be done to benefit the lives of the average CARICOM National.

Dr. Barnett has to refashion herself as a trusted advisor and a regional leader who can assist with the detailed crafting of national implementation plans on the basis of the resource capacity of the member states.  She must be a calm, steadfast, reassuring but persistent voice that reminds Members States of their regional obligations first. One that insists on the Community spirit and common regional good; that insists that we not be divided and torn apart by Third States; and that maintains a united front at all times while deepening regional integration.

Recommended Medium-Term Targets (up to 4 years)

It is time that the region adopts a methodology that fixes the proverbial ‘low-hanging fruit’. Thus, the region has to look at simple but tangible solutions to increase intra-regional trade. The region has to start an open discussion on enlarging the Community into one that embraces the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dutch Caribbean territories as members. Or perhaps, the region could tackle the advancement of regional standards and the removal of outdated non-tariff measures which frustrate and prohibit the intra-regional movement of goods. Dr. Barnett is already familiar with the high quality of Belizean exports and the pathways the Belizean government has taken to facilitate the exports of local oranges/fruit juice to nearly all regional manufacturers of juices and beverages. It is hoped that Beltraide joins the regional private sector organisations and advocates for the Belizean exports of raw sugar, coffee, rice, bananas and fish products into the wider CARICOM region as a stepping stone to international markets.

Recommended Long-Term Targets (up to 6 years)

As a former employee of a Regional Institution, Dr. Barnett is aware of the technical expertise and capability of all regional institutions to their Article 22 obligation to “contribute to the achievement of the objectives of the Community.” However, this calls for a redesign of the theoretical CARICOM’s positional picture into one that carves direct linkages with the network of regional and associate institutions and the corresponding national units to facilitate the immediate sharing of regional expertise within the entire Community. Regional and associate institutions need to stop being ever so patient and waiting on member states to call but be proactive and approach with advice and support to correct blatant, regional imbalances and injustices in nearly every sphere.

Special Considerations

It is also hoped that the newest CARICOM SG understands that CARICOM’s significance has been waning. It must not be seen as another random regional arrangement in the hemispheric spaghetti bowl. Instead, Dr. Barnett must champion the utility of multilateralism and strategically coordinate CARICOM’s approach and planned engagement within the other regional arrangements starting with the OECS, Association of Caribbean States (ACS), Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), Union of South American States (UNASUR) the Organisation of American States (OAS) and the Central American Integration System (SICA). This recommendation seeks to increase CARICOM’s representation and its foreign policy coordination efforts at identifying new points of intersections to chart common regional goals but always to ensure that the entire CARICOM region benefits and is better and stronger at the close of each regional meeting.

Dr. Kai-Ann D. Skeete is the Trade Research Fellow at the Shridath Ramphal Centre for International Trade, Law, Policy & Services of The University of the West Indies, Cave Hill. Learn more about the SRC at www.shridathramphalcentre.com.