By Sir Ronald Sanders:
Government representatives of all the countries that now form the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM), except the Bahamas and Haiti, were present at a meeting in Montego Bay, Jamaica when “majority opinion was clearly in favour of a Federation”.
They made concrete and visionary decisions and adopted resolutions that they anticipated would help their small countries individually and collectively. The overarching resolution recognized “the desirability of a political federation” in which “each constituent unit retains complete control over all matters except those specifically assigned to the federal government.”
Knowing from experience that any form of deeper integration would need transportation between their countries to move goods and people, the representatives expressed their belief that “the provision of adequate inter-regional and external shipping services and other communication is essential.”
They were wise enough to know that trying to maintain individual markets, individual currencies, as well as bargaining individually in a competitive global market is not practicable. In this connection, they decided that they should appoint a Single Trade Commissioner with “a well qualified staff of assistants” and “adequate funds” to bargain internationally for the region.
They boldly stated, “immediate, direct representation in negotiations affecting overseas trade and commerce is essential to the economic achievement of the countries”.
They also recommended the creation of a Committee “composed of delegates appointed by the Legislatures” of each country to make recommendations on “the assimilation of the fiscal, customs and tariff policy” and “the unification of the currency” of the countries. Not content with that, they also recommended the appointment of a Commission to examine in consultation with the governments of each country “the establishment of a Customs Union”.
And, these Caribbean leaders justified a Customs Union as follows: “the encouragement of inter-regional trade which would naturally be duty-free within the Union; the encouragement of local industries; the establishment of uniformity in tariff rates and customs administration; and the strengthening of the position of the Caribbean territories as far as bargaining power is concerned in relation to international trade agreements.”
They were also mindful that there would be disruption to some countries arising from a Customs Union. Therefore, they were careful to say that a suitable tariff should be prepared “having regard to the fiscal problems of the Governments whose revenue would be affected by the introduction of a Customs Union”.
On the matter of the single currency, they declared themselves “in favour of the early establishment of a uniform currency throughout the Caribbean”, and insisted on recording the view that “this measure is of very great importance to trade and commerce and it would also have advantages in strengthening the currency and the credit of this region”.
Food security was also very much on their minds. Thus, they recommended that “immediate steps be taken for setting-up of a central body of primary producers (representative of all the countries) with a view to accelerating the development of agriculture throughout the area on a sound economic basis”.
A special Committee dealt with the matter of debt and how it could be handled in a Customs Union and a Federation. The Committee held the opinion that the debt position of each country “would have to remain as at present until the comparatively advanced stage of federation is reached” when the major revenues are centralized in a federal exchequer. The Committee envisaged that the Federal government should assume responsibility for the remaining debt less accrued sinking funds.
Quite remarkably, the Committee of all governments also agreed that “the Federal government should be the sole authority for raising loans on the external market, although it would be both feasible and desirable to permit local loans to be raised for approved purposes by individual governments subject to the sanction of the federal finance authorities”.
Unfortunately, this conference of Caribbean government representatives did not take place in 2009. It took place in September 1947. It was attended by VC Bird of Antigua and Barbuda, Grantley Adams of Barbados, Alexander Bustamante of Jamaica, Albert Gomes of Trinidad and Tobago, A M Lewis of St Lucia, J B Renwick of Grenada, S F Bonadie of St Vincent, M H Davis of St Kitts-Nevis, C A Dupigny of Dominica, Dr J B Singh of Guyana and W H Courtenay of Belize. Also attending as a member of the Caribbean Commission was Norman Manley of Jamaica.
“The Conference on the Closer Association of the British West Indian Colonies”, as it was called, laid down the blueprint not only for Caribbean integration and development, but also for strengthening the region’s capacity to bargain in the international community.
In the end personal political ambitions and misplaced nationalism fostered by misinformation hijacked this regional project. A federation was formed, only to fall – not because it would not serve the Caribbean’s people; but because it did not suit some of its more influential politicians.
Thus, a customs union and a common currency were discarded, only to rise again as the Caribbean Single Market and Economy fifty-nine years later. In the meantime, experiments with individual independence and ‘going it alone’ economic policies have done nothing more than emphasize these are impossible dreams.
The present Regional Negotiating Machinery (RNM), now involved in negotiations with Canada after the disappointment of an unequal Economic Partnership Agreement with the European Union, is a half-sister to the more robust single Trade Commissioner the leaders had in mind in 1947 to negotiate for their one Caribbean state.
As for debt, almost all of the CARICOM countries now have a debt to GDP ratio of well over 100% and their economies are in deep trouble; the notable exception being Trinidad and Tobago which has been saved by its oil and gas resources. The Caribbean people could have been spared this situation had the Federation survived, implementing the rules for incurring debt that the 1947 Conference had envisaged, and implementing the blueprint for development it had laid out.
A single Caribbean state, drawing on the resources of tourism, financial services, agriculture, bauxite, gold, diamonds, oil, gas and the capacity of its tertiary educated people (75% of whom now live abroad) would have been far more viable today. It is time, the Caribbean learns from its own history and stop repeating its mistakes.