During June 19-21, Caricom heads of state and its secretary-general attended a conference in Washington DC, hosted by the World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank, and the Organisation of American states (see conference web site). The heads of state had an historic summit with the US government (see White House statement); long overdue many agreed, but it had been a long time in the planning and fell well in Caribbean American heritage month. The White House statement makes most of the right political noises on issues such as protecting democracy and enhancing security, expanding trade and building the services sector. Whether Caribbean citizens will feel that any of this really has them in mind will be for time to tell.
The conference and summit have left those present in Washington with some sense of optimism because Caribbean issues were put in front of American government officials as well as offiicals from important multilateral agencies. That optimism, however, needs to be set in a realistic context: the Caribbean is small and is not amongst the US administration’s highest priorities (one can judge this by the ease with which US officials absent themselves from proceedings). With President Bush coming to the end of his 2nd term, he may be seen as a lame duck, so whatever “commitments” his administration made could be added to the litany of promises yet to be fulfilled.
The conference also showed that there are plenty of leaders in the extended Caribbean community, not just amongst those who have assumed political leadership positions. Successful and striving would fit many of the women and men present at the conference who are in business, non-profit organizations, studying, or whatever field they are in. That should be a good signal because we have seen in recent months some startling lack of leadership, decision-making and vision within the region and things associated with it.The conference had 3 side forums: one for experts, another on the Diaspora, and another on private sector development issues. All were attended by an encouragingly large body of people of Caribbean origin and with interests in the region. I attended sessions mainly in the Diaspora and private sector forums. I came away with the impression that there is a very clear awareness of most of the problems that need to be addressed in having the Diaspora play a bigger role in development of the Caribbean. There is also a very good understanding of the need for private sector development in the Caribbean. However, many points of disconnection were also evident. One glaring problem is the fact that many urged that the Diaspora to move on from providing remittances for consumption (either in direct financial form or through barrels). The Diaspora called for new ways in which they could invest in development, in particular through some sort of investment funds. At the same time, mulitlateral agencies such as the Inter-American Development Bank and the US’s OPIC are creating “investment funds” to help finance development: many of these are targeting sums and enterprises that are very large. Many in the Diaspora are not aware of these initiatives, and the agencies do not seem to be targeting the Diaspora as possible financiers. The Diaspora needs to help fill the financing gap for the bulk of enterprises, which are very small. There are projects being developed, which will need private sector equity, for example, such as the medical-spa complex planned in Jamaice (see below). The Diaspora should be targeted to help finance these. More generally, much is expected of the Diaspora, but it is not a single body that can organize itself to deliver on these many expectations. Recommendations that go in the direction of consolidating the information about the Diaspora are worthy, but who will provide the resources? There is still a legitimate concern whether Caribbean government really want to engage the Diaspora in national development: this could involve difficult political issues as the Diaspora has often seen government as one of the main obstacles to its wider involvement in development.
Some very interesting discussions occurred about developments in medical and wellness tourism, an area that has so far been underexploited. The Caribbean has some significant comparative advantages in providing health and wellness services, and the push for more progress in this area, coming in part from the Caribbean Tourism Organization, may be very timely. One novel idea put forward by Aubyn Hill (formerly of Jamaica’s National Commercial Bank), aims to help fill the skills and training gap appearing in the US, with a projected shortage of nurses and training opportunities for them. He is developing a project to provide such training opportunities in Jamaica, as well as a series of special medical and spa complexes (in part using soon-to-be-privatized sugar estates).
I have observed recently that there is no real sense of regional solidarity amongst ordinary citizens in the region or in its Diaspora (see blog), despite the valiant words of heads of state. That feeling is stronger now. Part of this absence has to do with the emerging strength of Trinidad, with its oil bonanza giving it enormous resources, which allow it to develop rapidly its own economy; its strong growth is also giving its companies the needed base to expand into other Caribbean countries, many of whom see this expansion as a threat. Trinidad in the English-speaking Caribbean is somewhat like Nigeria in English-speaking west Africa: it has the potential to dictate economic events in a way that no other country can.
The other element of the absence of regional solidarity comes from a “natural” separation between the linguistic groups. Haiti has a special place in Caribbean histroy, as a result of its succsssful fight to gain independence from France; however, Haiti is now the poorest and hardest suffering country in the Caribbean. It needs special help to regain a position as a viable economy and society. However, being French-speaking, and the divergence of its recent histroy relative to that of the English-speaking Caribbean, which has move towards being more developed, places it “out of mind” in many discussions. The other country facing similar separation is Cuba, the largest island in the region and also Spanish-speaking. Its long experience under the US embargo while holding onto its brand of socialism, yet at the same time being a pillar of social and economic support to many Caribbean countries mean that it has many friends in the region (irrespective of different political philosophies). A question on many agendas is what will happen after Castro? For many Caribbean nations, Cuba could represent a good locomotive: a booming economy from which many could benefit. Cuba could also represent a sort of nightmare, because its size would dominate any other country’s: if it were to launch itself into tourism (traditional or medical) it could quickly put into the shade many of the other economies.
The Caribbean community walked away from Washington with a good feeling about itself. The challenges posed by globalization can only be overcome if we realize some basic truths about our region. We are small: size does matter, and thus it is often better to band together to get some of the benefits of scale. We are not as important to the US as many other regions (eg the Middle East) and we therefore need to work harder to keep US eyes focused on us. While we are a region that is predominantly black, we will not have that work in our favour, even if the key players on our issues in US politics are also black. Take Representative Charlie Rangel (leading key Congressional committees, such as that on ways and means, a former head of the select committee on narcotics abuse and control, and founding member of the Congressional Black Causus). Then, there is presidential candidate Barack Obama, who could become the US’s first black president. Neither see us as important to them because of our colour; but we would be important if we were US voters. Thus, as we move ahead and think about the Diaspora and its roles, we may have to accept that whatever else happens the Diaspora in the US can be most effective the more of its members become US citizens who can then matter to US politicians or because politicians themselves. That will do more to get Caribbean issues a higher profile. It will also complicate the Diaspora’s position.
This is just a flavour of what I took from the conference. Media coverage in the region seems to have been muted so far, even though Caricom issued timely and informative press releases. Let’s see if national interests are sparked by this historic conference and what perspectives they may offer.