The Future of the Caribbean

In 1958 C.L.R. James declared that “Federation is the only means whereby the West Indies can accomplish the transition from colonialism to national independence and by reorganising the economic system and the national life, give us our place in the modern community of nations.”

The Federation failed?it was a poorly designed instrument anyway. But has insular statehood for CARICOM countries brought the kind of independence that people expected?

Caricom economies are probably more dependent, with less autonomy in policy-making, than fifty years ago. One consequence is that the global economic slowdown hit regional economies harder than many other developing economies.

Four Caricom countries are now in IMF programmes with varying degrees of policy control. The IMF agreement with Jamaica is one of the most stringent cases imaginable of international financial supervision of a sovereign state.

Caricom economies are among the most highly indebted in the world. The debt burden of the majority of the countries has been declared ‘unsustainable’ by the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.

When Caricom governments balked at the EU’s unreasonable demands in the EPA negotiations; the EU threatened to impose tariffs on their exports; and they caved in.

Food dependency has grown to the point where imports are three times the value of agricultural exports.

Most Caricom countries are energy dependent. They are only able to pay their oil bills thanks to credits from Venezuela’s PetroCaribe.

The level of brain drain from the Caribbean is the highest in the world. Tertiary level emigration rates averaged 65 percent for thirteen countries in 2000.

There are also new challenges.

Global climate change threatens a fragile, tourism-dependent economic base with the effects of increasing frequency of storms and flooding, beach erosion, coral bleaching, pressure on water resources and sea level rise.

Transnational criminal organisations command resources that dwarf those of small states. Its regional spin-offs have pushed violent crime to alarming levels. Homicide rates in Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago are 25 times that of Canada.

The criminal underworld has become a corrupting force in government, politics, security and justice system and public administration in many countries.

A vicious cycle is looming. Shrinking economic resources mean that governments don’t have enough money to invest in climate change adaptation, crime fighting and human resource development?which in turn impedes economic growth.

How much real independence has insular sovereignty brought? Has not regional integration become an imperative for the exercise of some degree of autonomy; indeed for our survival as functioning societies?

Ever since the Federation broke up Caribbean countries have seen the necessity of constructing an economic federation of sorts. We have gone from Caribbean Free Trade Association (CARIFTA) to Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) to Caricom Single Market and Economy (CSME).

Functional cooperation has broadened and deepened. Foreign policy coordination and security complete the four pillars of the Community.

Most of the present challenges have been the subject of technical studies that demonstrate how joint regional action can serve as an instrument of ‘survival with dignity’. Regional strategies have been agreed by governments for adaptation to climate change, improved security, reducing food and energy dependency and promoting economic transformation.

The problem is, and has always been, with implementation. Caricom decisions do not have the force of law; and there is no real machinery to ensure implementation.

And at the root of this is the reluctance of member states to share their insular sovereignty with the community of all regional states acting collectively.

But this is to confuse the shadow of sovereignty with the substance.

The wheel has come full circle. A Caribbean Community where sovereignty is exercised collectively, as well as by its individual members, must now be seen as unavoidable.

In James’s words, it is the only means by which our region ‘can claim independence and take its place as a modern community living a modern civilized existence’.

Failing which, he predicted, the consequences for these islands would be ‘dreadful’.

This commentary is a synopsis of my C.L.R. James Memorial Lecture delivered at the Cipriani Labour College in Trinidad on Thursday May 12, 2011.

Norman Girvan can be reached through his website.