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Chasing after an elusive union

Sunday, July 20, 2003

BOTH the governing People's National Party (PNP) and the parliamentary Opposition Jamaica Labour Party continue to distance themselves, as expected, from the chase for what remains an elusive goal after the collapse of the West Indies Federation in 1962.

But the merry-go-round on political union for even some member countries in the eastern and southern regions of the Caribbean Community has once again re-emerged.

This time with the meeting two Mondays ago in Barbados of four Caribbean Community prime ministers, among them Owen Arthur, who hosted the event.

Not surprisingly, the meeting has triggered both hope among those who fervently want some form of political unity, as well as renewed cynicism by others who have grown weary of the posturings and rhetoric with no systematic approach on a matter that remains vital to the shaping of our region's collective future.

Motivated, I think, by good intentions, Prime Minister Arthur and his counterparts in Trinidad and Tobago (Patrick Manning), St Vincent and the Grenadines (Ralph Gonsalves) and Grenada (Keith Mitchell), would be aware that since the death of the West Indies Federation in 1962, the path to political integration has been littered with a lot of good intentions that went wrong. Or simply never materialised.

Whatever they do after the next three months or so, when they hope to receive from a task force a "concept paper" on "deeper forms of political co-operation" (Arthur); or "laying the foundation for political union" (Manning); or moving towards "political unity with any three or more countries, starting with a confederation" (Gonsalves), the leaders must avoid the errors of the past.

Following the collapse after four short years of the first experiment at political federation, that noted Caribbean icon, Arthur Lewis, launched his bold and imaginative initiative for a 'Federation of the Little Eight' (Barbados and countries now involved in the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States or OECS).

Frustrated in the process, Lewis lamented that political unity would eventually come, but only after the then political directorate had passed on. Well, those who did not physically pass away were out of power before Lewis himself went to the great beyond.

Their successors have also failed, for various reasons, to get their acts together over the past two decades, for any of the forms of political integration some of them had articulated -- unitary statehood; confederation; or a federal structure.

After former Vincentian Prime Minister James Mitchell's commendable push for a political union of OECS countries crashed on the rock of insularism and political opportunism, it was left to the heads of government of the four Windward Islands to promote a limited political union within the OECS subregion.

It was another welcome initiative that was to fail.

The report of that Windward Island unity initiative was left to gather dust as ruling and opposition parties continued with their popular game of sterile local politicking.

By 1992, Prime Minister Manning was to surprisingly spring his "idea", without any prior consultation, for 'closer co-operation' among Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados and Guyana that could result in a political union, without prejudice to the other member states of Caricom.

Nationals of those three countries enthusiastically hailed what came to be known as "The Manning Initiative".

It was to remain an initiative without form or substance for more than a year until late 1993 when the then prime minister of Barbados, Erskine Sandiford, produced, with the assistance of his Attorney-General Maurice King, a working document that had at its core, a tri-state confederation of Barbados, Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago.

The Manning idea that resulted in "The Sandiford Concept Paper" got lost amid the dramatic political developments with changes in governments in Port of Spain and Bridgetown.

This left President Cheddi Jagan, committed in principle, as he said, to political unity, to continue with his own concerns about improved governance in Guyana, without further diversion on the Sandiford paper.

When the Sandiford administration was succeeded in 1994 by Owen Arthur's government, excitement was generated over a possible new co-operation agreement of Eastern Caribbean states involving Barbados and the OECS.

That effort was also to prove a weekend wonder, after enough headlines had captured the inspiring rhetoric of some of the major players. Whatever the roadblocks or constraints encountered, remain unclear.

Talk of Caribbean political unity has been noticeably absent from the programmes of ALL political parties at successive general elections, with the exception of Gonsalves' in St Vincent and the Grenadines.

And, as recent as this year's May general election in Barbados, neither constitutional reform nor regional political integration was an issue of significance for either the incumbent Barbados Labour Party or the Opposition Democratic Labour Party.

This was also the case at the three general elections held in Trinidad and Tobago over the past two years -- as it was in Guyana for the 2001 general election.

Regrettably, it has become the norm for Caricom affairs to virtually fall off the agenda of contesting parties, save for occasional and generalised references, during an election campaign.

If a confederation, which is the minimum form of political union, is not to be at the core of the concept paper to come from the task force yet to be established, then what kind of 'deeper form of political co-operation' or 'political integration' should the people really expect?

Even those who ardently support regional political integration have noted that the domestic opponents of the four PMs who met in Barbados are waiting to ask about constitutional reforms prior to any discussion on political union.

There remains the concern that we may once again be caught up, in new discussions and media reporting on regional political unity that may suit both ruling and opposition parties in some Caricom countries.

But the debates may lead us nowhere, soon, to the realisation of that elusive goal of political unity. Not even, I suspect, among three or four Caricom states. I would gladly welcome being proven wrong.

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