by Peter Richards
PORT OF SPAIN — Irwin la Rocque is very passionate about the regional integration movement, CARICOM.
He has to be. As secretary general of the 15-member grouping, he defends it against accusation from certain sections of the region that instead of CARICOM, it should be named “Carigone”.
But as the regional leaders get ready to assemble in Trinidad and Tobago for their 34th summit that coincides with the signing of the treaty establishing the grouping 40 years ago, La Rocque says in short a CARICOM would have had to be invented if one was not around.
“I simply say just think about it if there wasn’t a CARICOM. We do not have a perfect situation, but if we did not have a CARICOM for us to co-operate and do all the many things that we put in place to do. This year is 40 years since the Caribbean Examination Council has been around, it is the same heads of government that created CXC.
“We have had some successes, we tend to forget that because obviously there is an impatience given the pace of integration, one recognises that… CARICOM is here to stay,” said La Rocque.
Veteran Caribbean journalist Rickey Singh has said regional governments must now “seize the moment for realistic stocktaking to determine how best to rescue the integration movement from prevailing sloth, cynicism and doubts in this year of its 40th anniversary”.
However, in an editorial in which it reviewed CARICOM, the Jamaica Observer newspaper said as the second oldest integration movement behind the European Union, it has not been able to advance significant trading opportunities among the 15 countries.
“The facts show that intra-regional trade has grown in every trade bloc, except CARICOM,” the paper said, asking the question “will CARICOM remain the bloc that the builders reject?”.
But La Rocque disagrees. He said the movement has always “recognised that because of the nature of our economies that trade would be limited and it could never be as high as what obtains in the European Union”.
He said there are many factors for that such as small economies, small productive bases and in most cases the economies are similar “in terms of what we produce”. But he said despite that intra regional trade has grown by 16 per cent “but there is still room to grow and now we have to focus on what are these elements that would allow it to grow”.
When the leaders meet from today to Thursday in Trinidad and Tobago, the birthplace of the integration process, they will be focusing on improving transportation as they seek to give greater meaning to the CARICOM Single Market and Economy that encourages the free movement of nationals across the 15-member grouping.
“There is no doubt that efficient transportation within the region, especially in the context of fulfilling the dream of unfettered movement of people and goods within the CARICOM Single Market, and facilitating the growth of tourism that is so germane to the development of the Caribbean is of critical importance,” the Guyana-based CARICOM Secretariat said in a statement.
It said that it is fitting, therefore, that a special session of the 34th summit carded for July 4-6 in Trinidad and Tobago be devoted to transportation matters.
“But there is the perception that in times past, shipping and travel within the region were far easier and more facilitating than what obtains today, given the vagaries of air and sea transport and border control policies,” the Secretariat noted.
The Inter-American Development Bank is now assisting in the development of a comprehensive regional transportation plan.
However, for as long as the regional integration grouping has been around, Caribbean governments have found it extremely difficult to establish a single airline to facilitate trade and the movement of people, even thought there are at least six national airlines traversing the region.
“We are trying to find solutions and in my own persona; view it defies logic why is it we have all these airlines, all of them struggling and they can’t cooperate,” said La Rocque.
“They ought to be cooperation between the airlines. For whatever reasons, perhaps the business models, and there is a notion of airlines just like currency being a symbol of nationhood which is a lingering thing from the past,” he added.
St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Barbados, Antigua and Barbuda and Dominica, the owners of the island hopping, airline, LIAT, have been critical of the Trinidad and Tobago government, which provides a subsidy to its own national airline, Caribbean Airlines.
While he insists that he does not want a public squabble with Port of Spain, St Vincent and the Grenadines Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves, the chair of the LIAT shareholder governments, said he intends to raise the matter during the summit here with Prime Minister Kamla Persad Bissessar, who will also assume chairmanship of the regional grouping for the next six months.
“I just want to say that I have received a confidential legal opinion concerning the fuel subsidy … so we can have an informed discussion on this. Not a fight, but to have an informed discussion on this question,” Gonsalves said.
Gonsalves said LIAT paid an average US$127 for a barrel of jet fuel over the 2008-12 period, while CAL for the same period paid an average price of US$53.
“That is on the fuel subsidy side. It is estimated by the management that during that five year period we lost 78, 000 passengers to CAL because of their subsidy and the revenues which we would have lost as a result of that unfair competition would have been US$10.2 million,” he added.
Earlier this year, Trinidad and Tobago Finance Minister Larry Howai said CAL received a subsidy of US$40 million last year, a situation Gonsalves said is a violation of the CARICOM treaty and Common Air Services Agreement among member countries.
La Rocque said the summit will have before it recommendations from a special Council for Trade and Economic Development, comprising transport ministers from the region who met last month to discuss the issue.
“Everywhere in the world you have airline alliances … in our region we don’t have it. These things defy logic and I don’t think we are going to get a solution at the heads (regional governments) but at least a process for bringing it forward.
“One of the recommendations is that the shareholders of the respective airlines be encouraged to sit and have a discussion,” he said, adding “rather than working at odds with each other they ought to sit down and have a discussion and come up with a model. The bigger airlines are doing it, so why can’t we do it in our Caribbean”.
Transportation woes aside, the regional integration process is still involved in an uphill task to convince the Caribbean population of its relevance in a changing global environment.
The Guyana-based Secretariat is being reviewed with a view to implementing a reform agenda as well as prepare a strategic plan for the Community that will highlight the major priorities for the Community during the period 2014-2019 “and once we have done that what type of secretariat we would need to discharge our responsibilities.
“This is very important because with limited resources the Secretariat cannot be doing everything at the same time. We need to focus … on some items, deliver on them and get them off the agenda,” said La Rocque, noting that one of the problems for the Secretariat is its inability to effectively communicate to the regional population.
“It is so easy to focus on the negatives and not recognise the positives we are doing,” he said, hoping that at the end of his tour of duty, “I would like to see a community a lot more focus on being able to deliver on the decisions and the mandates that were taken.
“I would really like to see us get over that hump… although I think we are doing a decent job,” he said.
The agenda for four day summit will for the first time pay special attention to the differently able community in the region as well as discuss the possible reparations for slavery.
The discussions on reparation will be guided by the work of the Principal of the Cave Hill campus of the University of the West Indies, Professor Sir Hilary Beckles.
The regional leaders will also hold talks with the newly elected President of Venezuela, Nicholas Maduro as well as President of the Dominican Republic Danilo Medina, and the President of Equatorial Guinea Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. (CMC)