Today, it is my honour to welcome you to the beautiful twin-island Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, for the convening of the 45th Regular Meeting of the Conference of Heads of Government of CARICOM. For us here in the Caribbean, this is a significant event, as tomorrow we also launch the celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the signing of the Original Treaty of Chaguaramas, right here in Trinidad and Tobago.
Historians of the future will agree that this celebration took place at a critical juncture in the regional integration movement. Never before have small states faced the broad and deep range of challenges that we face now. From climate change, pandemic, gun crimes and violence, trans-national migration issues to insecurity with food supplies, our region has been buffeted by many systemic storms. Throughout all of this, the majority of the people of our region have proven ourselves to be resilient, resourceful, determined, and dignified.
Today I speak with confidence on behalf of all of my colleague Heads of Government when I say that we have been learning the lessons that history has taught us. It is true that some of the issues that our founding fathers grappled with on the long and difficult journey to Chaguaramas, are still very much with us but this is not to say that we have not made progress. Fifty years after the birth of our union and with the experience of having spawned so many regional institutional arrangements that work so well for us, now might be a good time to reflect on what it might have been if we were able to hold a Caribbean nation together.
Today we can point within CARICOM, to
The Caribbean Development Bank (CDB),
The Caribbean Development Fund (CDF),
The Caribbean Telecommunications Union (CTU)
The Caribbean Community Climate Change Center (CCCCC)
The Caribbean Meteorological Organization (CMO)
Caricom Implementing Agency for Crime and Security (IMPACS)
The Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC)
The Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ)
The Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ)
The Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA)
The Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA)
The Caribbean Agricultural Development Institute (CARDI)
The University of the West Indies (UWI)
The CARICOM Competition Commission (CCC)
A Multilateral Air Services Agreement (MASA)
We have a Double Taxation Treaty between us.
Should I add West Indies cricket? Hmmmm.
I, as a typical Caribbean man, was born in Tobago, lived in Trinidad, studied in Jamaica, worked on the volcanoes in St Vincent and the Grenadines, Dominica, Montserrat and St Kitts, marvelled at the power of the waters of Kaiteur Falls in Guyana and counted the beaches of Antigua, Barbados an Grenada, all the while dreaming of what it could have been if the politics had allowed us to have one Caribbean nation from the northern Bahamas to our Brazilian border with Guyana and Suriname. What a wonderful world it could have been today even if we had accepted three quarters of a loaf instead of no bread. However, what’s done is done. Let us not despair because in the absence of political union we were able, if not through vision but through necessity, we have been able to salvage a good chunk of regional functionality in very many areas, (notwithstanding the stress dished out by the men’s cricket team). We have CARICOM as the next best thing to bring about regional cooperation and we must continue to grow the integration movement by adding new blocks to the structure even as we strengthen what already exists. Even where there was doubt in the beginning, the experience must have shown us that we are stronger together and even though we are an amalgam of small pieces of the globe, on the world stage, we might be small but we are not insignificant. As CARICOM we are at our strongest. We could be at our best. Let’s claim our space in this world and just Do It!
On this special celebratory occasion we can reflect with reverence on the events that transpired in Chaguaramas on July 4th 1973, and pay homage to the foresight our founding fathers had when they laid the foundation upon which this great family of nations was built. I anticipate that there will be many moments of introspection and reflection over the course of the next few days, as we take the opportunity to mark this Golden Anniversary together, side by side. I am particularly delighted to acknowledge the four (4) visionaries who pioneered our regional integration movement with valour and ensured that the Original Treaty of Chaguaramas was signed on that fateful day.
The late Prime Ministers Errol Barrow of Barbados, Forbes Burnham of Guyana, Michael Manley of Jamaica and Dr. Eric Eustace Williams of Trinidad and Tobago. They were leaders who understood that our strength as small states lies in our unity. They understood that our collective destiny can only be fulfilled through our determined collaboration in the face of global systems that are designed to keep us weak, dependent, and apart from each other.
It is my belief that if those founding fathers could speak to us today, they would re-emphasise the essential role of this regional leadership, to empower our people to navigate the storms that the international order consistently throws our way. Indeed, I hereby inform the people of our Caribbean Community that tomorrow morning on the 4th of July 2023, the 50th Anniversary of CARICOM’s founding, we, the Heads of Government, will be placing into a special time capsule, our letters, our reflections, our advice, our lessons, addressed to our successors, 50 years from now, to be opened by them on July 4th 2073. I hope to see you all there tomorrow at Chaguaramas as well.
As I survey this lovely audience gathered here on this beautiful afternoon in Port of Spain, I am reminded that a much smaller audience would have travelled to Trinidad and Tobago for that very first Heads of Government Conference in July 1973, which was convened by the late, great Dr. Eric Eustace Williams, the then Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago. Indeed, it was Dr. Williams, an eminent Caribbean historian, who proposed the creation of a Caribbean Community at that time. The pioneering family members were Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago. Today, 50 years later, our membership has grown to include 15 Member States and 5 Associate Members, and even further growth is near at hand. We look forward to joining hands with Martinique and our brothers and sisters in the Dutch Antilles, soon.
Those early steps taken in Chaguaramas have led us far beyond what the naysayers and doomsayers were certain would have been a short lifespan and another disastrous shattering. But here we are today, 50 years on, side by side in mutual solidarity, regard, respect, and esteem. Strong, committed, unified. Together this regional family of nations can examine with pride our achievements during the last half-century. We have faced challenges and have risen to overcome them, despite the difficulties, through our cooperation, our shared goals and, above all else, through our friendship within CARICOM.
Our regional integration movement has not only survived but it has thrived, expanded and flourished. Whilst we recognize that there is a whole lot more to be attained, at this juncture, we can proudly say that we have been going in the right direction and with renewed confidence and vigour, we can indicate our intention to continue by joining the famous Jamaican radio announcer Don Toppin, whose clarion call was always “Today the Caribbean, Tomorrow the world”
Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, I have the distinction of having served in the political sphere for decades, not quite as long as Comrade Ralph, but long enough to have witnessed first-hand, the ways that CARICOM has remained relevant to the needs and dreams and aspirations of its regional citizenry. Our children need to be taught its relevance and its history.
Now as we enter the post-Pandemic era, our bonds are more important today than ever before. None of us will ever forget those long, dark days and nights, when, over the last few years, the lives and livelihoods of our people hung in the balance under the threat of what was then a very novel death-dealing virus. Our trade, tourism, manufacturing, culture, services, and our very way of living were severely affected and the Gross Domestic Product of every member state, without exception, went into stark decline. The resilience of our Community endured this test and survived, in large part due to the determination of our people and the strength bestowed upon us by our ancestors, due to the strength of our regional organs such as the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA), and due to a calibre of leadership right across this Caribbean that joined in solidarity to advocate when needed, to remonstrate when necessary, to share when required, and through it all to stand together through thick and thin.
Over the past year, we have rebuilt and forged ahead as we have actively advanced the Regional Agenda, facing our challenges head on. From rising regional debt, to growing trade deficits, we as a Community have been buffeted by the ravages of an international financial system designed to disempower us. As serious as the world’s problems are and having been shut out of many of the markets through trade restrictions like the sugar and banana industries we can hardly be excited by the ongoing prospects of being escorted out of the world’s financial system through de-risking and loss of correspondent banking not to mention being encouraged to hastily abandon our hydrocarbon resources even as others expand their natural gas production, open up nuclear power and fire up their coal-burning plants.
Through participation in a series of ongoing high-level meetings amongst ourselves and with the international community, we continue to chart our own destiny. We did this back in 2001, when we signed the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas and created the CARICOM Single Market and Economy. On the 3-4th December 2018 we, in Special Meeting, assembled at the Hilton Hotel in Port of Spain and there we agreed to drive the process by unanimously signing on to the St Anns Accord. We did this when we, as a community, met with leaders from around the world to spell out our perspectives and our priorities, and some of those very leaders have joined us in celebration here tonight. We did this when we held landmark events such as the Agri-Investment Forum in Guyana, the second of which was hosted by Trinidad and Tobago; the Afro-Caribbean Trade and Investment Forum in Barbados, the Regional Symposium to Address Crime as a Public Health Issue in Port of Spain, and most recently key stakeholder meetings to help address the crisis in our fellow member state of Haiti. These are but a few of the focused approaches that we have undertaken as Heads to reinforce sustainable development, tackle poverty and address rising crime and insecurity in the Region.
I say all of this to highlight that, beyond the doubts, CARICOM is working diligently to serve the people of the region. While at times, the going may be slow or the outcome may not have been readily apparent, we all continue to build on the strong foundation laid 50 years ago.
Even as we prepare for this great future, as Bob Marley and Frantz Fanon said, we cannot forget our past. We can see that our trajectory, though arduous at times, is one that will lead to a better future for all our people. We as the leaders must continue to do our part in contribution to this united journey, and in doing so we will ensure that the foundation laid by our founding fathers was not just a foundation for us, but also one for our children, and for the generations to follow. To do this we must continue to have that “boundless faith in our destiny”
It is not my role this evening to speak to the substantive issues, those will be addressed by the Chairman of the Conference, Prime Minister Skerrit. My task is a simpler one, to set the tone and to extend the warm hospitality of Trinidad and Tobago to our Regional partners and international guests over the coming days.
I must acknowledge the efforts of the Trinidad and Tobago team and the CARICOM Secretariat staff, who, in collaboration with the Chairman of the Conference, Dominica, have worked tirelessly to prepare a fitting programme to commemorate the launch of the 50th Anniversary Celebrations. In recognition of the fact that the people of our region are renowned for being able to ‘have a good time’, this programme includes a special 50th Anniversary Concert, planned for tomorrow evening. I am sure that you all look forward to being able to unwind in true Caribbean style. Let us celebrate!
Tomorrow morning, Heads of Government will ‘Return to Chaguaramas’, to pay poignant tribute to the important beginnings of this great Community. As Prime Minister of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, it is my deep honour to host you on this, the Golden Jubilee of CARICOM, and I look forward to deepening the fraternal bonds within our Family of Nations in the years ahead. I wish you a most productive, memorable and enjoyable time in Trinidad and Tobago.
All that’s left for me to do now is to sincerely thank my friend and brother Roosevelt Skerrit, Prime Minister of Dominica, incoming Chairman of CARICOM, for visualising this day and agreeing to allow Trinidad and Tobago the honour of revisiting our Caricom past as we commit to a brighter and closer Caricom future.