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CARIBBEAN: Caricom Family Wooed by South American Cousins

Bert Wilkinson

GEORGETOWN, Guyana, Jul 6 2009 (IPS) - The suspicions of several Caribbean leaders about Venezuela’s growing political and economic clout in the region boiled over last week as they met for their four-day annual summit in Guyana.

Some complained that the growing number of Caribbean trade bloc nations joining the Venezuelan and Cuban-led Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) is causing discomfort at the highest levels and could detract from efforts to strengthen Caricom itself.

In recent months, Dominica, St. Vincent and Antigua have signed up with the South American-dominated grouping that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and the Castro brothers in Cuba argue is the best alternative to the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas once pushed by their arch political rival, the United States.

Caribbean members of the nine-nation ALBA grouping are also members of the PetroCaribe family through which more than a dozen Caribbean countries get Venezuelan oil on credit with delayed payments, or which are allowed to compensate their South American creditor in national commodities such as bananas and sugar among other items.

Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding, whose governing Jamaican Labour Party has not traditionally been the strongest proponent of the Caribbean Community (Caricom), said that while sovereign nations reserve the right to sign on to other bodies, he hopes it does not take away from efforts to build a stronger trade bloc.

“When you start to create other alliances you assume other responsibilities and obligations which may very well cut across the obligations you have at home,” he argued, conceding that most presidents and prime ministers are “frustrated and impatient” at the pace of regional integration in the Caricom bloc.


Unless Caricom implements decisions such as free movement of skilled workers within the bloc, it may well encourage “a family member to go next door and find greater comfort,” he warned.

“The priority they ought to give to getting our family working will be diminished,” he said.

On this he has the support of Grenadian colleague Tillman Thomas, whose island nation – which the U.S. invaded back in 1983 in the midst of a bloody leftist coup – attended the most recent ALBA high level-meeting as an observer but won’t join in the near future. Nearby St. Kitts and Nevis has said it is contemplating becoming the fourth member.

Thomas argues that the more nations join ALBA, the more Caribbean people might be led into thinking that all is not well within Caricom, views starkly opposite to Dominica’s Roosevelt Skerrit whose cabinet was the first that voted to join and sees nothing wrong in more nations coming on board.

“We will not be sending a positive signal to the people of the region. We are not joining ALBA. Our priority is to concentrate on strengthening integration in the region,” Thomas said.

In more measured tones, Trinidad’s Patrick Manning called the rivalry from ALBA “a new development that has to be examined.”

“I advocate some kind of dialogue between Caricom and ALBA,” he said, blaming the global economic situation and suggesting this will lead to a “reordering of alliances in the world”.

“We just have to understand the implications” of member countries joining the other grouping, he said.

Many professionals and technocrats in Caricom think that Venezuela is using PetroCaribe to win friends and influence people in the region. Caracas is also building schools, oil refineries and fuel storage depots in the smaller island nations, assisting with airport construction in some islands, and setting down Venezuela’s permanent imprint in the region.

Venezuela has company as it endears itself to the smaller nations, not the least being regional economic power oil- and gas-rich Trinidad, which wants to hook up with the Eastern Caribbean sub-grouping and be the big brother. It is also moving to dilute Venezuelan influence as both are major oil exporters.

Like Venezuela, Trinidad wants to spread its wings across the sub-grouping, establishing marine dry dock facilities in St. Vincent, a jet maintenance outfit in neighbouring Grenada, taking large amounts of road building materials from Dominica, selling natural gas to Jamaica and investing in its half dead bauxite sector.

Meanwhile, former pariah nation Libya is also knocking at the regional door, feeling the magnet pull of the small island nations.

The economic situation has not been kind to the Caribbean, as tourism has taken a significant hit and foreign direct investment dries up.

Tripoli recently announced plans to set up an embassy to serve the Eastern Caribbean, heralding the entrance of commercial banks and investment delegations.

Just last week, several prime ministers returned from the African Union meeting in Libya where they were special guest of AU Chairman President Muammar Gadaffi, who rushed them to Guyana to attend the annual bloc summit.

Incidentally, Libya is also reopening its embassy at Caricom headquarters in Guyana later this year. Investment teams are eyeing agricultural projects like large rice plantations.

 
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