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CARICOM at 50: Historical Reflections Part 1

For the Commonwealth Caribbean, regional integration is not new. The indigenous people of the region used the Caribbean Sea as a bridge to facilitate trade, govern themselves and build communities.  During the colonial period, Britain established various regional arrangements to administer its colonies. These included the 1883-1958 Windward Islands Federation among Grenada, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Saint Lucia and Tobago; the 1871-1956 Leeward Islands Federation among Antigua and Barbuda, Montserrat, Saint Kitts/Nevis/Anguilla, and Dominica; and the short-lived West Indies Federation (WIF) from 1958 to 1962 among ten Commonwealth Caribbean countries.  

Following the demise of the WIF, in 1962 Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago opted for independence from Britain with Guyana and Barbados doing so in 1966. It was also during that period that Caribbean leaders established the Caribbean Free Trade Area (CARIFTA) in 1965. This was intended to increase, diversify and liberalize trade, ensure fair competition and equitable distribution and promote industrial development of the Least Developed Countries (LDCs). Intra-regional exports grew from EC$95.7 million in 1967 to EC$298 million in 1973 and imports expanded comparably during the same period. However, CARIFTA’s economic potential was restricted by it being neither a customs union nor a common market. As Codrington and Worrell observed in 1989, although intra-regional trade expanded between 1967 and 1972, this was largely “an MDC [More Developed Country] affair, which served to reinforce the MDC/LDC dichotomy in the region.”

It is within this historical context that the Treaty of Chaguaramas was signed on 4th July 1973 to establish the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM).  The original signatories to the Treaty were the four independent states at that time: Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago. As other Caribbean countries gained independence – beginning with Grenada in 1974 to Saint Kitts and Nevis in 1983 and as CARICOM widened its membership to include Suriname and Haiti, the Community grew from four to fifteen member states. Montserrat is a British Overseas Territory and a full member state of CARICOM.  Anguilla, Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, and Turks and Caicos are Associate Members.

The objectives of the original Treaty were: economic integration (through a Common Market); functional cooperation and common services in non-economic areas such as health, education and transportation; and the coordination of foreign policies of member states.  A critical assessment of CARICOM reveals achievements and non-achievements. In this two-part article I will reflect on CARICOM as we commemorate fifty years since its establishment.

What is CARICOM? Using a basic definition, we can refer to CARICOM as an inter-governmental community of sovereign independent states, that pool resources and engage in collective action in several critical areas for the collective ‘good’ of the region. However, a more nuanced definition is necessary. I have often argued that CARICOM is a reflection of the paradoxical soul of the Caribbean: unity in diversity, triumph over adversity, the coexistence of self-doubt and courage, and the capacity to simultaneously resist and adapt to a hostile world.

CARICOM’s journey to date demonstrates that regional integration is as necessary as it is problematic.  At inception, when the Treaty of Chaguaramas was signed in 1973, the Caribbean stood at the intersection of the demise of the WIF, growing nationalism and a hostile international environment. The Cold War was raging. Britain had joined the European Economic Community on January 01, 1973 and this created uncertainty among Commonwealth Caribbean countries. Importantly, the 1973 energy crisis and oil shock severely affected Caribbean economies.

In fact, from 1976-82 CARICOM Heads of Government did not meet given economic challenges within member states and a deep ideological divide among CARICOM’s leadership. At the Ninth Annual Meeting of the Board of Governors of the Caribbean Development Bank, in April 1979, Dr Kurleigh King, then Secretary-General of CARICOM reflected on the newly established Community in this way: “The ink was hardly dry on the signatures of the Treaty when the full force of the international economic crisis struck the bottom out of everything we had hoped to accomplish.”  Similarly, the 1981 World Bank Report stated, “The past decade has been a difficult one for the nations of the Caribbean.  Many are newly independent and most are small islands, with fragile economies.  The problems of adjustment to being independent states in a world economy would have been immense even if the world economy of the 1970s had been as stable as that of the 1960s.  [However] events since 1973  – uncertain prices for the few primary products that they export, declines in earnings from tourism, dwindling foreign investment, higher energy costs, global  recession and hurricane-caused destruction – have served to exacerbate the situation.”

On reflection, the conditions were right for CARICOM to be still-born – starved of oxygen at birth. Yet, with all its limitations, CARICOM has endured and is the oldest regional integration process in the developing world.  However, is survivability sufficient? In part two of this article, I examine some achievements, shortcomings and lessons.

By Dr Wendy C Grenade, Grenadian Political Scientist who is a Professor, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, St George’s University, Grenada.

Prior to joining SGU, Dr Grenade lectured at The UWI, Cave Hill Campus, where she coordinated a MSc Integration Studies programme for several years.

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