Unity among Caribbean Community (CARICOM) states came under the microscope here as foreign affairs ministers from the regional grouping met for their 20th meeting of the Council for Foreign and Community Relations (COFCOR) at the Lloyd Erskine Sandiford Centre.
A week after Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves of St Vincent and the Grenadines wrote a strong letter to his regional counterparts complaining that CARICOM states were allowing “a small group of powerful nations” within the Organization of American States (OAS) to dilute the region’s collective strength by dividing the Caribbean states in a bid to overthrow the Venezuela government, both the outgoing COFCOR chairman – Gonsalves’ foreign minister Sir Louis Straker – and his successor, Barbadian Maxine McClean, emphasized the need to utilize the region’s collective strength to successfully tackle a number of global issues which have the potential to hurt the Caribbean.
“The present and future global environment demand that the Caribbean Community engage in a process of evaluation, revision and consolidation. To advance and realize the vision of CARICOM, it is imperative that we deepen and strengthen community engagement and, as a cohesive body, leverage our voices as one to derive maximum benefit for the region,” McClean told her counterparts.
The Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade predicted that issues such as climate change, new and pending policies by the Donald Trump administration in the United States, Brexit and some international policies and sanctions would have an overwhelming impact on the 15-member community.
In fact, without going into details she said some of the policies being adopted and implemented by the US were already having an impact on the region’s sustainable development priorities and aspirations, and she pleaded with council members to “furnish the form and substance of the policy guidance” to combat those issues.
Growing unrest in Venezuela, along with attempts by the OAS to suspend the South American country, is an issue the region is grappling with, as several CARICOM countries are linked to the oil producing country through PetroCaribe.
In his letter to the leaders last week, Gonsalves had warned them against allowing themselves “to be ambushed into breaking our solidarity and aligning ourselves with fair-weather friends”.
He also complained that “a handful of powerful countries with an agenda of naked self interest” had strategically invited a few CARICOM states to meetings to discuss the Caracas crisis and had ignored the others, ensuring those countries had succeeded in “disuniting and weakening CARICOM countries whose only strength lies in our solidarity”.
The split was evident when Barbados last month joined 18 other countries, including the Bahamas, Jamaica, Guyana and St Lucia, in approving a meeting of OAS foreign ministers to discuss the deteriorating political and economic situation in Venezuela.
The Vincentian leader’s plea for solidarity was echoed by Sir Louis, who said only collective action would help member countries combat issues such as high debt, high youth unemployment, natural disasters, crime and non-communicable diseases.
“Only our collective action can mitigate these challenges,” he said.
“In light of this challenging environment, I urge us as foreign ministers and custodians of foreign policy within the region to work through our governments to strengthen our coordination and negotiation.”
The outgoing chairman also warned that national priorities should “never diminish the significance of the region’s priorities” but must complement the regional effort.
It was a point emphasized by CARICOM Secretary General Irwin LaRocque in making a case for a collective response to climate change, correspondent banking and the blacklisting of regional jurisdictions as tax havens, saying they were “unwarranted, unhelpful and harmful to our economies”.
“We have seen the value and reaped the benefits of acting in concert, and issues such as those can only be successfully addressed if we continue to do so,” LaRocque said.