PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad, Apr 11, 2011 (IPS) – The first public hint that something was amiss within the Caribbean Forum (CARIFORUM) bloc came last week from Belize’s foreign minister, Wilfred Elrington, when his country hosted the 18th meeting of the Caribbean Community (Caricom) Council of Ministers, the second highest body within the 15-member regional grouping.
Elrington told reporters that the Dominican Republic was not comfortable with the current structure of CARIFORUM, which includes Caricom plus Cuba and the Dominican Republic. In particular, the Dominican Republic, which is not a member of Caricom, appears to feel that the grouping is playing too large a role in decision-making.
«The Dominican Republic doesn’t seem to want the director general to have to report to the Council of Ministers by going through the secretary general of Caricom. Their recommendation is for the director general to have a direct line to the Council of Ministers,» he said.
«It’s a thorny issue because protocol has always been for institutions, certainly the Caricom institutions, to make reports through the secretary general that is the highest post. And from the secretary general it goes to the Council of Ministers or to the heads of government. You just don’t bypass your secretary general,» Elrington said.
In 2008, Caricom and the Dominican Republic signed a wide- ranging Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with the 27- nation European Union.
According to the former secretary general of the Association of Caribbean States, Professor Norman Girvan, «The EPA defines the Dominican Republic as part of the region.»
In fact, the Dominican Republic has an economy that is larger than that of any single Caricom member, and the equivalent of 64 percent of the combined size of all of Caricom.
The EPA’s Regional Preference clause obliges CARIFORUM states to extend to each other the same treatment they extend to the EU.
However, regional leaders have not yet given the green light to the Dominican Republic’s application – first presented in 2009 – to join the Caribbean integration movement.
«The Dominican Republic is already an elephant in the Caricom room that cannot be ignored – its participation in CARIFORUM and the terms of the EPA with the EU make it a big player,» former Caribbean diplomat Sir Ron Sanders noted in one of his weekly newspaper commentaries.
«The English-speaking countries of Caricom can no longer inhabit an exclusive neighbourhood. They have to concede they are small players, and acknowledge that only cohesive action will preserve their identity, their culture, their language – and a meaningful place in the Caribbean economic space,» he added.
Antigua and Barbuda’s trade coordinator, Ambassador Dr. Clarence Henry, who attended the Belize meeting where the Dominican Republic issue had been raised, told IPS that the member countries were «overwhelmingly clear» that CARIFORUM, founded in 1992, was no longer an institution which simply managed aid from the European Union, «but one which must take the lead role in the implementation of the EPA».
«As such it is necessary to increase the capacity of the Directorate and as a consequence make some changes to its structure. The member states wish to see a CARIFORUM which is impactful, effective, proactive and aggressive,» added Henry, who is also head of his country’s EPA Implementation Unit.
Antigua and Barbuda has since put forward a proposal to conduct «an urgent in depth assessment of CARIFORUM Directorate which would result in an institutional overhaul», he added.
At the Belize meeting, both Barbados and Jamaica supported the creation of a new head of CARIFORUM in the form of a director general, arguing also for additional directors.
Emanating from this proposal was the agreement that the director general should be the EPA coordinator. Both proposals included the need for there to be a genuine EPA implementation Unit for CARIFORUM which is located in the CARIFORUM Directorate.
But there appears to be some disagreement as to whether the Caricom secretary general should continue to be the secretary general of CARIFORUM, with the new director general reporting through the secretary general to the leaders.
Henry believes there needs to be autonomy for CARIFORUM which will require substantial amendment to the Rules of Procedure. A team, chaired by Belize, and comprising Barbados, Jamaica, Suriname, Antigua and Barbuda and the Dominican Republic, has been established to examine the legal and other implications. The team will report within 60 days.
«Times have changed and CARIFORUM must change,» Henry told IPS, noting that the Belize meeting provided the first ever opportunity for a «unified spirit and a willingness of CARIFORUM member states to move from their entrenched positions».
The meeting agreed that the new CARIFORUM structure would provide for both the EPA Implementation Unit and the traditional programming and development cooperation function with its own dedicated staff.
It also noted «the preparedness of the Dominican Republic to forego concessions in its favour to have positions in the CARIFORUM Directorate reserved for its nationals once CARIFORUM is restructured to operate more efficiently and transparently».
It was also agreed that the current position of assistant secretary general of CARIFORUM should be designated as director general and should assume the position of CARIFORUM EPA aoordinator, in addition to his/her responsibilities for the CARIFORUM Directorate. This position will be filled by a national of the Dominican Republic up Sep. 16, 2012.
The Council meeting also agreed that the status quo would remain regarding the reporting of the new director general of CARIFORUM to the secretary general.
But Henry told IPS that it was a general consensus that the «region is at a juncture where there is a changing of the guard and consequently it could not be business as usual».
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