'The attractions of Nationhood: Illusion and Reality -- Lessons from the CARICOM experience'

By Sir Ronald Sanders
Sir Ronald Sanders
Sir Ronald Sanders

This paper will explore the lure of independence for the remaining non-independent territories in the Caribbean and the lessons that can be learned from the experience of other Caribbean countries particularly the member states of the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM).




Speaking just a month ago on February 23rd the newly elected Chairperson of the United Nations Committee on Decolonization, Diego Morejón Pazmino of Ecuador, said that it was necessary to develop new strategies to ensure the “final disappearance of the archaic concept of colonialism”.


The Chair did not elaborate on what “new strategies” should be developed to end colonialism, nor did he or any other member of the Committee indicate what might replace the present links to metropolitan powers that now exist.


Yet, these are important questions for the people of these small states to consider in determining how they should respond to the siren call for independence and nationhood, often made by political leaders within their countries.


There are 16 non-independent territories left on the United Nations list.


Of the 16, seven of them are in the Caribbean, and, of the 7, six are administered by the United Kingdom: Anguilla, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Montserrat, and Turks and Caicos.


The seventh is the US Virgin Islands, administered by the United States.


In almost all of these territories, a call for independence has surfaced from time to time.


The urge for independence is often present among small and vocal groups who link their non-independent-status to slavery, exploitation and racism and who regard formal political independence as a defining end to that experience.


The urge is understandable, but for small states – and more particularly micro-states – the practicalities of its achievement should restrain passion.


As the African-American writer, James Baldwin, puts it: “Nothing is more desirable than to be released from an affliction, but nothing is more frightening than to be divested of a crutch”.


It is cautions, such as Baldwin’s, that have, in part, moderated enthusiasm for independence in the US Virgin Islands, where the US welfare system insulates the poor, provides basic health care, and permits unrestricted access to the US mainland for education, employment and investment.


To some extent, the same caution may now have also weakened the independence movements in the United Kingdom-administered territories in the Caribbean.


For instance, since May 2002, citizens of British overseas territories became British citizens automatically. They are not subject to United Kingdom immigration controls and are able to enter Britain to study or work and to build up residence requirements relating to other benefits.


British citizenship also gives them rights of freedom of movement, residence and the opportunity to work in member states of the EU – the European Union.


These are rights that are exercised regularly and that have benefitted the local populations by easing unemployment and, for Anguilla and Montserrat, increasing the volume of remittances to needy families.


Recently, dissatisfaction has been expressed by governments of the British administered territories about the relationship with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London which oversees their administration through a British-appointed Governor.


In 2009, the former Premier of the British Virgin Islands, Ralph O’Neal accused the British government and the Governor of treating his government “like minions” over the Governor by-passing his Cabinet in according “naturalization” to persons not born in the BVI.


In the past there has also been more than a little tension here in Cayman between the government and the British authorities over the extent to which the Cayman government can incur debt without approval from the British government.


In the Turks and Caicos Islands, in 2009 the British government suspended the Constitution and imposed direct rule through a UK-appointed Governor after an inquiry over government corruption and incompetence.


Just a few days ago, the Chief Minister of Anguilla, Hubert Hughes, travelled to Suriname to advise a meeting of Heads of Government of the CARICOM that “Britain has already made it clear that it has no plans to grant greater executive autonomy, like self-governance, to the island—much less full independence”.


His real issue, however, seems to revolve around the Governor prohibiting the Cabinet from appointing officials such as permanent secretaries and heads of departments in the civil service.


The CARICOM meeting “accepted the invitation from the Chief Minister of Anguilla to send a delegation of heads of government to Anguilla at the earliest opportunity” – to what avail is not clear.


The relevant point here is that there is dissatisfaction in the relationship between the governments of some of the non-independent territories in the Caribbean and the British government, as on the one hand, governments seek to assume greater political control of their territories, and on the other hand, the British government applies what it considers good governance systems and procedures that constrain the powers of local governments.


As I have said elsewhere in relation to this issue: “When local decision-making is constrained by the intervention of external forces, particularly the metropolitan powers, it encourages the desire for independence amongst the political elite”.


However, it seems clear that there is little chance in these Territories of the political elite convincing their populations that independence is necessary or desirable – at least on a traditional basis.


There are three reasons for this contention.


I have already alluded to the first.


It is that the conferment of British citizenship and the right of free movement to work, study and take up residence in the United Kingdom and other countries of the EU is a positive and valued benefit, and one which the populations would be unhappy to relinquish with independence.


The second reason is the high cost that independence would impose.


An Independence Commission in Bermuda calculated that the additional costs that the government would have to pay for its external relations would be between $3.3 million and $10.2 million annually.



The lower figure is extremely modest.


It also does not include the cost of defence which, for the most part, now falls to the account of the British government.


The costs of conducting external affairs and providing for security would differ only marginally for other existing non-independent states even if they were to focus their diplomatic representation narrowly and join only selected regional and international organisations.


It is telling that a number of small states that have been independent for some years now are presently disqualified from voting in the United Nations General Assembly and could not attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government last October in Australia because they were in arrears of their subscriptions to both organisations.


Indeed, even at the last CARICOM Heads of Government meeting earlier this month, the Chairperson - Surinamese President Desi Bouterse - admonished governments who were behind in their dues.


This caused a Barbadian Commentator to remind his readers of the words of the late Prime Minister of Barbados, Errol Barrow, that “it makes no sense to join the Club if one could not afford the subscription”.

Apart from the fact that governments would have to increase or introduce direct taxes on their populations to realise the additional revenues to pay the costs of external affairs and defence, they would also face the great difficulty of an insufficiency of qualified people in their tiny populations to carry out the myriad and increasingly complex tasks that are required for the conduct of external affairs and defence.


This is a difficulty that now plagues some independent small states such as the six that make up the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States.


The third reason that the prize of independence may have lost its lustre for people of the non-independent Caribbean countries is the economic and political performance of many neighbouring independent Caribbean states.


As the non-independent states look across the waters, they see many independent countries whose standard of living is not as good as theirs.


For instance, Bermuda has a per capita income that is three times as high at $69,000 than the Bahamas which is the best performer of the independent Caribbean countries at $23,000; it is also 23 times higher than Guyana and more than 10 times higher than 7 others.


Cayman Islands with a per capita income of $42,400 and the British Virgin Islands at $39,800 also out-perform every independent Caribbean country.


Debt to GDP ratios among the independent Caribbean countries are also significantly higher than in the self-governing territories.


In 2010, nine of the 13 independent CARICOM countries had debt to GDP ratios of over 60% with three of them well over a 100%.

This high debt has become unsustainable.


It has severely limited the policy space available to governments to spend on health, education, infrastructural programmes, and job creation with the result that unemployment and poverty levels have risen.


Three CARICOM countries – Antigua and Barbuda, Jamaica and St Kitts-Nevis – have had to resort to Stand-by programmes with the International Monetary Fund (the IMF) and others look set to go there too.


Equally clear is that independent Caribbean countries individually, like each of the non-independent territories, lack the capacity to provide for their own defence and security fully.


In the first part of this decade, a CARICOM Task Force on Crime and Security emphasised that the successful implementation of its action plan will depend upon international financial and logistical assistance.


As Professor Ramesh Deosaran of the University of the West Indies sums it up: “Such reliance, though justifiable, helps reveal the ‘dependency’ nature of Caribbean societies when it comes to dealing with internal and external security”.



It also underscores that independence has not made individual Caribbean countries any less reliant on external help than the non-independent territories in the important area of defence and security.


Nonetheless, some Caribbean states have used their independent status to advance their interests in the international community.


There have been gains, and, in a few cases, they have been spectacular.


But, these have been the exceptions, not the rule.


The principal gain of individual independence for small countries is that it has given them a voice in UN agencies, in the Organisation of American States (the OAS), and in the Commonwealth.


Sometimes, however, that voice has proven to be meaningless when, for instance, a government fails to pay its subscriptions and is prohibited from speaking or voting, or when a government has either no representation or inadequate representation to protect or advance its own interest in the myriad committees of global bodies such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO) that make rules gravely affecting them.


Despite their independence, independent Caribbean states have no voice in the important global financial institutions whose policies and practices materially affect them.


For instance, they are represented by Canada on the Executive Boards of the International Monetary Fund (the IMF) and the World Bank.


Owen Arthur, when he was Prime Minister of Barbados, pointed out that, on one occasion, when he wanted to address the Executive Board of the World Bank on behalf of his sovereign nation, he had to seek the permission of the Canadian representative.


Over the last two decades, as the world has moved increasingly to globalisation and trade liberalisation, the majority of small states, which were from the very outset only marginally capable of economic survival on their own, have found themselves overwhelmed by new challenges such as sea-level rise arising from Climate Change; the HIV/Aids pandemic; drug trafficking and attendant high rates of crime; a significant ‘brain drain’; increasingly high levels of debt; worsening terms of trade; and a lack of capacity for negotiating the integration of their societies into larger trading blocs and the new global trading system.


Even though small states played no part in creating the global financial crisis that began in late 2008, its effect caused the economies of the majority of small states to decline with few of them enjoying any economic growth at all.


In the wake of the crisis, the G20 was formed to replace the G7 which had controlled the world economy for over six decades.


The G20, it was said, would stimulate global demand and supply, but there have been no accompanying measures for the smallest, most vulnerable countries for debt relief, new aid, and sustainable capital flows.


While countries such as China, India, Brazil and South Africa have been included in the G20, small states have been left out in the cold.


More particularly, despite the severe challenges that they face, small states in the Caribbean have been “graduated” from concessional financing by the international financial institutions on the single criterion of per capita income.


They have also been denied special and differential treatment in the World Trade Organisation so that the same trade rules apply to Caribbean small states as apply, for example, to large and economically powerful countries such as the United States and China.


These are the realities of small states in the Caribbean that are already independent.


The point I am making here is that political “independence” and notional “sovereignty” have not accorded to individual independent Caribbean States a right to participate effectively in the important decision-making bodies of the world.


The greatest effectiveness of small states lies in their collective action; their strength has been shown best when they have pooled their individual sovereignty to advance themselves.



And this was – and remains - the intrinsic value of the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM).


CARICOM provides the mechanism for its member-states to achieve a better economic, social and political place in a highly competitive international community than they could accomplish alone.


In this connection, if the remaining non-independent territories in the Caribbean wish to seek independence with all the costly requirements that come with such a bold step, they would have been better-off doing so within the framework of a functioning and vibrant CARICOM where they would benefit from economic integration; sharing in arrangements such as the Regional Security System operated by Barbados and the seven countries of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States; joint external trade negotiations; and joint diplomatic representation with one or more CARICOM countries.


Within a CARICOM framework, independence from Britain would not leave them swimming alone in the turbulent sea of international relations without even a meagre life belt.


Indeed, the West Indian Commission which, in 1992, made recommendations in its report, “Time for Action” on the way forward for the Caribbean took account on the non-independent territories and their relationship with CARICOM by saying:


“There was a time, close to our own independence in the 60s and 70s, when we were disdainful and somewhat arrogant, about others not yet independent. Times have changed, however. We have learned the limits of independence and they do not justify superior airs… We do not believe that our vision of an Association of Caribbean States can exclude them (non-independent territories) – once they are allowed to participate in their own right and wish to do so – any more than CARICOM has excluded Montserrat. There are other possibilities… for example, to our keeping an open mind about their direct relationship with CARICOM”.


But, CARICOM itself does not at this present juncture in its history offer an enticing prospect.

It is telling that a sitting Head of Government, Dr Ralph Gonsalves, the Prime Minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines, thought it worrying enough last month to record deep concerns about the functioning of CARICOM in a letter to the Secretary-General copied to all Heads of Government.

In the letter, Prime Minister Gonsalves described the performance of CARICOM’s four main pillars in the following way:

• Functional co-operation: success is assured mainly when the policies, programmes or projects are driven by the funding and will of an external agency.

• Foreign policy co-ordination is patchy at best; its unevenness exacerbated by the passion, innocence or a lack of conviction of many of us.

• Security collaboration is mostly in tatters.

• Economic integration: The CARICOM trading regime is in place juridically, but is undermined daily. On wider economic issues of critical importance to in the “single market” such as the freedom of movement of persons and attendant contingent rights, the twists and contradictions are yet to be satisfactorily resolved.

He went on to assert that “the very existence of CARICOM is threatened by three poles of crisscrossing integration that are now pulling member countries in different directions”. Those poles are: The Economic Partnership Agreement with the European Union (EU) which imposes certain requirements of CARICOM member states with the EU that are greater than the member-states have of themselves; the increasing commitments by some member-states of CARICOM that are being given to the Venezuelan-led, ALBA group; and new arrangements that may result from trading regimes with Canada and the United States.

The Prime Minister minced no words in the letter when he pinpointed the root of CARICOM’s problems as its governance, asserting that CARICOM’s administrative structure is less than effective and sub-optimal in performance.

There was no doubt in his mind that “CARICOM’s mode of marking time, at an historical moment of overwhelmingly awesome challenges for our region, which compellingly demands a more profound integration, is mistaken”.

He asserted that: “The times demand that we move resolutely beyond minimalism (in the integration process) which inexorably leads to regression; “pausing” is but a euphemism for standing still which, in a dynamic world, is sliding backward”.

The prospect that CARICOM once held out of a Single Caribbean space in which Caribbean citizens would be able to travel, live and work is now dimmed.

Yet, the Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME) – the ambition for which was set in 1989 – remains a valid and necessary instrument.

In October 2002 – almost ten years ago - as Prime Minister of Barbados and with responsibility for the CSME in the quasi-Cabinet of CARICOM, Owen Arthur made the compelling point that when in 1989 at Grand Anse, the leaders of the Caribbean determined that the Caribbean economy should be transformed into a Single Market and Single Economy it “was one of the most important decisions in the history of our region”.

It was so important because as he said “throughout its entire history the Caribbean economy has been made up of separate island economies, each competing rather than cooperating with each other for the same markets and investments, and all better linked to metropolitan economies than to each other”.

“It was made urgent:, he explained, “ because in a world then, as it is now characterised by the proliferation of regional economic and trading blocs (over 100), and by a distinct tendency towards the lowering and removal of barriers to trade, the movement of investment, capital, intellectual property, technology and promoting mobility in the location of production internationally, the Caribbean would be the odd man out were an effort not made to create and transform our region into one single, common economic space”.

The importance that Owen Arthur placed on the Single Market in 2002, has not diminished. If anything, it has intensified.

This is reflected by the statement of the current Chair person of CARICOM, the President of Suriname, at the opening of the Heads of Government Conference a few days ago, when he said of the CARICOM region:

“We have no reason to be poor. Look at what we have amongst us: oil, gas, gold, diamonds, bauxite, forests, sea, sun, sugar, rice, spice, coffee, water, and so much more. With such resources we can do more than survive. We can flourish.”

But to use those resources collectively to do more than survive, and to flourish, does CARICOM not need the Single Market and Economy?

Is not its full implementation the necessary and fundamental requirement for the exploitation of the region’s resources, through integrated production, movement of capital and movement of labour that the CSME would facilitate and make possible?

And, without the CSME, are CARICOM governments not only ignoring the obvious benefits of integration, but delaying it to the detriment of their countries’ economies?

How then could it be put on “pause”?

Unfortunately, it is not only in the area of the CSME that CARICOM has begun to reverse itself.

The idea that, together, the countries of CARICOM could be a strong entity providing better global representation for its people than its individual states also now appears remote.

Today, we see little collective bargaining by CARICOM states.

Apart from the negotiations with the EU for an Economic Partnership Agreement (an EPA), and the protracted free trade negotiations that have been taking place with Canada for two years now, external bargaining has become a free for all .

Hence, instead of a collective, long-term, predictable trade, aid and investment agreement between CARICOM and China, Caribbean states are involved in a beggar-thy-neighbour relationship with China and Taiwan.

Five of the 14 independent CARICOM states are aligned to Taiwan and 9 are tied to China.

Up until the Heads of Government Conference held in Suriname a few days ago, no Communiqué emanating from a CARICOM meeting mentioned China or Taiwan, because the governments linked to Taiwan blocked any discussion on a CARICOM ‘China policy’.

It is only now that Grenada is under strain to repay loans amounting to US$28 million to EXIM Bank of Taiwan after breaking diplomatic relations in favour of China that its government raised the matter in Suriname, and CARICOM leaders, expressed “solidarity with the Government of Grenada” in what they called “these trying circumstances”.

Of course, it was easy enough for the countries linked to China to express such “solidarity”, but with others still tied to Taiwan and solicitous of its aid, the expression of solidarity is more notional than real.

As it stands, the overwhelming presence of China in several CARICOM states and the increasing indebtedness to, and reliance on, China poses serious questions about their capacity to maintain an independent stance from China in the international community.

As this seminar looks to the Caribbean of the future, we should all be aware that the relationship between individual CARICOM countries and China is a growing issue.

It is a relationship that requires a joint approach by CARICOM countries to agree collective long-term arrangements with China that include mutually acceptable rules.

There are many other examples of separateness if not division in the conduct of external relations by CARICOM states.

The membership by three CARICOM member states of the Venezuelan-led Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) and the signal that two more might do so, suggests further fragmentation within CARICOM in the context of its external relations.

This can only result in the weakening of the organisation whose creation was founded to give strength in unison – if not in unity – to its individual member states.

The present situation certainly does not commend CARICOM as an organisation that would provide non-independent territories with the overarching framework in which they could pool any new-found sovereignty with other Caribbean countries for their collective development.

I do not overlook the new OECS Economic Union; but it is too newly formed and still too fragile to offer options to non-independent Territories.

For all the reasons set out here, the Caribbean integration project has to be rejuvenated and re-invigorated.

Particularly after the much publicised and robust letter of the St Vincent Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves pointing out the deep malaise in which the regional integration project is mired, it was not an unreasonable expectation, that CARICOM leaders at their meeting in Suriname a few days ago, would have shed the cloak of denial that CARICOM is not in crisis; accepted publicly that urgent action is necessary; and announce credible measures to move forward.

That did not occur.

Instead, heads declared that “the integration movement has continued to make great strides ever since the signing of the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas” – a declaration that would not find great echoes of support within the region or outside it.

Many Caribbean businesspeople are bedevilled every day by the continuing bureaucracy that delays, if not prohibits, the movement of their goods from one CARICOM country to another.

Caribbean people also continue to face obstacles to the right of establishment even when they qualify for freedom of movement in the categories identified in the Revised Treaty.

The lack of a coherent regional transportation policy continues to adversely affect the transportation of goods and movement of people within CARICOM.

Food security remains unaddressed even as the cost of importing food escalates for every country, and some CARICOM countries such as Guyana, Belize and Dominica dump food that could feed the region, keeping foreign exchange within the area.

A region-wide plan for regional energy security utilising regionally-produced hydro-electricity, solar energy, geo-thermal energy, and oil and gas also continues to be elusive.

The Heads told the public that, in Suriname, they considered, in-depth, the recommendations of the EU-funded Landell Mills report on re-structuring the CARICOM Secretariat.

They said “the Secretary-General would begin the process of restructuring of the Secretariat through the recruitment of a change facilitator to support him in that exercise and the strengthening of the corporate functions in the first instance” and “in a parallel exercise, the Bureau of Conference would work with an internal group from the Secretariat to facilitate improving regional governance and implementation”.

On the matter of regional governance and implementation, this would be the fourth (or maybe the fifth) attempt since 1992 to deal with the issue.


Therefore, Caribbean people would be forgiven for harbouring no high expectation of its success, especially as once again it is the “Bureau” (three heads of government with no authority to make decisions for the others) that will oversee it.

Still, it has to be hoped that the decisions to “begin the process of restructuring the Secretariat” and “to facilitate improving regional governance and implementation” are signs that more radical and fundamental reforms will be implemented.

The vital work is a five-year strategic plan that the Secretary-General has been mandated to produce by the next CARICOM Summit in July.


That plan should be the framework that guides a coordinated regional response to the current malaise of weak growth, high debt, stagnating incomes and rising unemployment.

But, even if it is the most technically sound plan, it will be worth no more than the paper on which it is written, unless it is accompanied by a decision of leaders to establish strong governance machinery that would bind governments by law and oversee implementation of decisions made for the benefit of all CARICOM member states.


It is to be hoped that the “pause” button on regional integration will now be released, and the collective foot of CARICOM’s leadership will be firmly placed on the accelerator of achieving the objectives of the CARICOM Treaty.

I recall here the words of a Caribbean elder statesman who has lived through West Indian Federation, CARIFTA, and CARICOM, and whose life has been dedicated to the advancement of the region. Of the present situation in CARICOM, Sir Shridath Ramphal says:

“So, it seems, that where vision is vital, there is stagnation; where leadership is essential, there is inertia. But, to pause in a rapidly moving world is really to stop; and to pause in mid-flight is really to plummet. It is not as if each of our leaders is not a bright, able, enlightened West Indian. Each of them possesses all of these qualities and more. So why, when acting collectively, does a vision of Caribbean integration elude them and leadership to drive the process lapse? I suspect that it is because both the scope of vision and the scale of leadership involve the necessity to share control; it requires a commitment to mature regionalism”.


Surely, in the tough economic circumstances in which Caribbean states exist; in the reality that none, by itself can successfully combat the challenges of sea-level rise, of HIV/Aids, of drug trafficking and gun running; in recognition that each by itself is a voice crying in the wilderness, the time for that commitment to mature regionalism has come.


And, if it can be harnessed to implement the measures of deeper integration fundamental to national and regional development, CARICOM member states would not only have grasped the opportunity for their own advancement, but would offer the non-independent Caribbean states, a viable vehicle for their own progress.

Sanders is a Consultant and former Caribbean diplomat.
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