Caribbean Integration: Necessary but Elusive

By Victor Bulmer-Thomas*

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The dream of Caribbean solidarity has never been in greater peril.  Norman Girvan, who died on April 9, was committed to the cause of Caribbean integration all his adult life, including during his time as Secretary-General of the Association of Caribbean States.  Born and raised in Jamaica, he saw no contradiction between Jamaican nationalism and Caribbean solidarity.  After steady progress from CARIFTA (a free trade area formed in the 1960s by a number of former British colonies) to CARICOM (a customs union formed in 1973 by all British ex-colonies and many colonies) to a commitment starting in 2006 to build a Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME), regional integration has gone backwards.  The CSME was never completed; a ‘pause’ in its implementation has been introduced by the Heads of Government and the famous Regional Negotiating Machinery (RNM) – itself formed to promote Caribbean unity in international agreements but then largely dismantled.  Suriname (in 1995) and Haiti (in 2002) have joined CARICOM, but the Dominican Republic is still outside after 25 years of discussions.  Cuban membership is still a distant dream, and the only non-independent state that participates today is the British colony of Montserrat, with a population of 5,000.  CARICOM may in theory represent much of the Caribbean population, but Haiti – its largest member by far – is not in the CSME.

Countries outside the Caribbean have reacted in very different ways to the region since the end of the Cold War.  The European Union (EU), three of whose member states – France, Holland and the United Kingdom – still have territorial ties to the Caribbean, has negotiated an Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with CARIFORUM (CARICOM plus the DR) that will in due course give the EU unrestricted access for almost all goods and services.  The agreement has generated very little enthusiasm in the CARIFORUM states despite the improved access for some of their goods and services in the European market.  Venezuela has persuaded most oil-importing countries to join Petrocaribe, but only a handful (Antigua & Barbuda, Cuba, Dominica, St. Lucia and St. Vincent & the Grenadines) have been attracted by the more ambitious ALBA.  The United States, a colonial power itself in the region thanks to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, still offers asymmetrical trade privileges through the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI) and its related acts, but some of these provisions will end in 2020, and it is far from clear what will replace them.  Canada, which established CARIBCAN (similar to the CBI) in 1986, is negotiating its own version of the EPA with a broadly similar set of countries, but the negotiations have stalled recently.  Only China appears to have made huge advances in the region through increased exports and major foreign investments despite several of the countries that still recognize Taiwan.

All integration schemes, as Norman Girvan would have been the first to recognize, involve a balance between widening and deepening.  Through its premature commitment to a CSME, the member states of CARICOM took deepening too far.  At the same time, widening – necessary to negotiate with outside powers – has not gone nearly far enough.  It is a scandal that the Dominican Republic remains outside and that so little has been done to embrace Cuba despite the good political relations all states have with the island.  And the non-independent territories, as numerous as the independent states, should not be overlooked.  France and the UK have dropped their objections to closer ties between their territories and CARICOM, and the Dutch territories are largely autonomous already.  Even the U.S. territories would welcome closer links.  And when relations between Cuba and the United States are normalized, as could happen quite soon, it would be in the Caribbean’s interests to have fully embraced Cuba first.  That is an outcome that Norman Girvan would have strongly welcomed.

*Dr. Bulmer-Thomas is a professor at the University College London Institute of the Americas, fellow (and former director) at Chatham House, and author of numerous books, including The Economic History of the Caribbean Since the Napoleonic Wars (2012).

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