For years Jamaica and Trinidad have had serious differences over how free trade in the single trading market is supposed to work with Jamaica mostly always accusing Trinidad of unfair trading competition.
But in recent months, the issue has boiled over for a very different reason — a reason so bizarre says government and private sector officials in Jamaica that it has forced Trinidadian Prime Minister Keith Rowley to spend a full week in Jamaica assuring islanders that all will be well after he returns home.
At center of the latest reason for a quarrel between two of the more influential members of the 15-nation group is the growing feeling in Kingston that immigration and government officials in Trinidad are so biased against ordinary Jamaican folk that there are either harassed at ports of entry or denied landing altogether.
Earlier this year, Trinidadian authorities turned away a group of more than 12 Jamaicans, most of them women, saying they have given insufficient reasons for visiting the island.
The incident sparked a furor in Jamaica with the umbrella Private Sector Commission jumping to the side of those rejected and saying that the time had come to boycott export products from Trinidad.
Weeks after that, Jamaica formally placed the issue of unfair trade and impediments to free travel within the region on the plate of the trade ministers conference and later took it to the just-concluded regional leaders summit in Guyana, taking up significant portions of debate time at the meeting.
Jamaican government officials say they think they have detected a pattern against Jamaicans and decided that the time had come to do something about it, joining in stinging criticism against Port of Spain, the Trinidad & Tobago capital.
For Rowley who was elected prime minister back in September, the constant negative barrage against the island and its peoples was just too much to bear, so he decided to make a full official visit to Jamaica, complete with a red carpet welcome, a 21-gun salute and all the pomp and ceremonies associated with a visiting head of state or government.
By mid week, tensions had clearly died down after Rowley and Trinidadian delegation members had held several rounds of talks with Jamaican government and private sector officials, dealing with the trade and immigration issues. Smiles, platitudes and handshakes replaced the stinging rhetoric of recent weeks.
“I would like to thank you for stepping down the wicket and for coming here today. Coming to Jamaica is an important step. I think that we all know the problems, we all share the same problems, they are not new problems, they have been around with us for a long time,” the Jamaican Gleaner quoted Merty Seaga, president of the Jamaica Manufacturers’ Association as saying.
“The time has come for us to understand that, once and for all, united we are stronger than an individual. But the role that each of us has to play, and the two countries have that role to play, is to ensure the future of CARICOM as a united group,” said overall private sector boss William Mahfood, the man who had called for the boycott.
The issue had so troubled Jamaicans that its cabinet recently ordered a full review of its relations with its CARICOM neighbors, mainly to determine what benefits the island gets from its membership. Back in the late 1950s, it was the same Jamaica, which broke away from the West Indies Federation saying it was easier to look north to the U.S. rather than back south to the region because there wasn’t much to gain.