PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad (GINA) — The opening ceremony for the 34th meeting of the conference of heads of governments of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) was held on Wednesday evening in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago.
Delivering opening remarks, CARICOM’s secretary general Irwin LaRocque called on the leaders of member states to remember that, for 40 years, CARICOM has been building a foundation and has a base upon which they can build a sustainable future.
“There is also much to celebrate at this milestone in our integration process. We have persevered. We have kept the faith. We have demonstrated clearly the benefits of our co-operation and collaboration. We have responded, time and again to whatever challenges were before us, and used our unity to exercise influence in the global diplomatic arena way above our size,” he said.
LaRocque said the grouping could boast of being the longest surviving integration alliance among developing countries and second only to the European Union in global terms.
“The programmes of functional co-operation and common services have deepened and expanded in health, disaster management, agriculture, the environment and education to name a few. We have maintained the concept of negotiating as a bloc and have trade agreements as CARICOM with six countries as well as numerous technical co-operation agreements,” he continued.
As part of efforts to improve CARICOM, a five-year strategic plan for the Community, the first in its existence, according to the secretary general, is being implemented.
“Relevance, efficiency, effectiveness, flexibility, responsiveness, innovation and creativity, all aimed at providing improved service to our people, is the goal of this reform process. The people centered approach to development is the driver of the change that we are striving to provide. It is at the heart of our integration arrangements and our agenda item at this meeting on treatment of persons with disabilities demonstrates our continued concern at the highest level for the welfare of our citizens,” LaRocque said.
Haiti’s president and outgoing chairman of CARICOM, Michel Martelly, called on member states to ratify a recently signed treaty to combat the trade of illegal arms so as to make it effective to fight increasing crime in the region. The momentum on the war against drugs has stepped up since the CARICOM summit in Haiti, a few months ago and his country is grateful for the assistance being given in this regard. He outlined some of the efforts being made his country, still recovering from the devastating earthquake.
The Bahamas Prime Minister Perry Christie praised the founders of CARICOM and the present generation of leaders for continuing to strive for the achievement of various initiatives for the region.
“We stand on the shoulders of giants,” he stated.
He also called for relations between member states to be reinforced to increase living standards in the region through more development. The developed world, Christie said, had a key role to play in the region’s development and this must be recognised.
Grenada’s Prime Minister Dr Keith Mitchell reflected on his return to the CARICOM meeting after five years in political opposition and current financial woes affecting most countries.
“Times are more difficult and the need for solutions are more urgent… the results from this meeting should be far reaching and tangible,” Mitchell said.
He called on member states to implement required legislation to resolve issues surrounding transportation of free movement of residents and capital across the region. The need for a transportation task force to examine the various challenges affecting the region in this regard should be established within six months to come up with solutions, he stated.
Mitchell also proposed that a “Single ICT Space” be created.
“There are real, real opportunities that our countries must grasp if we hope to compete in this global environment,” he pointed out.
The 2006 Caribbean Knowledge and Learning Network (CKLN), which was mandated to be established is still not functioning, as several member states have not ratified its conventions. This inter-governmental agency of CARICOM was set up to build a regional broadband network connecting all CARICOM countries and connecting them to the world. This is needed urgently according to the prime minister.
“This continues to be a hindrance to the development of the CKLN, which is so vital to its work,” Mitchell said.
He also issued a call for more emphasis on cooperation in sports, citing the need for better facilities and government assistance.
“We need to do more for our youths as many have been disappointed by their leaders,” he said.
Prime Minister of Barbados Freundel Stuart, in a brief address, offered words of advice.
“We must stay clear of over ambitious undertakings, manifestly unrealistic deadlines and the colliding agendas of a fruitless multiplicity of meetings. To do otherwise is the surest way to set our people up for disappointment, the surest way to open the door for a disturbingly increasing number of Jeremiahs in this region who let no opportunity to spread unnecessary alarm, despondency and despair,” he said.
The way forward will not be easy, he added, “Life never promised anyone of us it would be easy.”
Incoming chair of CARICOM, Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, reminded attendees that “There is strength in unity is no cliché, testimony to the vision of what is possible when we contemplate our development as an inclusive entity,” noting that as the world faces a variety of challenges, CARICOM members must be ready to stand as one.
She cited successes in the areas of health, security and foreign policy from which member states have benefitted. She urged fellow leaders to consider the proposed membership of the Dominican Republic along with the French and Dutch Caribbean islands, to increase its strength and economic capabilities.
“With our numbers, it means our markets will increase and when our markets and our production increase, manufacturing increases then the quality of life of our citizens will also be uplifted… when we look at the Caribbean Sea which unites us, it must never ever be seen to divide us. Our people remain resilient; they remain unwavering in the embrace of the guiding principles and objectives of a Caribbean community, which is why this meeting is so critical,” Persad-Bissessar said.
The agenda reflects the challenges facing all member states and must address the need for regional growth and development. There must be regional mechanisms to combat the regional security threats to the region, she added.
“We have an obligation as leaders to ensure that our people are secure by demonstrating and engaging in a very focused and effective war on crime and criminals,” and now may be the time to establish a regional think tank on security to address these issues, the prime minister added.
Persad-Bissessar also supported the call for more to be done for those who are handicapped, have special needs or and differently-abled, as “our children need our support and we must not fail them”.
In closing, she reminded attendees that CARICOM is a work in progress and members should remain united, working together to make it an even greater force in the world community.
“I say, in the CARICOM, we are one people, we are one nation and we are one community,” Persad-Bissessar concluded.
Working sessions began on July 4 and end on July 6. The heads of government are expected to lead an assessment and provide direction on a new approach during this meeting, which is being held as the Community celebrates 40 years of integration in the country where the founding Treaty of Chaguaramas was signed in July 1973.
CARICOM is an organisation of 15 Caribbean nations and dependencies and its main purposes are to promote economic integration and cooperation among its members, to ensure that the benefits of integration are equitably shared, and to coordinate foreign policy.
Its major activities involve coordinating economic policies and development planning; devising and instituting special projects for the less-developed countries within its jurisdiction; operating as a regional single market for many of its members (CARICOM Single Market); and handling regional trade disputes.