When oil-rich Trinidad and Tobago recently denied entry to 12 Jamaicans out of fear they would become an economic burden, the rejection revived a thorny debate about how seamless travel should be among countries in the English-speaking Caribbean.
It also raised larger questions about the region’s commitment to create its own European Union-type economic model, a topic of discussion at this month’s meeting in Guyana of the 15-member Caribbean Community regional economic bloc known as Caricom.
Caribbean leaders at the annual summit — held days after the United Kingdom’s ‘Brexit” vote to leave the EU — struggled to understand what the breakup of their former colonial masters meant for them.
“Most countries did not anticipate that the United Kingdom would withdraw from the most highly developed integration movement in the world — an integration construct on which our very own Caricom was modeled and to which we have often looked for guidance and best practices,” Jamaica Prime Minister Andrew Holness said as a commission in Jamaica began a review of the country’s participation in Caricom.
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“This development in Europe,” Holness added, “aside from triggering debate in Jamaica and no doubt in other countries in the region about the relationship with and the benefits of membership in our own regional bloc, will have far-reaching impact on our already vulnerable economies.”
Caribbean countries are still analyzing the impact of Brexit, whose aftershocks continue to rattle stock markets and the pound sterling, which fell to a 31-year low recently against the U.S. dollar.
Some leaders and experts in the region say the vote could affect financial services, immigration, development assistance and overall Caricom-UK and Caricom-EU relations. Others worry that it could further slow down Caricom’s economic integration plans highlighted in the ongoing migration row between its two largest trading partners. (After the incident, Jamaicans demanded the removal of Trinidadian products from their store shelves.)
“I find a dangerous coincidence between Brexit and Jamaica’s own decision... to establish a commission to rethink their involvement in Caricom,” said Ivelaw Griffith, vice chancellor of the University of Guyana.
Griffith, a Caribbean expert and former Florida International University political science professor, recalled the death of the West Indian Federation, a short-lived political union that preceded the EU and Caricom. It collapsed in 1961 after Jamaica held a referendum on whether to remain or leave. The majority of Jamaicans voted to leave the 10-country federation.
Years after independence people still want to retain and hold onto the vestiges of colonialism.
Ivelaw Griffith, vice-chancellor University of Guyana
The similarities between the break up of the federation and the British referendum have triggered an uneasy sense of deja vu.
“All it takes is one strong Caribbean country withdrawing from the collective and the collective is likely to die,” Griffith said. “I worry about a sentiment that is accentuated now by Brexit, and whether or not Jamaica will begin the first phase with this commission... of de-linking.”
Holness’ Jamaica Labor Party, which returned to power in February’s general elections, has always been lukewarm on Caricom.
The country — like eight other former British colonies in the bloc that also includes French-speaking Haiti and Dutch-speaking Suriname — has refused to make the Caribbean Court of Justice its final appellate court, deciding instead to remain with the London-based Privy Council. Like a number of its English-speaking neighbors, Jamaica retains the Queen as its head of state.
“Years after independence, people still want to retain and hold onto the vestiges of colonialism,” Griffith said. “There is still this sentimental attachment to Britain especially in the parts of the Caribbean that are still formally connected to the British crown.”
Those sentimental ties, say some observers, are fueling the Caribbean countries’ angst over Brexit. A number of Caribbean leaders say they fear that Britain’s departure will leave them without “a trusted and known advocate” in the councils of the EU where trade, investments and development finance assistance are discussed. A more immediate concern is the impact of the vote on the Caribbean’s tourism-dependent economies.
“If there is a recession in Britain as a result of this, then the discretionary income of British citizens reduces and that would directly affect tourism in this region,” Bahamas Foreign Minister Fred Mitchell said. “Everybody gets British tourists.”
Barbados’ Prime Minister Freundel Stuart said he fears that the continued financial fallout could have serious consequences on his UK-dependent tourism market as well as Barbadian retirees and citizens who depend on British pensions and remittances.
But while British citizens have rejected the EU, Caricom countries should solidify their regional integration movement, leaders and scholars argue.
“As global competition and uncertainty intensify, small vulnerable states will become even more marginalized in a world of unequal power relations,” said Wendy Grenade, a political science professor at the University of the West Indies Cave Hill Campus in Barbados. “For small states like those in the Caribbean, regionalism is a necessary imperative for development. Through regionalism, small states can strengthen their voice and increase their bargaining power in the international system.”
The rejection of the 12 Jamaican citizens by Trinidad and Tobago in March was a reminder of the challenges of Caricom’s free movement policy in which travelers from lower-income countries come face-to-face with immigration officers in resource-rich ones. A similar situation in Barbados five years ago — Shanique Myrie, a Jamaican citizen, was denied entry — resulted in the region’s highest court awarding her $38,620 in damages.
The issue goes beyond how Caribbean nationals are treated at some ports of entry. It highlights the fears by some citizens about migration and job losses. And it has fueled leaders’ reluctance to fully embrace a Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME), which would allow for the free movement of goods, skills, labor and services, and a single currency, as in much of Europe.
Trinidad Prime Minister Keith Rowley said he plans to travel to Kingston on July 17 to “meet directly with the Jamaican people” over the airport incident. The incident, Rowley said, should not overshadow the fact that thousands of people move back and forth between Jamaica and Trinidad all of the time.
“Where there are impediments to entry, we will look to see where they are,” he said.
Aware that a lack of understanding in Britain over the EU —“What is the EU” was a top Google search hours after the vote — Caricom Chairman and Dominica Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit announced that there would be “an intensified public education campaign in member states” to highlight the benefits and the provisions of the single market. Leaders, he said, were “fully committed to implementing all elements of the CSME.”
“Everybody has their strains,” Mitchell, the Bahamas minister said, adding that Jamaica’s decision to review its participation in Caricom, “has to be a direct response to the pressures by the Jamaican business community on Jamaica’s government asking the question whether there is value to being in Caricom.”
It would not be a good decision for any Caricom country to leave Caricom.
Fred Mitchell, Bahamas Foreign Minister
But while those constituencies exist, Mitchell added, “we, in the leadership position, know that if Caricom didn’t exist, you would have to invent it. Nobody is going to talk to these individual small countries. It’s not going to happen; so for all kinds of practical reasons we are inextricably linked to one another.
“The British decision was not a good decision for the UK but that’s their decision, and for the same reasons, it would not be a good decision for any Caricom country to leave Caricom,” he said.