Caricom or Caribbean Day is with us once again. Today marks a mere 38 years since the Treaty of Chaguaramas was signed into being, thus forming the next attempt to integration of the West Indies back in those days. The main idea was to unite the resources of the Caribbean region so that progress could be maximized. Caribbean nations and leaders had realized that in unity there was strength. They had seen the success of other partnerships of the kind, like the Federation of Canada and Australia.
But the intentions to unite the Caribbean region go back as far as hundreds of years ago, to the 17th Century to be precise. There were several political movements in the British Caribbean that were geared to bring some closer association among the colonies of Great Britain. In fact, it was Britain herself that wanted this to happen. Britain had exhausted her purse in managing her colonies in the Caribbean hence she wanted to shed some of the administrative and other costs.
The islands were all in very close proximity to each other and it was because of this that the British wanted some political and administrative union among its colonies. The idea grew in popularity even among the individual island nations especially when economic times were rough, and there was stiff competition for sugar from other countries in the world. The whole idea of integration and closer association became attractive. These attempts by the British were for more efficient administration for the fairly small population which existed across much of the islands.
After 1663, there were attempts to federate the Leeward Islands, and they were governed from Barbados for a little while. In the latter part of the 17th Century, the Leeward Islands were willing to cooperate , however towards the end of the 18th Century, this cooperation collapsed.
During the last quarter of the 19th Century, the notion of integration arose as a result of the crises of the 19th Century such as soil exhaustion and [economic] competition from within and outside the British Empire and they were willing to look at some kind of association in which the government will be shared.
The economic decline facing the British colonies acted as a spur for closer association or federation. Another effort was made to federate the Leeward Islands of Antigua, St Kitts, Nevis, Dominica, and the British Virgin Islands, and in 1871 St Kitts and Nevis were joined together. Power was divided between the Federal Government and the Local Legislature.
But this closer association was very unpopular because of the constant conflict between the two branches of government. The efforts were then aborted due to the narrow parochialism and self interest of the countries. No one was willing to make the compromises that were necessary if Federation back then was going to be a success. And so, when it suited them and they were in economic problems (the islands), they saw the benefits of Federation. When things weren’t bad, they rejected it.
The idea to integrate surfaced again in the 1930’s but at that point in time, the individual colonies decided they would not have Federation but cooperate in agriculture, which was common to all of them. Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow and others discussed the idea to federate British Guiana and even prepared a Federal Constitution. Until the 1940’s, there were several factors that retarded the idea of Federation of the British Caribbean such as the geographical separateness between the different colonies (distance); inter- colonial communication (since the far- out islands such as Jamaica and Bahamas found it cheaper to trade and communicate with USA and Canada).
Further underpinning this was that until tourism became popular, there were few exchanges of visitors among the islands even though we had a common ethnicity of all the Caribbean peoples and common experience of slavery.
Also, another reason for retardation of the integration movement back then was an absence of trade among the colonies. Most of the islands produced virtually the same commodities (sugar, coffee, molasses, rum, cocoa, spices) and because of this, the islands had nothing to exchange with each other instead the trade was aimed at North America and Europe.
However, the emergence of national leaders shortly after, gave the realization that they (the islands) could achieve more if they worked together and in unity, together they could confront the imperial authorities. They needed a strong Federation to deal with the USA, especially since that country had become the New Imperial Power. They had seen how Federation bore fruit in Canada and Australia.
After World War 2 Britain wanted to shed her colonies. The economy was devastated as a result of the war. They (the British) had used a lot of their resources fighting the Nazis, so like the rest of Europe, they were reconstructing their economies with monies put up by the USA to rebuild Europe.
And so, Britain didn’t want colonies that were like albatrosses around her neck but was not prepared to rush into it. Britain wanted a gradual changeover to grant independence to the islands. Britain supported the steps that were taken towards West Indies Federation.
On January 3, 1958, the WI Federation was formed by Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad, the Windward and Leeward Islands. There was a Council of State, Governor General, President, Prime Minister and 10 Ministers, a Senate with 19 ministers, all of whom were nominated by the Governor General. There was also a 45- member House of Representatives.
But WI Federation was to experience failure as well, for several reasons. There was no form of taxation among the islands, thus not enough money to run the Federation.
Also, some islands were paying more levies than others and there was some disenfranchisement. Jamaica which was paying 47% of the revenues, only had 10 Representatives in the House of Representatives, while other countries paying less revenue had more representatives in the legislature. Alexander Bustamante of Jamaica was beginning to fight the Federation and he was able to garner support to end the WI Federation within four years of its establishment, on May 31, 1962, to be exact. This gave way to the formation of the Caribbean Free Trade Association (CARIFTA) on December 15, 1965 with the signing of the Dickinson Agreement. Increased, diversified and liberalized trade was the aims of CARIFTA.
In 1973, CARIFTA became Caricom, which has become the longest- running integration movement in the Caribbean. Caricom, like WI Federation and Federation continues to struggle for existence among its member states, amidst the global and regional challenges.
If Caricom has been able to survive longer than previous attempts to integrate the Caribbean countries, the future should look promising, pending of course, the political will of all Caribbean leaders, and ultimately Caribbean people. The future of this 38- year- old integration movement rests in their hands.
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I have been doing columns since 1988. I have been a major columnist with the Catholic Standard, Stabroek News, Kaieteur... more