I consider it a great honour to preside over this 40th Meeting of the Conference of Heads of the Caribbean Community.
I want to welcome our specially invited guests to this conference and hope that this experience enables you to gain a deeper insight into what we as Caribbean people are facing so that we may gain your understanding and support.
Let me also thank outgoing Chairman, Prime Minister of Saint Kitts and Nevis, The Honourable Timothy Harris, for his stewardship of the organization over the past six months.
This occasion is of great significance to us in Saint Lucia as we are currently celebrating the 40th Anniversary of our nation’s Independence which we marked on the 22nd of February.
On behalf of all Saint Lucians, I therefore extend a warm welcome to all of you to this our “Helen of the West”.
For us as a country this has been a year, not just of reflection but also a year of continuing to chart our path forward which will enable us to finally take control of our own destiny and to appreciate our strengths.
Among those strengths is being members of this Caribbean Community. From the outset of Independence, our forefathers understood, and as I was recently reminded, that which binds us has always been stronger than what sometimes separate us.
That is not to say that we must always agree. But to succeed we must be “ALL IN.” This happens to be the theme of our Nation’s 40th Independence Anniversary.
Over the last few years, from Climate Change concerns, to championing the rights of the Windrush generation, to fighting for tax justice and our fiscal sovereignty; we have had to let the world know, we are here and we will be heard.
These and other issues require us as CARICOM and as Small Island Developing States to make some bold choices to secure our mere existence.
I am truly honoured to serve as Chairman of this 40th Conference which is taking place at a very critical time in the life of this region:
A time when we can truly show the strength in our united front on key international issues.
A time when we can once again through our actions inspire the people of the region and remind them of the necessity of CARICOM.
A time when we can reflect on each other’s individual successes and our collective achievements.
Permit me, on behalf of you my CARICOM brothers and sisters, to formally congratulate the Prime Minister of St. Vincent and The Grenadines on his country’s recent election as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.
It is another example of what can be achieved once there is firm resolve. All of CARICOM rejoices in this triumph; recognizing that this is a golden opportunity for St. Vincent and the Grenadines to take on board the calls for reforms at the UN body.
When Saint Lucia was elected president of the UN General Assembly in 2003, we received invaluable support from other CARICOM countries in maintaining that office. Understanding the importance of this new development, Saint Lucia has pledged a contribution to St. Vincent and the Grenadines in maintaining and funding the office. I am sure my colleague Prime Minister will not mind my saying that although this seat was won by St. Vincent, it is also a CARICOM success and we are behind you 100 percent.
Hence, I call on members to also pledge their support to St. Vincent in maintaining this office and ensuring a successful tenure.
On the issue of blacklisting, to date CARICOM countries on the list have been trying to comply with the requirements of the EU Code of Conduct Group. The fact is the EU has been targeting us as individual countries and we as CARICOM missed the initial opportunity to respond jointly. It is not too late.
The question now is, how do we as developing countries meet the requirements of a just tax regime while maintaining our fiscal sovereignty.
We must as a region be committed to a high standard of governance but this cannot cross the line and infringe on our competiveness.
As a region we should rebel against the use of a blacklist that permanently damages our reputations. There is absolutely no justification for this methodology.
The lingering uncertainty over Brexit is another matter that will continue to concern us in the coming months. We must begin to view this as an opportunity.
On the one hand, we will have to work as a unified bloc to strengthen our historic relationship with the UK. We must also now work equally hard to formulate a renewed relationship with Europe.
During our deliberations here, we recognize that another hurricane season is upon us. The evidence has shown that Climate Change fuels increasingly destructive super storms as we have seen in the carnage left behind by Irma and Maria two years ago.
In fighting the effects of climate change, we would need to depend heavily on the international community for assistance and support.
The last two years have taught us however that the countries that are the greatest emitters and the cause of our current plight, are not sufficiently willing to compensate us for the damage that is being done. Despite our best efforts they have deliberately not amended international economic protocols to even allow us to make the necessary investments in building resilience.
We have to urgently look for more immediate and innovative ways to solve our problems.
I look forward to presenting in more detail the plans for the creation of our own resilience foundation and to seek the support and endorsement of CARICOM during our deliberations this week.
We also need a new governance structure that will allow us to draw down on the funds more quickly. We can’t take five years to implement these resilience projects.
We remain grateful to Prince Andrew, Duke of York, for his efforts to assist the SIDS in that regard.
We are indeed privileged and honoured to have the United Nations General Secretary attend this meeting and we will be looking for his support and endorsement of our foundation.
At the same meeting, we will be seeking the endorsement of the pacific SIDS, as well as developed countries and international development institutions.
Among the other issues expected to engage us this week is the consideration of new measures to enhance the Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME) which allows for the free movement of goods, skills, labour and services across the region.
I welcome the renewed energy of Prime Minister Mia Mottley and with her leadership and most importantly sense of urgency, I believe that we are well on our way to reinvigorate CSME. I especially want to reaffirm and fully endorse the decision to include the private sector in a more meaningful way and the plan to create a regional Chamber of Commerce.
On our part we must continue to be honest negotiators and be prepared to make timely decisions.
Colleagues, the situation in Venezuela remains unresolved and continues to haunt us. The effect of the breakdown can now be seen plastered all over the media in our own countries.
The position of the Caribbean Community on Venezuela has not changed. We have agreed that resolution must be by dialogue; that it must be a Venezuela-made solution; that there should be no military intervention; that the rule of law must apply and that the humanitarian situation must be addressed. We also re-emphasized the notion that the Caribbean region must remain a zone of peace.
However, we cannot run away from the impact that this Venezuela issue is having, especially as it relates to security and immigration, in the countries within close proximity.
Given the critical importance of finding a solution to this crisis and the invaluable work of the special committee appointed by CARICOM, headed by the outgoing Chairman Timothy Harris, I am grateful that they have agreed to continue to take the lead on this issue.
I have pledged and continue to pledge my full and unwavering support as we seek to find a resolution.
Unfortunately, one of the scourges that continue to cause us all concern is that of crime. A number of interventions are being undertaken in the various territories.
At a meeting in Grenada the CARICOM Ministerial Council for National Security and Law Enforcement agreed that there should be greater collaboration and co-operation among the Member States.
The goal is to achieve more significant results in the battle against the flow of illegal drugs and guns, trans-national crime and the heightened incidence of homicides.
Most encouraging was the decision of the Council to meet at least twice a year in order to fulfil their responsibility within the framework. We look forward to more detailed presentations with accompanying action plans for the region at this meeting.
Colleagues, I believe we are at stage when some serious introspection is required on our part. The world now more than ever continues to see us as one region. Our individual size requires us to act as one, yet we only talk, holding on to our individual sovereignty.
History has shown that when we join hands we only get stronger. Our survival, our obligations to our citizens, our legacy, all require that we take the necessary action.
To achieve this we must set a timeline to complete the reform and strengthening our secretariat. It will not happen if we are depending on a chairperson, who is only in the seat for six months to drive this. We need to seek professional assistance and appoint a select committee to oversee this critically important transition. A strong secretariat is necessary if we are to strengthen our regional approach. And equally the budget of the secretariat has to more closely reflect this mandate.
My fellow leaders, the pioneers of this regional integration movement, our forefathers, were ahead of their time. They captured the imagination of our citizens. Once the process started we had a number of brilliant minds motivated to move it forward.
I believe that we have lost some of that momentum. We must regain the confidence of Caribbean people, that something meaningful and life-changing is going to come out of our meetings.
The most important question we must ask ourselves as leaders is: How do we recapture the imagination of our people? How do we truly make CARICOM the driving force of change?
Have we done everything within our control to assure the prosperity of our region and to the benefit of our citizens?
Can we say we are satisfied with our current status?
Do we believe that all our citizens or even the majority are satisfied?
Are we achieving our full potential?
We must reflect on these questions and CARICOM’s very own relevance.
More urgently, we are losing our competitiveness to other regions due to the high cost and inefficiency of our governance and because we are not maximizing the opportunities in areas such as the creative industries, sports, tourism, our natural resources and the blue economy.
The impact of major global shocks like the Gulf War, the financial crisis and recession, the commodity price shocks and more recently the natural disasters, have left our region scarred, weakened and vulnerable.
The new rise in nationalism and the decline of many developed economies has created a vacuum of Global leadership and more importantly, empathy. Our brothers and sisters in Haiti know this all too well.
These difficult times require us to follow in the footsteps of our forefathers and to also take bold, innovative and courageous steps. We must take control of our own destiny. And focus on the things that we can control.
We must remember and recognize the genius in our region that resulted in the establishment of CARICOM, the University of the West Indies, the Caribbean Development Bank, the creation of the OECS and the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank. And may I remind you that we created these institutions of integration well before the EU and other regions did the same.
Are we surprised?
How can we be?
We produced world class athletes, a decade of world dominance by our West Indies cricket team, philosophers and artistes with Global impact. We introduced the only new musical instrument of the last century, some of our business persons have become international leaders and created world class brands.
Our impact in the field of literature and economics earned us three Nobel Prizes - more per capita than any other region in the world.
I am sure that this fact will resonate with our distinguished guest, the Prime Minister of Norway, the home of the Nobel Peace Center.
Despite our size we have made our presence felt at the most important institutions of the world.
This region has produced amazing ideas, amazing people and amazing results.
So as we stand on the shoulders of these great achievements, I ask again:
Can we say we are satisfied with our current status? Do we believe that all our citizens or even the majority are satisfied?
Are we pushing ourselves hard enough?
As the elected leaders we must be prepared to rise to these challenges and like our forefathers we must inspire our citizens by finding the solutions to counteract the threats we face.
This will require us to be creative, courageous and unified at all levels.
As brilliant as the institutions we established as CARICOM were in their time, given the changes in the world we must now reform these institutions to respond to the new normal so that they can continue to serve our region and its citizens.
Let us not put off for tomorrow what we must do today.
How much longer must we ponder the need for a strong regional security force?
Do we expect criminals to respect our individual sovereignty?
We already took steps to have a regional court. Let’s finish the job.
How many more studies do we need to confirm the justification for regional health care?
The lack of an effective regional transportation policy is crippling our economies.
The impact of de-risking, and the withdrawal of international banks have created the urgent need for greater integration of our central banks and continued harmonization of our financial regulations.
These are some obvious areas that urgently need our leadership and unified approach.
I look forward to our discussions and wish to once again encourage you to enjoy your stay in Saint Lucia.
On a lighter note, this meeting is coinciding with our Carnival season and our famous Gros Islet Friday Night Street Party and despite the weight and importance of these meetings I also hope many of you will take time to enjoy the world renowned hospitality of Saint Lucia. As among one of the only countries in the world named after a female, please take time to let her inspire you.
I would like to express my sincere thanks to the dedicated team from the CARICOM Secretariat, our Department of External Affairs, all the Government departments and our volunteers, who have worked very hard to ensure this week is a success.
I thank you.