CARICOM is in danger of losing relevance

By W. Andy Knight
By W. Andy Knight

By W. Andy Knight


The Caribbean Community ( CARICOM) held its 37th regular Heads of Government meeting in Guyana from July 4-6, 2016. The meeting was chaired by the Prime Minister of Dominica,  Roosevelt Skerrit. It is fitting that this meeting was held in Guyana which is celebrating its 50th year of independence from Britain. And, as fate would have it, the meeting came two days after the death of one of the Caribbean’s stalwart defenders of regional integration, former Trinidad  and Tobago Prime Minister Patrick Manning.

This meeting occurred in the 43rd year of the existence of CARICOM, a regional substitute for the failed West Indian Federation. As we all know, one of the reasons why the Federation failed had a lot to do with a failure of leadership. My fear is that CARICOM is finding itself in a similar situation today.

Examining the CARICOM communique, released on July  7  last, one cannot help but come to the conclusion that the shifts in the tectonic plates of global politics, economics and diplomacy have literally caught the Caribbean off-guard. CARICOM appears to be an institution more concerned with maintaining the status quo than with riding the crest of change. When institutions, like CARICOM, fail to adjust to the new global realities, they quickly succumb to irrelevancy, ineffectiveness and inefficiency.

The communique reveals the fact that state leaders in the Caribbean are too much into navel gazing to the point where they are unable to see the big picture of change and the dichotomous dynamics of integration and fragmentation forces (which the late Professor James Rosenau labeled as  “fragmegration”). Yes, this regional organization talks a good game when it comes to “pooling skills and resources”, “free movement of people”, developing a truly “regional economy”,  and strengthening the “Caribbean Single Market Economy” (CSME). Indeed, the idea of deepening economic integration in the Caribbean was embraced by CARICOM all the way back in July 1990 in Grand Anse, Grenada. However, the CSME has yet to become a full reality. The best that CARICOM leaders could do with respect to this failed dream is to agree to a comprehensive review of the CSME at the next inter-sessional meeting which will be held next February in Guyana, and to encourage member states of CARICOM to conduct a public education campaign in their respective countries that would highlight the benefits and provisions of the CSME.

Clearly, the promise of CARICOM is not being fulfilled. Jamaica  is rightly concerned about the way some of its citizens are treated when they try to enter Trinidad and Tobago. What has happened to the free movement of Caribbean people? Even the Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Ralph Gonsalves, the region’s longest serving prime minister, has not been spared the indignity of maltreatment by immigration officials in Barbados. The Barbados government has since issued a full apology to Gonsalves.

We all remember the Shanique Myrie incident which caused a diplomatic furore between Jamaica and Barbados back in March 2011. That case was brought before the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) and Myrie, a Jamaican, was awarded US$38,000 in damages for being forced to have a dehumanizing cavity search by immigration authorities at the Grantley Adams airport in Barbados. The CSME was supposed to allow for free movement of people, capital and goods across the Member states of CARICOM. Yet CARICOM has been unable to ensure the full implementation of CSME.

My sense is that the political leadership in the region is not as committed to CSME or to the Caribbean regional integration project as they claim to be in rhetorical and platitudinal statements at Heads of Government meetings. Prime Minister Gonsalves, to his credit, has been most outspoken on this issue. He has pointed out time and again that there is an implementation deficit when it comes to the CSME. Part of the problem may be that governments in many of the Caribbean countries have changed hands over the 26 years since the CSME was embraced by CARICOM. Party leaders are more concerned with trying to stay in office than in helping CARICOM become the regional integration instrument it was designed to be.

At this 37th regular meeting of CARICOM, member governments again reaffirmed their commitment to implementing all aspects of the CSME. There were calls for all member governments to respect and comply with the rulings of the CCJ with regards to free movement of people. Member states were reminded that people should be treated with dignity at ports of entry. And the Heads of Government promised to convene a meeting of the Chief Immigration Officers, CARICOM Ambassadors, and other relevant stakeholders by  September  30, 2016 to address the persistent problem of the refusal of entry into some Caribbean states of citizens of CARICOM.

One should note that all this is all happening at a time when Jamaica, with its new government, is beginning to question its membership in CARICOM, and at a time when the resentment of many Jamaicans towards CARICOM has been steadily increasing. It may be time for the status-quo oriented leadership in CARICOM to take notice and start to think outside the box with respect to delivering on the promise of regional integration. Otherwise, I’m afraid that CARICOM will go the way of the West Indies Federation.

Andy Knight is Professor of International Relations at the University of Alberta.