Commentary: Careless with CARICOM - Part 2

Published on Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Sir Shridath Ramphal

At the end of Part 1, I suggested that we are losing our way abroad as we are at home. It was not always so; and progress on each journey helped us forward on the other.

Have we forgotten the days when as West Indians we were the first to daringly bring the ‘Non-Aligned Movement’ to the Western Hemisphere, when we pioneered rejection of the ‘two China’ policy and recognized the People’s Republic; when, together, we broke the western diplomatic embargo of Cuba; when we forced withdrawal of the Kissinger plan for a ‘Community of the Western Hemisphere’; when we were in the front rank (both intellectual and diplomatic) of the effort for a New International Economic Order; when from this region, bending iron wills, we gave leadership in the struggle against ‘apartheid’ in Southern Africa; when we inspired the creation of the ACP and kept ‘reciprocity’ at bay for 25 years; when we forced recognition of the vulnerability of ‘small states’?

Sir Shridath RamphalIn all this, and more, for all our size we stood tall; we commanded respect, if not always endearment.

And beyond respect from others, was self-esteem; because in all these actions, and others, we were guided by principles: principles rooted in our regional values; principles we were not afraid to articulate and by which we stood, mindful of, but not deterred by, objections to positions we once took boldly on the global stage - not recklessly, but in unity, with honor and circumspection.

For what do we stand today, united and respected?

Some of us weaken the region’s standing in the international community when we are seen as clients of Japan’s pursuit of whaling. We eviscerate any common foreign policy in CARICOM when some of us cohabit with Taiwan. Deserting our African and Pacific partners, we yield to Europe - and take pride in being first to submit.

What do these aberrations do for our honor and standing in the world? How do they square with our earlier record of small states standing for principles that commanded respect and buttressed self-esteem? The answers are all negative. And, inevitably, what they do in due measure is require us to disown each other and display our discordance to the world. This is where ‘local control’ has led us in the 21st Century. We call it now ‘sovereignty’.

It is easy, perhaps natural, for us as Caribbean people to shift blame to our Governments; and Governments, of course, are not blameless. But, in our democracies, Governments do what we allow them to do: they say: ‘we do what our people want us to do’. And who can deny that that is so, while we accept their excesses with equanimity, certainly in silence – and not infrequently renew their political mandate.

No! The fault is with us. We have each been touched with the glow of ‘local control’; each moved by the siren song of ‘sovereignty’; have each allowed the stigma of otherness, even foreignness, to degrade our Caribbean kinship. The fault lies not in our political stars but in ourselves that we are what and where we are; and what and where we will be in a global society that demands of us the very best we can be.

When are we at our best? Surely, when we are as one; with one identity; acting with the strength and courage that oneness gives us. Does anyone doubt that whatever we undertake, we do it better when we do it together?

Thirty-five years ago, in 1975, on the shores of Montego Bay as I took leave of Caribbean leaders before assuming new roles at the Commonwealth, my parting message was a plea TO CARE FOR CARICOM. Among the things I said then was this:

Each generation of West Indians has an obligation to advance the process of regional development and the evolution of an ethos of unity. Ours is endeavoring to do so; but we shall fail utterly if we ignore these fundamental attributes of our West Indian condition and, assuming without warrant the inevitability of our oneness, become casual, neglectful, indifferent or undisciplined in sustaining that process and that evolution.

The burden of my message is that we have become ‘casual, neglectful, indifferent and undisciplined’ in sustaining and advancing Caribbean integration: that we have become careless with CARICOM – and in the process are falling into to a state of disunity which by now we should have made preternatural. It will be a slow and gradual descent; but ineluctably it will be an ending.

In Derek Walcott’s recently published collection of poems, White Egrets, there are some lines which conjure up that image of slow passing:

With the leisure of a leaf falling in the forest,
Pale yellow spinning against green – my ending.

This must not be a regional epitaph.

If CARICOM is not to end like a leaf falling in the forest, prevailing apathy and unconcern must cease; reversal from unity must end. The old cult of ‘local control’ must not extinguish hope of regional rescue through collective effort; must not allow a narcissist insularity to deny us larger vision and ennobling roles. We must escape the mental prison of narrow domestic walls and build the new Caribbean with room for all to flourish. We must cherish our local identities; but they must enrich the mosaic of regionalism, not withhold from it their separate splendors.

Today that mosaic is most evident in Caribbean diasporas who have heightened their self-esteem and secured an identity for themselves by holding fast to that image of Caribbean oneness which is slipping away from us at home. No one has told them this is the reality at home; in fact, self-deception, even denial, in the Caribbean has kept them united in a quite poignant way. Could it be that we are more true to ourselves in London or New York or Toronto, than we are within the region itself? What an irony that would be?

In some ways, it must be said, that identity slippage is less evident among the smallest of us. The OECS islands are developing a model of economic unity among themselves which would be worthy of all, if it could subsist for all. But, it is early days, and it remains to be seen at the level of action whether, even for them, the ‘agony’ lingers still.

Whatever ails us now, we must recover our resolve to survive as one people, one region. Imbued by such resolve, yet only so resolved, there is a future for this region that can be better than the best we have ever been. Make no mistake, however; neither complacency nor resignation will suffice. What the Caribbean needs is rescue – by ourselves, from ourselves and for ourselves. We cannot be careless with our oneness, which is our lifeline. We must not be CARELESS with CARICOM.

(Sir Shridath has held the positions of Commonwealth Secretary-General, Chancellor of the University of the West Indies, Chairman of the West Indian Commission and Chief Negotiator in the Caribbean Regional Negotiating Machinery)

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