Caricom's worrying 'summit silence'
Facing the recurring trade disadvantages
FOR all the expressed political vexation in Jamaica and Barbados over their trade disadvantages with Trinidad and Tobago, it was quite surprising that there were no references to lingering regional trade disputes in the 10-page communiqué on the recent 33rd annual Caricom Heads of Government Conference.
Or, for that matter, even a brief attached statement of efforts at the bilateral level to deal with the challenges that are increasingly hitting media headlines in Kingston, Bridgetown and Port-of-Spain pertaining to recurring dissatisfaction over claimed disadvantages in intra-regional trade that undermine good partnership relations.
There was no indication, either, that the assembled Heads of Government at the three-day summit managed to defuse tension in their caucus sessions by the manner of their "exchange of views".
Or, that the specific areas of trade disadvantages, as publicly complained about — passionately at times — by Jamaica and Barbados against T&T were taken, by mutual consent, at bilateral level in preference to a multi-lateral approach.
The silence of the communiqué on the contentious trade disputes could be viewed as a plus for political maturity in downplaying areas of disagreement and highlighting, instead, intended structured co-operation to deal with implications for the region of the prevailing global economic crisis.
Whatever the thinking, the citizens of Caricom — particularly in Jamaica, Barbados and T&T — deserve to have some explanation, whatever the format, for the total silence in the communiqué in relation to the recurring challenges over irritating trade disputes.
After all, it is in the name of Caricom citizens that our leaders meet, discuss and determine issues of interest to a regional economic integration movement now in its 33rd year of existence. The old cliché that 'silence is golden' seems not applicable in this instance.
However, in contrast to the official silence in Kingston and Port-of-Spain on the expressed pre-summit displeasure over intra-regional trade, there had emerged a most encouraging public intervention by Barbados' ambassador to T&T, Robert 'Bobby' Morris, in his warning against "emotional statements" that could harm rather than help in resolving disputes among Community partners.
Morris, a former long-serving deputy general secretary of the Barbados Workers Union (BWU), and currently his country's ambassador to Caricom states, was quite candid when, in an interview with the Saturday Sun, he warned against "misplaced hostility" towards Trinidad and Tobago.
He was speaking against the backdrop of rising tension in relations between Barbados and T&T — the Caricom member state that dominates trade advantages with most, if not all Community partners as a consequence of its well-placed energy-based economy.
Trade and fishing disputes have long been recurring features in Barbados/T&T relations, irrespective of administrations in Bridgetown and Port-of-Spain.
What sparked the new and quite serious threat in bilateral ties was the disclosure last month by Banks Holdings Limited, the high-profile conglomerate, that its regionally well-known milk products and juices were being blocked from entry into T&T over a prolonged dispute involving labelling.
Prior to that development, Barbados was preoccupied with resolving another issue that has often soured relations with T&T — the negotiation of a long sought fishing protocol. Well, even before Ambassador Morris was ready to disclose the good news that the fishing protocol would "soon come", Barbados' Prime Minister Freundel Stuart had a message of his own.
On the eve of the Caricom summit, Stuart opted to make clear that he was not in St Lucia "to fight with anybody" but wished to emphasise that given its "massive interests" in Barbados, T&T should know that it "cannot be rubbing Barbadians the wrong way..."
Fair enough. But 'Bobby' Morris's interpretation of disenchantment of private corporate interests with T&T authorities, in this case focused on the blocking of PHD milk products and juices, did not reflect his own satisfaction at negotiations in overcoming hurdles — whether trade or fishing.
Morris spoke positively of an evident willingness by T&T to co-operate and stressed appreciation for Trinidadian economic investments in Barbados that were helping to provide jobs.
"My job," he emphasised, "is not to join the emotional bandwagon but to be more analytical." Is it a sentiment also shared by Morris's counterparts in Jamaica and T&T?
He had noted — ahead of the conclusion of the summit — as Caricom Secretary General Irwin LaRocque had earlier done in Jamaica (which is currently hurting from a major trade gap with T&T), that in a free trade market, "countries that have larger capacity and more resources will clearly tend to dominate trade".
Did such thinking surface either during caucus sessions at the St Lucia summit, or in bilateral engagements? If so, why the silence on efforts at resolving recurring disputes over intra-regional trade in our Caribbean Community?