By Sir Ronald Sanders
As we stand at the threshold of 2024, gazing upon the dawn of a new year with uncertainty, the time has come for a profound reflection on the trajectory of the 15 Caribbean nations constituting the Caribbean Community (CARICOM).
This juncture prompts the nations of the region to take stock of the strides made, recognize the opportunities neglected in the pursuit of individual sovereignty, and confront the dual challenge of advancing domestic well-being while strengthening their global standing.
In this pivotal moment, it is evident that the more pressing threats to CARICOM’s progress emanate not solely from climate change, but primarily from the lack of social cohesion and political consensus both within CARICOM nations and between them.
The choice before CARICOM countries now is the same one that has always confronted them: either pursue a closer union that would make them stronger together or a march alone, knowing they would assuredly be weaker, but hoping gambling on good fortune to muddle through.
So far, CARICOM countries, or at least, their political leadership, have gambled on their ingenuity to maintain the trappings of sovereignty while conceding autonomy to external forces, which, for one reason or another, prop them up, but maintain their dependence.
Since the 1960s, when Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, and Barbados embarked on separate pathways of independence, they and the other CARICOM countries that followed them, have had fluctuating periods of economic and social development, but none of them has become independent. They have paid a steep price for cherishing individual sovereignty, manifested in their smallness and in their lack of capacity to exercise influence in the world.
The reality is stark: despite commendable strides on the domestic front, CARICOM nations remain on the fringes of global significance. Economic growth, for the majority, is stunted, shackled by burdensome levels of unsustainable debt. External shocks, such as the reverberations of the COVID-19 pandemic and the volatility of commodity prices, further strain their fiscal capacities
The opportunity missed lies in the aftermath of the dissolution of the West Indian Federation, as each nation opted for the allure of self-reliance. They made the mistake that the United States of America did not. As US historian Carol Berkin put it, the 13 former British colonies formed a union “on the firm conviction that a strong government representing all the peoples of a Federal State was the surest path to economic growth and prosperity, to civil law and order, and to winning the respect and recognition from foreign nations necessary to insure America’s continued independence”. And so, it turned out to be.
While over the years, in recognition of their weakness, CARICOM countries have established joint institutions and collective machinery, they have fallen short of creating a legally binding, political umbrella that would be an effective instrument for dealing with critical domestic and foreign challenges.
Importantly, CARICOM leaders failed to do what the founding fathers of the US knew to be essential. They failed to do the hard work of governance which is to create a nationalism built on shared identity as citizens of a united Caribbean. Thus, the pursuit of separate sovereignties still hampers the strength of CARICOM countries in economic, financial, and diplomatic arenas.
None should believe that periods of economic good fortune that reflects itself in episodes of economic growth are sufficient when underlying structures of weakness remain. Eventually, it is the fundamental weaknesses not the occasional successes that determine national viability.
CARICOM needs to reignite the flame of genuine independence. To do so CARICOM countries must reevaluate the concept of a Caribbean Single Market and Economy, fostering regional cooperation that transcends national borders.
In addition to external challenges, CARICOM countries face a significant hurdle in the form of internal political rivalries both within individual states and among the member nations. The relentless pursuit of political power and influence often takes precedence over the crucial need for social cohesion and national consensus—foundational elements for achieving fair and balanced regional development.
While diverse opinions on policy matters are essential in democratic societies, the detrimental practice of dismissing opposing views solely for narrow political gains undermines the very essence of progress. It becomes imperative to recognize that prioritizing regionalism over nationalism is the key to fostering growth, fortifying economies, and building the necessary capacity for true independence.
A looming concern threatening Caribbean stability is the alarming surge in gang-related violence, prominently evident in Haiti. The cultivation of gangs is not merely a local predicament but a symptom of organized crime seeking to destabilize the Caribbean as hubs for illicit activities. Addressing this menace necessitates a united front, built upon social cohesion and national consensus, lest it becomes an insurmountable impediment to economic and political integration.
The time is opportune for leaders across CARICOM, spanning government, opposition parties, the private sector, unions, and academia, to reignite the vision of deeper integration. The emphasis should unequivocally be to pursue regional development and national interests on parallel tracks, recognising that each can contribute to the other. Pursuing national concerns to the exclusion of regional development is self-defeating.
Except for Haiti, the lessons ingrained in CARICOM’s shared history since the 1930s, underscore the significance of interdependence, preserving a distinctive Caribbean identity, and collectively acquiring the capital and capacity requisite for the region to stand as a robust, respected, and influential area globally.
The road ahead demands a paradigm shift in our political culture — one that places social cohesion and national interest at the forefront. By transcending political rivalries and fostering a spirit of collaboration, CARICOM nations can harness their collective strength to navigate the complexities of 2024 and beyond.
The vision of independence within interdependence remains an attainable beacon, promising a future of prosperity for the diverse and dynamic nations that constitute the Caribbean Community.
It is not beyond the creativity of the region to create a constitutional mechanism in which CARICOM countries can assign to a central agency, composed of representatives of their states, to sustain unity that benefits all. Separateness and smallness will not do.
(The writer is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the US and the OAS. He is also the current President of the OAS Permanent Council. The views expressed are entirely his own. For comments and previous commentaries, see: www.sirronaldsanders.com)