The Only Thing That Separates Us Is Us

Caribbean leaders got an eloquent telling-off by Sir Shridath Ramphal when he recently gave the Inaugural G. Arthur Brown Lecture hosted by the Bank of Jamaica in celebration of their 50th Anniversary.  Sir Shridath, former Guyana Government Minister, UWI Chancellor and three-term Secretary General of the Commonwealth has spoken on this theme for over three decades, but never before has he captured our collective cowardice so accurately.

Yes, it must be cowardice that makes big people stand up at a microphone mouthing fine words of unity, then return to their home countries to resume their backward behaviour, reigning over crumbling fiefdoms.

Did PM Bruce Golding ‘take shame’ when, two days after Sir Shridath’s lecture he asked the region’s public servants to adopt a collective view of our global opportunities?  A Jamaica House release quoted Mr Golding as saying: “This is where I think CARICOM needs to make a fundamental change and instead of looking at each other with our separate pair of eyes, we need to put those 14 pairs of eyes together and look at the rest of the world. CARICOM is too small to provide the space that we need to grow, too small in numbers and the effectiveness of its purchasing power.”

Sir Shridath touched a nerve when he gave an account of our failed attempt at Federation after the British became enthusiastic about shedding their colonies and granted us our independence: “regional unity was no longer a pre-condition to ‘local control’; so Norman Manley and Eric Williams remained in their home garrisons, declining to dwell in the regional castle that they helped to construct.”

Sir Shridath should know that the garrisonisation of communities within our beloved Jamaica has further nurtured this mindset of desperation.  He quotes a Barbadian food vendor who observed, “the only thing that separates us is us.”

Sir Shridath commented drily on a recent statement from a CARICOM conference chairman: “Slow down, the Chairman said repeatedly to the media in explaining how his colleagues felt about ‘integration’ ….Given that we are already at dead slow, how far is that from ‘stop’?”

He warned, “to pause in a rapidly moving world is really to stop; and to pause in mid-flight is really to plummet.” He quoted a study entitled ‘Caribbean Regional Integration’ conducted by top scholars of the region which concluded: “The difficulties facing the  region are no longer simply about competing effectively in a globalising economy. Rather, they are ‘existential threats’ which bring into question the fundamental viability of Caribbean society itself. Climate change, transnational crime, the decline of regional industries, food security, governance challenges, international diplomacy … are becoming increasingly acute in the immediate present; failure to act immediately, decisively and coherently at the regional level could quite conceivably herald the effective decline of Caribbean society as a ‘perfect storm’ of problems gathers on the horizon.”

In other words, we are looking at a life-and-death situation as if we are already not tearing our hair out over joblessness, crime and the high cost of living.  Bemoaning our excruciating inaction, Sir Shridath said that as far back as 300 years ago a French Dominican Monk, Père Labat mused, “You are all together, in the same boat, sailing on the same uncertain sea.”

Representatives of England’s Privy Council must be wondering why we have danced around the issue of establishing the Caribbean Court of Justice as our final court of appeal, even as we so stridently declare our sovereignty.

Sir Shridath was able to point to a fine Caribbean example of unity that illustrates that yes, it is indeed possible for small islands to unite under one constitution and thrive. “There, within our  own region, a Commonwealth of some 700 islands, lying off the south-east coast of America, is one state – so administered for over 300 years, the Bahamas is larger in size than any single island state of CARICOM, and its population bigger than any of the OECS islands,” said Sir Shridath. “… it has overcome the separateness that the sea could have engendered. In the result, with meagre natural resource endowment, its GDP is higher than any member state of CARICOM, save Trinidad and Tobago .”

Sir Shridath also gave kudos to former Prime Minister P J Patterson for his role in the formation of the ACP: “We earned the respect of Europe and of our African and Pacific brothers; but it all was rooted in our unity at home.”

Ironically, he quoted the closing lines of an old poem ‘Bruce and the Spider’ to bolster his hope that despite numerous setbacks, we may yet achieve the unity we so love to declare: “That Perseverance gains its meed,/And Patience wins the race.’  Caribbean unity is a fantastic platform for the learned Bruce Golding, many times beaten like “The Bruce,” Robert I, King of Scotland in the poem, who after six defeats finally springs to action to win the battle of Bannockburn in 1314 for Scotland against a tyrannical English King.

Folks, it’s not easy: for two years, as president of the PR Society of Jamaica , I tried to forge links for the formation of a Caribbean PR Association.  We travelled to Trinidad , Barbados and Curacao , where we were finally able to sign a declaration of intent.  It went no further after we were stunned by an unfortunate ego trip.  “He pong you!” said my humourous Trinidadian colleague Astra DaCosta, thus expanding my Caribbean vocabulary.  He certainly did, but that was a small matter compared to this looming global crunch that no single Caribbean state can fight alone.  Can Sir Shridath shame us into action?