From seeking compensations for slavery to a high-profile corruption trial to escalating concerns about violent crime, Caribbean leaders are bracing themselves for a news-making year.
The first hints of what’s to come will be unveiled next month when Trinidad Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar relinquishes her role as chairwoman of the 15-member Caribbean Community (Caricom) to St. Vincent Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves.
The boisterous Gonsalves, who isn’t known for mincing words and is struggling to rebuild his tiny nation after deadly December storms, has been the force behind a call for sanctions against the Dominican Republic after its controversial immigration ruling affecting hundreds of thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent.
Gonsalves also is the initiator of a Caribbean plan to seek reparations from former slave-owning European nations of Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, Spain and Denmark.
“[Nongovernmental organizations] and academics have been talking about it for 35 years or more,” Gonsalves said. “This is the first time it has become state policy.”
The reparations plan will be a leading discussion item in February when Caricom leaders meet in St. Vincent.
“Caribbean youth are among those most disenfranchised and denigrated by the colonial legacy that racially profiles and oppresses them as descendants of the enslaved,” Reparations Commission Chairman Hilary Beckles said. Those youth, Beckles added, “have a human right to live in an environment that is supportive of their willingness to contribute positively to humanity.”
Also high on the Caribbean agenda is the economy. After years of sluggish growth due to a weak tourism market and drop in commodity prices, the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) says the region is likely to grow by 2.1 percent in 2014, above its 1.3 percent growth last year.
But even with the positive economic outlook, the tourist-dependent economies of the Caribbean are concerned about the rising violent crime rates and its impact on national and regional development.
“The issue of security has gained increasing prominence on the agenda of the Caribbean Community,” Caricom Assistant Secretary General Colin Granderson told U.S. officials last month.
The economy and development will dominate headlines in countries such as Jamaica and Barbados, where prime ministers Portia Simpson Miller and Freundel Stuart, respectively, have had to make tough decisions in recent months to address huge debt. While Jamaica increased taxes, Barbados announced layoffs for about 3,000 public servants, cuts in salaries and travel for government ministers.
Smaller islands of the eastern Caribbean are also struggling financially, especially after deadly rains in December left a trail of destruction in St. Vincent, St. Lucia and Dominica.
Gonsalves and the prime ministers of St. Lucia and Dominica put the cost of reconstruction in the tens of millions.
Last week, the United Kingdom announced that it was providing $1.3 million for vital emergency humanitarian support to residents of St. Vincent and St. Lucia affected by the severe rains.
On Sunday, attention from the eastern Caribbean will temporarily divert to Haiti where that nation is marking the fourth anniversary of its deadly Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake. The monstrous quake wrecked Haiti’s capital and left more than 300,000 dead and 1.5 million homeless.
But while officials are celebrating a more than 80 percent drop in the people living in homeless camps, they continue to bemoan the international community’s failure to live up to the billions of dollars of aid pledged.
Perhaps the only thing more challenging for the region to deal with than a natural disaster, would be the death of Venezuela’s Petrocaribe discount oil alliance program — and President Nicolás Maduro calling in the hundreds of millions of dollars in loans the region owes.
The economic disaster could spell trouble at the polls for several incumbents, who are already struggling amid the economic crisis. General elections could possibly take place in Antigua and Barbuda, and St. Kitts and Nevis. Guyana President Donald Ramotar might also call early elections, particularly since the loss of a parliamentary majority for Ramotar’s government has made life difficult.
Outside of economics, migration disputes will be closely watched in the region where the issue of free movement is again flaring up between members of the 15-member Caricom bloc. Late last year, the Trinidad-based Caribbean Court of Justice ruled against Barbados in the case of a Jamaican woman who claimed discrimination by Barbadian immigration officials upon her arrival in the country. The issue made headlines again in November after Trinidad deported 13 Jamaicans.
Migration is also an issue for Haiti and the Dominican Republic. In September, the Dominican high court ruled in favor of stripping citizenship from anyone born on Dominican soil to parents who were illegally in the country. The ruling overwhelmingly affects Haitians, and is retroactive to 1929. On Monday, Haitian and Dominican officials will resume negotiations over the issue — and other border disputes — in the northern city of Ouanaminthe. It remains to be seen, however, if the meetings will be enough to quell the calls of boycott against Dominican products and tourism.
Caribbean nations also will be making headlines this year for other not so glamorous reasons. Turks and Caicos, southeast of Miami, is preparing for the most high profile corruption trial in years as former Premier Michael Misick and 11 others, including several former cabinet ministers, stand trial for corruption.
Meanwhile, in nearby Haiti, efforts to reform the constitution and ongoing political wrangling over the staging of long-overdue elections for one-third of the Senate, all of the lower House and local mayors, will keep the United States and other foreign donors preoccupied.
Follow Jacquie Charles on Twitter @jacquiecharles.