THE Saint Lucian public and the media usually pay scant attention to regional summits that deal with issues of technical co-operation and economic co-ordination, and outline steps to strengthen the region’s institutional underpinnings – perhaps because the process tends to be quite abstruse, and out of touch with the mundane and nuanced concerns of ordinary folks.
However, the Inaugural Co-operation Conference of the Association of Caribbean States (ACS) as well as the 22nd Ordinary Meeting of the ACS Council of Ministers held in Cuba from 8-10 March, was almost free of the traditional policy chin-stroking and speechifying – and gratifyingly different, as the productive meetings cemented the close economic and political ties among the 25 full-member states, associate members and observer nations of the ACS.
The series of regional meetings which took place under the pro tempore presidency of Cuba facilitated dialogue on two broad but critical issues namely: the fight against climate change and regional maritime connectivity – shedding greater light and understanding on how funds can be mobilized to build capacity and strengthen ties in these areas.
Owing to the intensity and strategic focus of the exchanges, the regional institution now has a clearer direction and strategy in its pursuit and management of common interests and risks which member states share, and an underlying motivation to redouble efforts to tackle coastal erosion and manage coral reefs, sargassum seaweed and invasive species – all of which are already subjects of ongoing regional environmental projects.
In her opening remarks to the Inaugural Conference, the ACS Secretary General Dr. June Soomer thanked the Cuban government for its regional development foresight and explained that the ACS, as envisaged by its founders, was well-positioned to become the co-operation co-ordinating mechanism for the Greater Caribbean region.
Sensing a renewed institutional spirit of revitalization and collaboration, Dr.Soomer noted: “Of interest is the fact that going forward we will ensure that our projects include a gender and youth mainstreaming component, a job creation component, a communication component and an institutional strengthening dimension so that we produce results that last, that are sustainable. We must have an impact on the least of our citizenry. Let us be more innovative in the conceptualization of projects.”
Cuba’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Trade and Investment Ileana Nunez Mordoche, shared the renewed optimism and believes that the conference “represented an opportunity to assess capacities, join forces, and integrate in order to achieve sustainable development in all Caribbean countries.”
Considering that the region continues to perform relatively poorly in trade, investment and job creation by all accounts, the main challenge now is for ACS nations to move from simply having political and economic relations to actually devising a strategy for the region’s collective growth and development, particularly in the context of the sustainability of the regional maritime economy. “Unity in diversity” continues to be an approach that the Cuban government believes should guide our process of trade and investment expansion as well as the goal of environmental sustainability.
And that idea was exactly what Cuba’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bruno Rodriguez, sought to underline when he took the rostrum at the historic gathering. “In the face of the walls intended to be built, our choice should continue to be unity, solidarity and complementarity to defend the most legitimate interests of our peoples. Given the current scenario, we could only achieve that if we coordinate and concert our actions in an effective way around the consensus attained in those areas at the Seventh Summit. In this regard, we should enhance the possibilities of our Association to come up with a joint response,” he asserted.
These words of solidarity and unity by Chancellor Rodriguez are a consistent message that we’ve heard before in other fora where Cuba has encouraged and fostered deeper diplomatic and economic co-operation in the region. “The Caribbean can always count on Cuba,” Rodriguez assured the Conference. “Our country will continue defending, at regional and international fora, the legitimate interest of the Caribbean nations, who deserve the gratitude of our people and Government for the permanent solidarity and brave support,” he further underlined.
Meanwhile, following the ACS-AEC Conference, the 5th CARICOM-CUBA Ministerial Meeting took place on 11 March in Havana, culminating in leaders of member states committing to maintaining and strengthening traditional co-operation in areas like health, education, construction and response to natural disasters.
Already, CARICOM nations enjoy duty-free access to the Cuban market for around 300 product classes. Quite apart from the many high-level meetings convened and agreements already signed on technical co-operation and collaboration in science, technology and the environment, CARICOM nations had the ideal opportunity to table urgent concerns which already or are likely to affect their economic wellbeing – from correspondent banking and development assistance, to multi-destination tourism and the rights of immigrants.
In my insightful conversations with Cuba’s Ambassador to Saint Lucia and the OECS, His Excellency Jorge Soberon, he has often asserted that the Caribbean should see itself not as a small region, but as a large economic space with untapped and ample possibilities for multi-lateral trade and cross-border investment. Ambassador Soberon believes that Caribbean nations are predisposed to be so (or only) focused on America and Europe that they often fail to recognize the glaring opportunities for trade expansion right here in the region, particularly in large markets like Mexico.
According to the Cuban diplomat: “Cuba is aware of the great importance of the Caribbean region and hence, the expansion and diversification of economic and trade relations with CARICOM is a priority. I truly believe our region should be conscious of its own available opportunities as a starting point and not as a last resource – without neglecting, of course, our North American and European friends. I believe this to be also part of the liberation of our minds.”
Citing Cuba’s enthusiasm to engage the Caribbean, Ambassador Soberon noted: “We are interested in the increased presence of Saint Lucia and the wider Caribbean in our relatively huge market of 11 million people that sees more than 4 million tourists per year.”
The relative success of last week’s conference certainly offers an opportunity for CARICOM and the ACS to rethink their approach to the hemisphere – especially with respect to the removal of trade barriers and the harnessing of maritime resources. This revitalization process is a crucial step in the effort to consolidate the region’s political, environmental and economic resources in the face of ever-increasing economic and trade uncertainty brought about by the election of Donald Trump in the U.S. and the eventual withdrawal of the U.K from the European Union. This political momentum must be maintained going forward, especially as the region prepares for this year’s CARICOM-CUBA Summit in Antigua.
For comments, write to ClementSoulage@hotmail.de – Clement Wulf-Soulage is a Management Economist, Published Author and Former University Lecturer.