OP-ED: No Caribbean ‘society’

By Sir Ronald Sanders
Sir Ronald Sanders
Sir Ronald Sanders

At their retreat in Guyana on May 21 and 22, Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) Heads of Government are reported to have noted that the preamble to the revised CARICOM Treaty focuses exclusively on ‘economy’ and does not speak to ‘society’. 


The Heads are recorded as agreeing: “If there is no sense of community; no sense of shared values; no sense that the People of the Region have something to contribute to the treasury of human civilization, our endeavours would be meaningless”.  They then concluded: “There is therefore need for discussion and articulation of a Caribbean society”.


However, they did not continue to say how and when the “discussion and articulation of a Caribbean society” would begin. 


In any event, the statement that the revised CARICOM Treaty focuses exclusively on ‘economy’ and does not speak to ‘society’ has not been surprising for the past decade since the revised Treaty was signed.  Nor should it have been.  The CARICOM Treaty, after all, is an agreement governing areas of trade, economic integration, foreign policy co-ordination, functional cooperation and related matters.  More particularly, the Treaty grew out of an understanding, developed over almost a century, that Caribbean countries are indeed a society.  There was hardly a need in the Treaty to refer to a ‘society’.  It was taken for granted.


The understanding that the Caribbean people are a society has been articulated since the beginning of the 20th Century by trade union leaders, educators, writers, calypsonians and politicians such as CLR James, Marcus Garvey, T L Marryshow,  Gerald Francisco Slinger (the Mighty Sparrow), Eric Williams, Norman Manley, Grantley Adams, Shridath Ramphal, and Errol Barrow.   That list is by no means exhaustive.  In the current group of leaders, no one has done more to advance the notion of the existence of a Caribbean ‘society’ than the Prime Minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines who rightly and constantly reminds us of our ‘Caribbean civilisation’.

Even long before that, in 1772, Pere Labat said of the Caribbean people: “You are all together in the same boat, sailing on the same uncertain sea...  citizenship and race unimportant, feeble little labels compared to the message that my spirit brings to me: that of the predicament which history has imposed upon you”.


And what is ‘society’?   Sociologists define it as “people who interact in such a way as to share a common culture. The cultural bond may be ethnic or racial, based on gender, or due to shared beliefs, values, and activities”.  Who would doubt that the people of the Caribbean share “beliefs, values and activities”?   Are those shared beliefs, values and activities not obvious in our common legal system; in our shared education system; in our joint admiration of Usain Bolt as an outstanding Caribbean achiever; in our cheering for Caribbean athletes in Commonwealth and international events regardless of the jurisdiction in which they were born; and in our love of cricket and our passion for the West Indies cricket team to succeed?


Of course, there are some cultural differences between each of the countries, but none of them are sufficient to negate the existence of a ‘society’, just as differences between people in Clarendon and Kingston are not enough to deny a Jamaican society, or are differences between people from St Peter and Bridgetown sufficient to cancel out the reality of a Barbadian society.


It should also be recalled that, in 1997, the Heads of Government of CARICOM adopted a resolution adopting a Charter of Civil Society in which, in the name of the Caribbean people, they established values for the region as (in their words) “an important element of the Community’s structures of unity”.  Maybe it is true that few Caribbean people remember – and even fewer know of – the Charter.  But who should take responsibility for that?


In any event, it is welcome news that a “need” has been recognised “for discussion and articulation of a Caribbean society” because, in recent years, few political representatives have done much to articulate the benefits of Caribbean economic integration or the gains of functional cooperation or of joint trade negotiations.  Indeed, Caribbean integration is more often than not spoken of in derogatory and inaccurate terms, succeeding in raising tensions between the citizens of member countries.


 One way of discussing and articulating a Caribbean society in a meaningful way would be to re-invigorate a Regional Assembly of Caribbean Community Representatives.  But, it should not consist of political representatives alone. Equally represented should be private sector and trade union organisations from every member country of CARICOM.  And, the Assembly should have select committees which should be able to take evidence from Caribbean academics and practitioners in their fields of expertise.   Further, the Assembly should rotate their meetings among all CARICOM states and their meetings should be broadcast throughout the region on national television.


The Assembly should be able to discuss matters which its members initiate, according to their own rules, and which they should be empowered to send to CARICOM decision-making organs such as Heads of Governments meetings for consideration.  In turn, the Assembly should also be able to debate and pronounce upon local and international developments which affect the region as a whole.


This is not a new idea.  Six years ago, Dr Vaughan Lewis – distinguished Caribbean academic and public servant – proposed a variation of the notion set out here for an Assembly of Caribbean Community Representatives.  He saw its role more as “an education forum” than “a debating forum”.  The point is that the Assembly, even though it would have no legislative capacity as in the European Union, would be able to lift the notions of Caribbean ‘society’, Caribbean ‘community’ and Caribbean ‘integration’ to a higher plane of informed discussion.

And, in an Assembly made up of private sector and trade union persons as well as politicians, the participation would be broader and more representative of Caribbean society.



Sanders is a Consultant and former Caribbean diplomat. Responses and previous commentaries at: www.sirronaldsanders.com

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