Caribbean leaders open summit in Antigua

The prime minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines on Tuesday condemned a recently approved naturalization law in the Dominican Republic for children of illegal migrants, saying “the so-called reform law” does not go far enough to reinstate citizenship, especially to those of Haitian descent.

“The people of Haitian descent who have been denied citizenship in the Dominican Republic … look to us to give voice to the denial of their human rights. Don’t think that they look simply to Haiti,” said Ralph Gonsalves, who has served as chairman of the Caribbean Community or Caricom for the past six months.

Gonsalves was addressing leaders at the opening of the 35th meeting of the Heads of Government of the Caribbean Community in Antigua and Barbuda.

“It would be wrong to cave in to this unworthy sleight of hand [by] the authorities in the Dominican Republic,” he said. “It cannot be business as usual with the Dominican Republic.”

Last year, Gonsalves led Caricom into cooling relations with the Dominican Republic after its constitutional court stripped Dominican citizenship from anyone whose parents were illegally in the country. Retroactive to 1929, the ruling triggered international outcry and a standoff with Caricom, which the Dominican Republic has been seeking to join. Neighboring Haiti is already a member.

Gonsalves said the issue is one of human rights for the region and asked leaders to add it to their already packed agenda over the next three days. Discussions during the summit will center around the ongoing effort to seek slavery reparations from former slave holding European nations; the stigmatization of persons with HIV/AIDS; the decriminalization of marijuana laws; human resource development, regional transportation and the future of Caricom itself.

Founded 41 years ago, Caricom has struggled to create a European-like single market and economy in the region, prompting criticism that it has outlived its usefulness.

“We should be working as one,” Gonsalves said. “It’s past the date now. We have to deepen the integration movement.”

He and others are set to approve a five-year strategic plan aimed at keeping Caricom viable and relevant. The plan addresses social, economic, technology and governance challenges, among others.

“We must find collective solutions to the serious challenges,” said Caricom Secretary General Irwin Larocque, who will lead the talks.

Like other nations, the sun-kissed islands of the Caribbean have been hard-hit by the recent global economic crisis. And while some analysts say the worst seems to be over, the region continues to struggle with mounting crime and violence, high debt and staggering youth unemployment.

“Our greatest task is to put our people to work,” Gaston Browne, the recently elected prime minister of Antigua, said as he prepared to succeed Gonsalves as chairman. “This is not an unsolvable problem if we face it wisely and courageously.”

In his opening remarks, Browne gave his support to the bloc’s agenda to foster regional cooperation and ensure the free movement of certain skilled workers, goods and services. As an example, he said, his government had waived workers’ permit fees for all Caribbean nationals in his eastern Caribbean country for the remainder of 2014.

“Let us recommit our respective countries to accelerate the integration process,” he said. “If we are serious about Caricom as an instrument for the development of our countries and region, we should focus on a priority action plan that is strategically linked to achieving the core objectives of the single market and economy. Advancing the integration movement cannot be achieved by waiting for the most reluctant of us to act.”