Leaders, former leaders and top officials from across the Caribbean assembled in Guyana last week to review the state of play, progress and problems associated with the decades-old Caribbean Single Market and Economy system, and most said the slow pace of implementation was frustrating them terribly.
The grouping of 15 nations, from Guyana and Suriname on coastal South America to Belize in Central America, had been planning a proper review of the working of the free trade system for years and finally got down to doing so last weekend, with a little more than two weeks left before leaders meet for their main summit in Jamaica.
The Jamaica summit will have a series of important agenda items, including an examination of a report commissioned by the Jamaican government that questioned whether it makes sense for Jamaica to continue its association with the bloc, as is the case now, or whether relations should be altered to meet the needs of the island.
Among those attending last week’s review session was Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves of St. Vincent. Gonsalves is a fourth-term prime minister and is widely regarded as one of the veterans of the system and among those carrying the institutional memory of the bloc in their heads over the years.
Gonsalves said that he is aware that colleague leaders are losing faith in the single market and single economy system because of a number of unaddressed problems over the years, including full-fledged recognition that the smaller Eastern Caribbean nations are disadvantaged in free trade because of their small size and lack of productive and export capacity. They cannot compete with the larger nations, such as Trinidad, and therefore should be considered for special treatment.
“There are unevenly yoked units, and the region is not going to move toward deeper integration if we remain so unequally yoked,” said Gonsalves, arguing for a more level playing field. “Those who have a greater advantage in the integration movement need to appreciate that, and lessen the extent of the unequal yoking. These are practical matters of life, living, production and reproduction.”
Former Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding, who had led the team reviewing Jamaica’s links to CARICOM, complained that some countries seem to fear that free trade and elements of a single economy system like that of the European Union will lead to their detriment.
“It seems to me that some member states are of the view that the CSME in its full implementation is likely to do them more harm than good,” said Golding. “It’s an issue that we have to confront.” These fears linger despite the fact that the CSME has been around for more than 30 years.
Gonsalves noted that although the single market system has problems, including impediments to the free movement of people in the bloc, hopes of the region operating as single economy will not be achieved in the “foreseeable future,” in part because some economies are so much smaller than others.
He complained about the lack of systems of enforcement in the region, saying that only the Trinidad-based appeals court has final jurisdiction over an issues that comes before it. Others depend on the goodwill of governments. There is no firm implementation system with implementation dates.
Secretary-General Irwin LaRocque reminded reviewers that some unimplemented decisions date back as far as 2004.
“We take too long to get things done,” said LaRocque. “Why must it take so long for us to get vital things done? It is either we get it done or move on to other issues. We need to move the agenda along much faster. The time it takes to get things done is a cost to the private sector, and it’s a cost in terms of the credibility to the community at large.”