With sometimes subdued pomp and bombast the intellectuals from the Caribbean Diaspora, the region’s political leadership, and persons of influence in the United States gathered recently in Washington to discuss issues of relevance to the Diaspora and to make a statement to the Bush Administration about not forgetting CARICOM.
Attention spans are relative to the individual and I guess that gently reminding the United States president that “we’re still here” does, on the face of it, do Mr. Bush a service since he’s notorious when it comes to attention deficit. All this has me wondering about what happens now that the cocktails have been drunk, the nice friendly chatting long forgotten, and our vaunted leaders have gone back to their hum-drum routines and settled into practiced habits of simply moving on to the next conference or event.
One does not know if the CARICOM leaders came with a plan or a clearly defined set of projected outcomes from their meeting with President Bush. But if the alacrity that the CARICOM leadership embraced the promissory word is anything to go by then there is very little that might be expected to come out from the chit-chat with Mr. Bush and his Secretary of State Dr. Condoleezza Rice.
And the joint communiqué that was made public after the meeting is expansive, vapid and non-binding - the kind of cheap talk and phraseology that only diplomats and politicians can ever master. The US president, say the communiqué, pledged to renew the Caribbean Basin Trade Promotion Act and the 1991 Trade and Investment Framework Agreement. These two pieces of legislation were put in place to buttress the economically toothless Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI) of 1983.
This time around these same pieces of legislation are now being dusted off to deal with the devastation caused by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the fact that this unilateralist agreement almost destroyed CARICOM’s textile and assembly industries. The region simply could not compete with the cheap, non-unionized and abundant Mexican labor “just across the border.”
Other flowery language of the communiqué speaks about agreeing to support the Caribbean community’s expansion of its services sector and encouraging a focus on international financial services to facilitate a competitive means of economic diversification. Sounds nice and pat on the surface of things but in true diplomatic doublespeak the document then calls for “appropriate regulatory and supervisory practices consistent with the highest international standards.”
As harmless as that sounds this clause demands that CARICOM’s off-shore financial sector conform to “international standards” – read “US standards” - or those standards interpreted by the United States as “international.” “
But underneath all this talk about regulation and international standards covers the fact that the United States has been casting a critical and disapproving eye on the Caribbean off-shore financial services sector. Antigua and Barbuda is a case in point.
The United States fired off a complaint to the World Trade Organization (WTO) about this CARICOM nation’s online gaming system and placed unfair and anti-competition restrictions on Americans wanting to gamble on line. The WTO subsequently ruled that the US’s action was a barrier to fair trade and the international rules of competition in the marketplace and therefore a violation of international commercial practices. Of course, even with the nice language of the communiqué the US still refuses to recognize or change its behavior in respect to the WTO’s ruling.
So I ask you this: can CARICOM’s large and powerful neighbor to the north be trusted to make good on its statements in support of service development and diversification as outlined in the communiqué or is it all simply hot air?Mr. Bush is a lame-duck president who is expected to accomplish very little in the 18 months that he has in office.
As a hobbled water fowl he has the hostile Democratic House of Representatives on his tail with no let up. And preoccupied with the badly going wars in Iraq and Afghanistan Mr. Bush’s attention span when it comes to CARICOM and its problems is liable to be very, very short indeed. Political attention deficit disorder is a serious thing for a United States president whose job approval ratings are in the latrine and his effectiveness as a leader is questioned daily.
President Bush appears resigned to his fate as a less than effective president and seems only too eager to pass on his created and manufactured woes to a new president. CARICOM is not in the equation geopolitically or relevant to the Republican Party’s hopes to keep the presidency in 2008.
All this aside CARICOM with no paid lobbyists in Washington will be hard-pressed to nudge an attention-challenged Bush Administration in a direction that makes sense for both entities. The relationship between the United States and CARICOM has historically been one of benign indifference from the US only sitting up and taking note when something that directly affects US interests in the region materializes.
CARICOM has tried over the years to gain access to the power centers in Washington with very limited success.So that this much touted Caribbean Diaspora conference and meeting with President Bush may very well be an exercise in nihility given the fact that an incoming president – Democrat or Republican – is not bound by any law or principle to respect the positions set out in the communiqué.
The very real possibility of “starting over again” looms large given the thrust of US foreign policy at the moment that is consumed by its two wars in the Middle East.But let me now turn to the issue of the Caribbean Diaspora in the United States. There is no doubt that this grouping has made some strides over the years as other settler immigrant groupings have in the past. There is now an intellectual/academic layer within the group and a class system that is becoming on the one hand more pronounced due to economic relations caused by successes and achievements in higher education and corporate advancements; and on the other a great mass of the working poor and unemployed wallowing in poverty at the bottom.
Still, this group, despite its many successes, is an amorphous, leaderless group that is still riddled with parochial rivalries, insularity and disunity. With the intelligencia distancing itself from its very working class origins and aping white America in attitude, social modalities, residency and behavior the vast majority of the Diaspora has been left rudderless, floundering and confused. Small wonder that as the group becomes more and more preoccupied with the intense daily struggles to survival certain sections descend into the escapism provided by drugs, alcohol and constant partying.