PRIME Minister of St Vincent and Grenadines Dr Ralph Gonsalves has said that the Caribbean Community (Caricom) must deal urgently with the issue of the "altered and altering" conditions of regional integration.
The Vincentian leader, who is also the current chairman of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), said that he has already written to the Caricom secretary general, Ambassador Irwin LaRocque, on the issue, and they have had partial discussions.
"But, we have to have thorough discussions as to where Caricom stands, Portia, in relation to all these changes which are taking place," Gonsalves said, directing the point to Jamaica's prime minister, Portia Simpson Miller, who had earlier reaffirmed her commitment to regional integration, at Friday's closing session of the "50/50: Critical Reflections In a Time of Uncertainty" conference, hosted by the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute for Social and Economic Studies (SALISES) at the Jamaica Pegasus Hotel, New Kingston.
Gonsalves said that it was time that Caricom discuss the issues dispassionately, "and prepare ourselves for the altered and altering conditions of the regional integration movement.
"While we are going to have Caricom, we are going to have poles of integration, which are going to be distinct with the framework of Caricom: Not only as circles of integration outside of Caricom, but within Caricom you are going to have circles of integration, and Caricom has to come to terms with the circles of integration, in their own interest," he warned.
He pointed out that in the northern Caribbean, countries which have signed on to the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with the European Union (EU) — Jamaica, Haiti and The Bahamas — have been drawn into a trading arrangement with the Dominican Republic, which is not a member of Caricom.
"When the liberalisation process accelerates further, Cuba will become part of that northern axis, and Puerto Rico will get a special dispensation. Jamaica will still be within Caricom with everything which we have, but because of the closeness in this northern pole and the ease of transportation, you are going to have a different kind of relationship," he said.
Gonsalves noted that while Caricom was afraid of discussing Hugo Chavez's Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), a counter to the US-led idea of a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), three Caricom countries - Dominica, his own St Vincent and the Grenadines and Antigua/Barbuda, had already joined ALBA, while St Lucia's Dr Kenny Anthony and Suriname are contemplating joining.
He pointed out that, at the same time, the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) has become a tighter unit, with the signing of the Treaty of Basseterre, establishing their own economic union in January 2011 with new structures of governance, including a legislative assembly.
Gonsalves said that Trinidad & Tobago will eventually have to make up its mind as to whether or no tit is going to become a part of this structure and what its relationship is going to be, and Barbados will likely seek "a piece of the action".
He said that a new configuration has also been taking place within the OECS, with Guadeloupe and Martinique getting support from France to become associate states, and Curacao and Aruba also showing interest.
"So that, before our very eyes, the integration movement is being altered; not just because of what is happening here in the region, but because of what is taking place outside the region as well, and the pressures which are forming," he stated.
The 50/50 Conference is the culmination of a series of activities over the past two years, beginning in 2010 with the Closed Door Round Table Discussion between then Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding and Opposition Spokesman Dr Peter Phillips, on how to end violence in Jamaica.
In March 2011 the conference had the theme, 'Challenges of the Independence Experience in Small Developing Countries' and featured Prime Ministerial Reflections from former prime ministers Edward Seaga, PJ Patterson and Portia Simpson Miller. This year's theme was "The Independence Experience of the OECS and Prospects for the Future".