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CARIBBEAN: Brain Drain, Single Economy Top Summit Agenda

Bert Wilkinson

GEORGETOWN, Guyana, Jul 3 2006 (IPS) - It has been discussed peripherally for years at various summits, but Caribbean Community (Caricom) leaders have never really sat down for a full-fledged discussion about the annual migration of hordes of their best and brightest to North America and Europe.

A recent study released by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) showing that governments are spending millions to train and equip their nationals only to see them be lured away by developed western nations appears to have jerked them into reality. The issue has been aside for a full discussion on the agenda of Caricom’s four-day summit starting in the idyllic island of St. Kitts Monday.

The study is bad news for several members of the 15-nation Community that is now in the midst of tidying up a European Union (EU)-style single market that only six of the nations joined when it formally got rolling in January.

The leaders will also talk about preparations for a single economy by 2008. The other six, most of them the smaller Eastern Caribbean island-nations, “are scheduled to sign on sometime before the summit ends on Thursday,” said spokesman Leonard Robertson.

In Guyana’s case, the IMF puts the figure of migrants at 83 percent of known graduates leaving to settle in Canada, the U.S. and Europe. These include pilots, doctors, nurses, teachers, engineers and other categories of skilled or university-trained nationals.

For Jamaica, Haiti and Trinidad, the figure is placed at 75 percent, with the multilateral agency blaming “active recruitment” of Caribbean citizens by countries of the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) for the state of affairs.

It added that some countries have lost more than 70 percent of their labour force with more than 12 years of completed schooling to migration, a figure officials call stunning.

For many governments, this is a wake-up call, especially in light of the fact that some U.S. states like New York have been sending recruitment teams from its board of education to sign up hundreds of math, language and science teachers to work in that state under special contracts.

Canada and England have also sent recruiters for nurses and teachers under very structured and deliberate programmes that have largely ignored the pleas of worried governments.

“Governments are now very concerned that they are not getting anything in return for their investments when they spend millions to train nationals only to see them leave,” said Robertson.

Migration aside, the summit will also be notable for the return of Haiti to the Caribbean family after a 28-month suspension.

The suspension followed the forced departure of elected President Jean Bertrand Aristide from office in an early 2004 coup with the alleged backing of the U.S., France and Canada. In voting to leave Haiti in the cold, leaders said they had no intention of encouraging the replacement of governments by means other than the ballot.

But the red carpet is being rolled out again for newly elected President Rene Preval following elections in February that restored democracy.

Ironically, Preval is the only elected leader in Haiti ever to serve out a term. He is one of the featured speakers at the opening ceremony and will have the ears of colleagues when he briefs them in caucus about developments since then. Portia Simpson-Miller, Jamaica’s prime minister, is also set to address the opening. She is the first woman head of government in the region since U.S.-born Janet Jagan of Guyana in 1997.

Another key discussion item is likely to be the race between Venezuela and Guatemala to replace Argentina on Latin America’s two-year, non-permanent United Nations Security Council seat starting next year.

Both want the backing of the 14 votes from Caricom – British colony Montserrat can’t vote – but all indications are that Hugo Chavez’s oil-rich nation is out front as far as the region is concerned.

Belize, Guatemala’s neighbour and a Caricom member state, has formally written to Caricom asking it to support anybody but Guatemala because of fears Guatemala won’t be fair if their longstanding border dispute comes up at the Security Council while Guatemala is a sitting member. Leaders are likely to take the territorial dispute into account when they discuss external relations but the whole issue could end up in individual voting in the unlikely scenario of no consensus.

At some stage during the meeting, the string of failed attempts by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to reach agreement on trade issues will also be on the agenda, as will efforts by Caricom and the EU to negotiate a WTO compatible trade-and-aid agreement to replace preferential conventions that have been in place in the past.

Venezuela will also feature at least two other times at the conference, with leaders looking at the controversial PetroCaribe concession oil initiative and its claim to a small island near Dominica and Antigua. Caracas wants its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) to be calculated from Bird Rock, meaning that nearby islands could lose theirs at the expense of an emerging power.

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