TRADE ROW FUROR

Former Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding.
Associated Press / Collin Reid

When Caribbean community leaders assemble in Haiti next week, they might well be forced to discuss the very strong possibility that one of the nations, which had helped to found the integration movement and the regional free trade system is seriously considering withdrawing from that very same system until it is better organized and modernized.

Jamaica’s parliament, the cabinet and the island’s academic community are currently debating the recommendations of a commission which was established more than a year ago to undertake a complete review of the workings of CARICOM and to advise on the type of participation of Jamaica in the 15-member bloc going forward.

Former prime minister Bruce Golding was the man identified to head up the commission. It has submitted its report and parliament has had preliminary debates on it, albeit amid heated circumstances.

But one key recommendation contained in the report has many in the community shaking their heads in disbelief and even fear, worried that the bloc might be having its own form of Jaexit or Brexit as it talks about Jamaica withdrawing from the single market and economy or free market trading system because of unending dis-satisfaction.

Back in July 1973, then prime ministers Forbes Burnham of Guyana, Michael Manley of Jamaica, Eric Williams of Trinidad and Errol Barrow of Barbados had signed the Treaty of Chaguaramas in Trinidad establishing the regional family grouping. It had replaced CARIFTA, the early version of CARICOM as it is known today. CARIFTA was the acronym for the Caribbean Free Trade Area. The four have for decades been revered as the founding fathers.

But fed up of constant barriers to trade, tariff and other impediments to its export products, the slow pace of trade conflict resolutions, the culture of basic information secrecy in the bloc and lukewarm reactions to calls for modernization of the regional family system among other beefs, the report is now speaking to open rebellion.

Bruce Golding startled an academic forum at the weekend in Jamaica by saying that in the absence of a clear commitment from its other neighbors about improving the trading regime, “Jamaica should withdraw from the single market and economy (CSME), but retain its membership of CARICOM in a capacity similar to that of The Bahamas.

This is as successive Jamaican administrations and trade regulators have been complaining about an alleged unfair system for trade. Some bloc members, Trinidad in particular, has done everything it can to restrict exports from Jamaica into the twin-island, while being allowed free and easy access into Jamaica. The row over trade access dates back to the patti pastry wars of the 90s. Jamaican exporters say Trinidad did everything in its power to bloc access to the market. On free travel, Trinidad has also been identified as the main culprit, allegedly unfairly profiling and deporting Jamaican visitors to the island.

So authorities appointed a review commission to study the way things work in CARICOM and to make recommendations as to how Jamaica should continue its participation in the regional family going forward.

Golding suggests that Jamaica should quit membership of the free trade system-the so-called single market and economy (CSME), but remain a member of the community if clear systems are not in place to ensure proper free trade in about five years.

Sensing that this particular recommendation could cause trouble in the family, Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade Minister Kamina Johnson-Smith was quick to assure anyone listening that some of the major recommendations of the report have not as yet found favor with the cabinet. For now these are simply recommendations from the commission.

“She told reporters recently that cabinet had had “robust and substantive” discussions regarding the report. “I think it’s important that we note that the cabinet has not accepted all the recommendations of the report. We welcome it, we have noted and we have taken certain positions in relation to recommendations.”

Prime Minister Andrew Holness was perhaps much clearer in his predictions about how the situation will evolve than most others who commented on the review study.

“I wish to underscore that the review was not intended to seek an exit from CARICOM and from various regional arrangements, such as the CSME but to undertake a full review of the structure, procedures and practices that have not worked effectively in the national and regional interest,” noted Holness.

As leaders prepare for the first of their two annual summits starting on the 26th, they are at least have preliminary discussions on the issue. Critics say that if major discussions skip Haiti, that will certainly not be the case in July as Jamaica will ironically be hosting that conference and will become the rotating chair for the next six months.

“We have made some very strong statements about the capacity of CARICOM, the lack of transparency. None of you can go on the web now and download CARICOM’s budget. It’s a classified document.”

Golding said other regional agencies did provide information about theirs but not the Guyana-based headquarters.

“When we couldn’t hear from the secretariat and we started harassing them they refused. They said sorry we can’t divulge that information.”

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