We share the Prime Minister’s frustration with the pace, energy and direction of Caribbean integration, particularly at a time when unity is needed like never before to lift our stagnant economies out of the muck and our people out of productivity, purpose and creativity inertia.
A perversive public ignorance remains at the heart of this stasis. Beyond the reach of public education programmes, there are some things that will prove difficult to communicate to a people weary of the capricious use of state power and suspicious of each other and their motives after four centuries of slavery and colonial subjugation.
But this is what good leadership is about; helming a slow-turning ship in the direction of progress. And for that reason, it is right and proper to hold the Prime Minister herself and all her fellow heads of government of the Caribbean Community accountable for the dithering that often lies like an empty hammock, pegged by the two CARICOM summits – the July Regular conference and the February Inter-sessional – when the six-month chairmanship of the Community rotates.
As it happens, none other than Prime Minister Mottley assumes the chair on January 1 and will host the heads who will meet here. It was not planned that way before; the chairmanship was to be handed over to President Desi Bouterse of Suriname. But with a general election due by May 25 2020, the Surinamese deferred. Enter the new wunderkind of CARICOM, whose rhetorical flourishes and energetic action appeared to breathe new life into a staid stable of presidents and prime ministers.
So what has happened in 18 months? What would propel Prime Minister Mottley to declare that she has grown tired of her self-appointed role as the regional bloc’s philosopher-queen, doling out ideas for CARICOM’s rejuvenation?
Said the PM this week at a regional forum, before some of her own colleagues: “I almost tire now of giving these speeches… and I tire of giving them because progress is too slow, and I ask myself why is progress slow… and it comes right back down to where I started. Fundamentally, it is about the will to make that difference.”
We are disappointed to hear this, particularly as it followed the lament of slow progress by – of all organisations – the International Monetary Fund, with its own snail’s pace of change from its hidebound orthodoxy that pits markets against the people, its measures dampening spending power and hampering growth.
But like the prefect complaining to the teacher with the prefix, “please, teacher…”, Prime Minister Mottley sought to criticise the very leaders with whom she must work collectively for the first half of 2020 until she hands over the chairmanship.
We do not doubt the veracity of her assessment that there is a “crisis of will” among leaders to do what is required to propel the regional integration project. Many of them are, to quote a former editor of this newspaper, “regionalists by day and nationalists by night”.
And we share some of her bright ideas for the region. That some of them have been tried and have failed does not invalidate their relevance. The time is indeed ripe for a common air, sea and telecommunications space for the region.
The Prime Minister waxed poetic when she recounted the service that two steamships, the Federal Palm and the Federal Maple, played in ferrying passengers and freight from Jamaica to Trinidad and Tobago during the short-lived West Indies Federation. Their legacy, the West Indies Shipping Corporation (WISCO), lasted another 27 years until 1992 when, laden with both debt and lethargy, it collapsed.
But the same person who lamented the state of sea transport now sits at the helm of LIAT, which she declared was “doomed” after failing to rid Barbados of its majority share ownership is arguably the most important intra-regional air carrier in CARICOM.
Hers is the power to change the fortunes of a heavily indebted airline that yet manages to become one of the best on-time performers in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Here is the chance to eschew the conventional wisdom of the IMF and assert that there are some imperatives that must accept deficit finance – air and sea transport. No government makes a profit on education and health care but who would dare question the wealth that these public goods create? It is time for a region that consists more of seawater than land to adopt a similar approach.
As CARICOM chair, the field is open for her to engage in meaningful persuasion on the very things that she complained about this week: a US$5 billion food import bill and the high cost of inter-island mobile phone connectivity.
She said: “A single domestic space in telecommunications is absolutely vital to the successful integration of our people…because at the end of the day, governments don’t trade, it is people through companies and households that do so” Wise words indeed, if only our leader act on them.
But our greatest disappointment is that yet another CARICOM leader, the region’s newest, has succumbed to the temptation to believe that they alone can forge a closer union.
Her predecessor, CARICOM’s co-founder, Right Excellent Errol Barrow, understood this when, in the year before his death, he reminded fellow leaders that well before the West Indies Federation, CARIFTA and CARICOM, our people integrated this region through friendship, marriage, business, art, academia and sport. Our higglers and hucksters have maintained trading ties despite the best efforts of the tin gods of immigration and customs and the strictures of national borders. No crisis of will there.
He said: “The collective wisdom and intellect of our people are yet to be tapped and given a central place in the development strategy of our nation.”
We submit that such wisdom and intellect do not reside solely in the crania of economic advisors, consultants and political wise men and women.
Perhaps regional integration will propel itself further and faster once governments get out of the way of their own people, freeing them of the shackles that restrict the truly free movement of goods, labour, capital, individuals and ideas.
Now, who has the political will for that?