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Caribbean leaders vow change as pessimism grows over Caricom trade bloc

Amid an escalating trade war between Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica — two of the English-speaking Caribbean’s largest economies — a frustrated former Jamaican commerce minister suggested what was once unthinkable: that his country consider leaving the Caribbean Community’s regional trade bloc.

“We should not support the notion of Caricom forever; it must be Caricom for as long as it satisfies Jamaica,” Karl Samuda said during a recent budget debate.

Jamaica’s leaders have said that the country is unlikely to leave Caricom anytime soon, but the debate illustrates the larger challenge facing the regional bloc almost four decades after Caribbean leaders re-created the European Union-like integration movement to allow for the free movement of goods, services and skilled labor across the geographically, fragmented region. Still, the future of the regional bloc will be a key topic as Caribbean leaders begin their annual meeting Wednesday in the small Eastern Caribbean nation of St. Lucia.

“Caricom is not only about trade,” Caricom Secretary General Irwin LaRocque said last week in Jamaica. “It should not be judged solely by its performance in that area, as important as that may be. It is about the overall development of our people.”

Still, leaders of the 15-member bloc face the goal of reenergizing efforts to stitch together a single market and economy through closer social, political and economic ties. The task comes as some Caribbean nations join other trade blocs to keep their weak economies afloat.

Adding to the discussion is a Caricom-commissioned study that says the organization must restructure or risk its own demise.

“Caricom has lost its way badly,” according to the report, a copy of which was obtained by The Miami Herald. “While its difficulties have plainly been building up for years, they are now coming to a head. Without fundamental change, Caricom could expire over the next few years.”

The blistering report, as well as regional observers, note that a lack of political will and implementation of decisions among Caribbean leaders are leading to growing pessimism and disillusion.

“Few Caricom meetings result in clear decisions from which action is initiated and then effectively carried out,” the study said, adding that meetings “seem to have become the last refuge of officials uncertain of how to take regional integration forward.”

For their part, Caribbean leaders say change is under way, arguing that the political will exists for them to take the necessary steps — many of them outlined in the study — to move forward with regional integration. Acknowledging that “powerful forces” at home often hinder decision-making, LaRocque said future decisions will require more clarity and prioritization to determine what the bloc wants to achieve and how its 16 million citizens will benefit.

“How will it roll out? What are the practical steps needed to be taken to implement it? Is it politically doable? Is it technically doable? These are some of the questions which we should be asking in putting proposals forward,” LaRocque said. “We must set targets which take into account not only the necessity and urgency of achieving the goal but, equally important, what it takes to get there and the resources available to us to do so.”

Observers say that as part of the review, the leaders have agreed to revisit the bloc’s blueprint promoting a common market and currency, similar to the euro. The leaders must ask themselves whether a single economy, whose implementation was postponed last year at a meeting in Guyana, is closer to idealism than reality, observers said.

Of the 15 member states, nine, including Haiti — which alone represents 6 million consumers — are currently incapable or unwilling to be a full part of the common market.

“In the crisis that the world is in at the moment, Caricom leaders will have to become more and more realistic,” Guyana President Donald Ramotar said.

As leaders gathered in Suriname earlier this year, Suriname President Desiré Bouterse told leaders that Caricom’s integration must be more than just about “paper agreements and protocols.”

“We not only require a better and more empowered secretariat,” he said. “We need also the political will from us, elected officials, to further the integration agenda.”

Still, critics say meetings of leaders have become private, restrictive “talk shops” where issues are discussed, proclamations are made and little follow-up gets done.

For example, after a Guyana summit in 2009 that focused heavily on the global financial crisis, at least three task forces were created and finance ministers were assigned to come up with a response. Three years later, there still has not been a coordinated response, and the issue is on the agenda of the St. Lucia summit.

Another decision that went nowhere came at an Antigua meeting, where leaders agreed to set up a $60 million fund to market Caribbean tourism as a single brand.

“Raising expectations in this way ruins Caricom’s credibility, weakens its position and, ultimately, will lead to its destruction,” the study said.

Despite the criticism over their failings, leaders say they have had successes especially on issues of trade and cooperation. And they add that with increased globalization, individual countries can no longer go it alone.

“None of us can adopt an isolationist position. Not in this harsh world we live in,” said Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer.

Case in point: Chilean President Sebastián Piñera’s visited on the final day of the Suriname summit to discuss greater cooperation between Caricom and Latin America. Though Chile is vying for a nonpermanent seat on the United Nations Security Council in 2014-15, the issue never came up, leaders said, though all were keenly aware of the value of their 15 votes and history of voting as a bloc on key international issues.

“Our voices are being heard out there . . . this is why these people are courting us,” Spencer said. “We may not get it right all of the time, we may have difficulties as we seek to unite and integrate, but we have no other option.”