IT was a great honour for me over the past six months to have held the chairmanship of the Caribbean Community. Given that I am still virtually new to the scene in terms of political pedigree, the role allowed me to follow closer and to be more deeply involved in, the tremendous strides which this Community continues to make on behalf of our people.
Today, I am giving way to another newcomer to Caribbean political leadership, the distinguished Prime Minister of Barbados, but one who has been around the arena for some considerable time and who I am sure is familiar with the issues and challenges which face our Caribbean region. I know that Mia Mottley is fully prepared, and I am sure, quite capable of carrying the torch forward.
When I took over the chairmanship at the 40th meeting of the Conference of Heads in Saint Lucia in July 2019, I identified some of the areas that were troubling to all of us: climate change, blacklisting by the EU, the adversities facing small island states in the international community, the ongoing situation in Venezuela, the withdrawal of correspondent banking services from the region, among others.
Unfortunately, none of these issues have gone away and it will be up to the incoming Chairman to continue to lobby on our behalf, because in most cases, the urgency is even greater.
Corresponding Banking and De-risking
In November last, as a direct result of our Saint Lucia meeting, a delegation from the Community led by the distinguished Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda took the issue of correspondent banking and de-risking to Washington in light of the threat of our financial institutions losing critical relationships with US banks.
I can report that we have moved the needle on de-risking and that the OECS is working on a single compliance department.
We were able to draw the attention of the members of the Financial Services Committee of the United States’ Congress and senior representatives of major US banks, including Bank of America, to the catastrophic effect which the stringent measures being imposed on domestic banks by correspondent banks in the United States and the negative impact which the withdrawal of such services was having on economies in CARICOM Member States.
Our own information indicates that up to the middle of 2018, 25% of the 50 banks operating across CARICOM had reported termination of correspondent banking services, while 75% reported they were facing certain correspondent banking restrictions.
Other negative consequences have been an increase in operational costs, an extension in the processing time for international payments, as well as increased difficulty in account opening or securing banking services.
Blacklisting and Venezuela
Another CARICOM delegation interfaced with the European Union on the troubling issue of blacklisting, which continues to this day. Member States of the Community, however, continue to take the necessary steps to comply with the demands of the regulating agencies, but while they do, countries in our region are still being penalized. Some of us remain on the grey list, while only one Member State remains on the blacklist. We must continue working until all of us are off the list, but more importantly, we must make every effort to ensure this undemocratic and discriminatory practice of a public blacklist is discontinued.
The lack of resolution to the ongoing situation in Venezuela continues to concern us. So far, all efforts at mediation have failed; in fact from all indications conditions in Venezuela continue to deteriorate despite a recent lull and this is likely to make finding a solution even harder. The involvement of outside forces in the controversy, however, could only escalate the crisis and make a resolution that more difficult, while at the same time testing and stressing our own attempt at a common position on that issue.
Solution to the longstanding difficulties in Haiti also remains elusive. While understandably we have ring-fenced some of Haiti’s rights and privileges in our Treaty, more importantly we must be honest brokers and admit that we, like many others, have failed in our attempts to find a solution and need to collectively chart a new course. We owe it to the people of Haiti who deserve much more, given our common histories.
A team from the Community observed last December’s general election in the Commonwealth of Dominica. We are pleased to see that efforts are underway to resolve contentious issues which arose there in the lead up to the voting. Likewise, a CARICOM delegation will be on duty in Guyana for the upcoming election. No doubt, we will, as is customary, provide support to the five other Member States which will be holding elections during the course of 2020. These postings are crucial in ensuring transparency and accountability in the electoral process.
While we were supposed to have met with the distinguished Prime Minister of Canada, we are very pleased to welcome Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister, Francois-Philipe Champagne.
Canada has been and continues to be a true friend of the Caribbean. This relationship dates back to Prime Minister Trudeau’s father in the 1960s, thanks in large part to his close relationship with three former stalwarts of this Heads of government grouping, Prime Ministers Errol Barrow of Barbados, Sir John Compton of Saint Lucia and Sir James Mitchell of St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
We look forward with great anticipation to our discussions with Canada on further strengthening our ties. While the West Indian diaspora has made major contributions towards the development of Canada, Canada has represented many of us at the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, is a member of the G7, G20 and a leading voice at the Commonwealth, as well as being a major contributor to the Caribbean Development Bank.
As impressive as our ties have been, I believe there is still more that can be done, and while not attempting to preempt the discussions we will be having here, we need Canada’s voice and leadership on climate change, de-risking and blacklisting. Despite the withdrawal of some Canadian Banks from our region, we continue to see major Canadian investments through both public private partnerships and privately. We are also keen on the reinstatement of visa-free access to Canada and support from Canada in fields where it has achieved world class status such as Education, Health Care and Security.
Mobilizing funds to tackle the issues of disaster risk financing as a consequence of climate change is another major imperative for this Community. All these matters that I have mentioned, along with the continuing debate on the CARICOM Single Market and Economy are again major agenda issues at this meeting and it is my hope that we can arrive at some decisions to demonstrate to the people across the region our determination to make the integration process work for them.
On climate change, we must continue to press for the re-classification of SIDS by the OECD, to take into consideration our vulnerability and the adverse implications of current protocols governing debt classification and our access to financing. Moreover, we must redouble our efforts towards the establishment of a dedicated fund for SIDS. Interestingly it is the Ministers of Finance from the developed countries who may have found the solution through the introduction of a carbon tax. While I agree that would be a truer representation of the cost of carbon, the question is, who should the revenue go to? While the emissions occur at the point of production, the impact is felt globally. We must as a region look to establish and advocate for environmental justice so that offenders are appropriately and effectively sanctioned.
As we all know by now, the United Kingdom formally leaves the European Union at the end of this year. Since 2017, and under the umbrella of CARIFORUM, we have been involved in discussions with the UK on an agreement that would govern trade between us post-Brexit and replicate the effects of the CARIFORUM-European Union Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA). This will ensure continuity in the preferential trading relationship and avoid disruption in preferential trade between the CARIFORUM States and the United Kingdom. The UK market is important to us as it currently absorbs approximately 25 percent of our total exports to Europe, which comprise bananas, rum, sugar, rice, agro-processed goods and methanol are among others. With regard to services and investment, the UK has provided significant guarantees of access to its market and CARIFORUM is committed to working closely with the UK to ensure that our service providers can take further advantage of this market. The new CARIFORUM-UK EPA goes into operation from January 2021 and seems a fair compromise between the CARIFORUM and the UK, as well as a testament to the commitment and willingness of both sides to do what is best for their economic operators.
On assuming the chairmanship six months ago, I asked whether we were satisfied with our current status; whether we believed that all our citizens or even the majority were satisfied and also whether we were pushing ourselves hard enough. These questions remain relevant today. The people of the Caribbean Community have a lot riding on this integration process. They recognize that we have achieved a lot, but they are also convinced that we can do more.
A great example of our regionalism working is in our approach to the spread of the Coronavirus. As many of you are aware a week ago Saint Lucia was on high alert and thankfully the RSS stepped in to help get our samples to CARPHA for immediate testing and they quickly came back to us with news that we were Coronavirus free.
We are so thankful as a nation to the RSS and CARPHA for going above and beyond. This reminds us of the importance of being part of a union; being part of a group that in times of emergency have your back. You had Saint Lucia’s back and we thank you. This is what being part of CARICOM is about.
I say again, that as the elected leaders we must be prepared to rise to the various challenges that confront us, and like our forefathers we must inspire our citizens by finding the solutions to counteract them.
The time has come when we should be stepping on the regional integration pedal a little more to bring greater benefits and opportunities for all.
So let us move more purposefully and decisively in advancing the cause of this movement and implement those measures that are required to give it a new direction, vibrancy and purpose that will serve to guarantee its future and the future of our people on the whole.
In closing, I would like to express my thanks and appreciation to my colleague Heads of Government and to The Secretary General, other officials and staff of the CARICOM Secretariat for their cooperation and assistance which made my tenure as chairman smooth and rewarding.