Propelled by the twin engines of sheer necessity and rare leadership, Caricom leaders are accelerating the region to a deeper level of integration than at any other time in the regional body’s 49-year history. .
Judging by yesterday’s glowing report from Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley following the recently concluded Caricom summit in Suriname, the momentum towards deeper integration appears to be building. Regional challenges warranting swift action are becoming clearer, and leaders across the region are responding with more confidence, having discovered the value of standing together and speaking with one voice. Our islands may be small, but their strategic location should not be underestimated.
There is no good reason to oppose a total free trade regime within Caricom, but it would be naïve and foolhardy for the proponents of a truly integrated Caricom region not to expect obstacles. Too much interest is invested in the division for the path to integration to be smooth. However, once the political will is recognized as unyieldingly pro-integration, they will be among the first to come on board.
In accelerating the movement towards the full free movement of people and goods, Caricom leaders must ensure that they do not get ahead of the people of the region who now only expect lethargy from them. Just because leaders are finally starting to see the merits of integration doesn’t mean the public has to put aside its outright cynicism steeped in decades of disappointment. Caricom must now invest heavily in better communications, greater cross-regional awareness and engagement, and people-centred initiatives such as Carifesta. Governments can lead, but for regional integration to succeed, people must own the process.
We have seen how the automatic right of Caricom nationals to enter and stay for up to six months in any Caricom country has sometimes been derailed by immigration officials who have no been properly consulted and recycled. As governments prepare to open their borders to each other creating a single, unified space, they must expect and therefore plan for the pushback of institutions whose raison d’être has been to act as gatekeepers in refusing access.
For integration to progress unhindered, the region will need more than the support of governments that are finally seeing the light. Above all, it will require a cultural shift away from the historic insularity that was promoted and encouraged primarily by governments, both colonial and independent. It was the people – artists, merchants, peddlers and sportsmen, above all – who kept the fire of integration alive while politicians and governments built walls. Now that the race is on to decouple the regional economy from the destructive elements of the global economy, Caricom must commit to involving people in the integration process. Failure to do so could jeopardize this critical mission at times least expected.
Regional integration requires leadership that recognizes the need to break free from the habit of top-down decision-making and create a culture of inclusion based on broad public engagement from below.