Prime Minister the Hon. Gaston A. Browne
Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda and
Minister for Finance and Corporate Governance
Chairman of the Caribbean Community
Opening of the Forty-Second Regular Meeting of the Conference of Heads of Government of the Caribbean Community
5th July, 2021
Colleague Heads of Government of the Conference
Ministers and Senior Officials
People of the CARICOM Community:
It is a sign of the times that today the pandemic has made it impossible for us to meet face-to-face, but I am optimistic that that day will come soon.
I welcome you all to this our 42nd Regular Meeting of the Conference of the Heads of Government of the Caribbean Community, hosted by Antigua and Barbuda.
At the outset I want to thank my predecessor, as Chair of the Community, Dr the Honourable Keith Rowley, for his tireless efforts on behalf of the Region during his term as Chairman.
I applaud in particular, his persistent efforts in pursuit of life-saving vaccines for the Region, which has borne some fruit. Thank you Prime Minister.
I must also convey profound appreciation to our outgoing Secretary-General, Ambassador Irwin LaRocque, for his sterling service to our Community during a most difficult period.
SG, your contribution to improving the lives of our citizens while maintaining a cool head in the midst of turbulent times and remaining focused on the job at hand, is a legacy of which you can be justifiably proud.
I can only hope that your skills and vast knowledge will not be lost to our Region, as you enjoy your retirement in the verdant valleys of Dominica.
Climate Crisis in the Region
We meet today against a backdrop of economic, social, financial and environmental storms more intense than the hurricanes that swirl around us every year during the season.
And, like the hurricanes and storms, the economic and social turmoil engendered by Covid-19 and its effects threaten our very survival.
Indeed, as I speak, several of our Member States are recovering from the effects of Hurricane Elsa. I take this opportunity to offer the solidarity and support of the Government and people of Antigua and Barbuda, and of the entire Community, to our affected Member States.
The recent volcanic eruption in St Vincent and the Grenadines and devastating floods in Guyana and Suriname, which displaced thousands of people and destroyed significant agricultural production, provide further evidence of the ongoing challenges that beset our Member States.
These climatic events serve to underscore the vulnerability of the Region.
Like the rest of the world, we are still battling to stem the economic and social tidal wave of Covid-19.
Unlike the rest of the world, we are battling the pandemic at the beginning of an Atlantic hurricane season, that has already seen five storms within the first month, and which is forecasted to be one of the busiest in recent years.
The causes of the climate crisis have already been scientifically established, and the time has come for those countries irresponsible enough to continue their damaging emissions and practices to be held to account.
It is my view that real progress on the climate crisis will only be made when the major polluters are made legally liable for the damage they cause.
The current system of discretionary international assistance for climate damage, where pledges are honoured only fitfully, is both inadequate and inequitable.
This is a call for climate reparations that CARICOM must take up urgently, and engage in vigorous diplomatic outreach to build international consensus on this issue.
The last 16 months have shown the wisdom of establishing regional institutions such as CARPHA, CDEMA, the RSS and CARICOM IMPACS which, along with UWI and the CARICOM Secretariat, have served this Region so well in dealing with the health aspects of the pandemic.
However, Covid-19 has shaken our economic foundations and the recovery will test the strength of our will, to work together to prevent economic collapse.
The collective approach that served us so well in managing the outbreak of the pandemic in our Region must be translated to the economic sphere, so that we will not only survive this test, but thrive and emerge stronger.
A crucial weapon in this battle is the vaccination of our populations until herd immunity is achieved.
Acquiring sufficient vaccines is only one part of the equation. I want to thank the United States, India, China and the other countries who are so generously donating vaccines to our Member States.
However, the other side of the equation is to ensure that a sufficient number of our citizens are inoculated so that our countries could gain herd immunity.
I urge those who are reluctant to take the jab to think again. I appeal to your better nature and your appreciation of the well-being of yourself, your family and your fellow citizens.
No one is safe until everyone is safe.
I call on my colleague Heads of Government for us to give some time and attention over the next two days to this important question of vaccine hesitancy in the Region, and to devise joint strategies in tackling it head-on.
Return to Normality
It is vitally important for our economies to breathe again, for jobs to be retained, for our children to resume their education and for something resembling a normal life to begin to return to our businesses, our hotels, our schools, our farms and all aspects of our lives.
In our tourism-based economies, the resumption of intra-regional travel is one key element in getting economic activity back to normal.
Increased movement of people within our Community would be a major boost to our economies in seeking to rebound.
To assist in this regard, we need to immediately establish common or harmonized regional health protocols for travel (‘travel bubble’) that are clear to the public and communicated widely. The discriminatory practice of banning travel from member states with elevated levels of COVID, while accommodating guests from countries of greater risks should be discouraged.
It is not an exaggeration to say that air transport is the oxygen that keeps tourism alive and functioning in our Region. We need to care for it and provide the inputs and the enabling economic environment that will allow air transportation to grow our tourism sector back to good health.
Colleagues, although it was acknowledged before, this pandemic has brought into stark relief the danger of our overwhelming dependence on tourism for our economic well-being.
Our deliberations here in Conference have shown us that economic diversification, especially in agriculture, is vital to us and we need to accelerate our efforts in strengthening the sector.
Included in that conversation must be a more meaningful and revitalized role for the CDB and the CDF. And I ask the question: Are they constituted to provide the requisite support to Governments and to the private sector who must be at the forefront of this diversification effort?
I contend that these two vital CARICOM institutions, are overdue for realignment and re-tooling that will allow them to scale-up their operations and become facilitators to drive economic expansion in the Region.
We need to have the hard discussions necessary to empower both CDB and CDF, both now under fresh leadership, to provide that support.
Creative Innovative solutions are needed to meet this moment in the revival of our regional economy.
Global Tax Governance
We are all already familiar with the brazen attacks on one of our major efforts at economic diversification, through the misguided tool of blacklisting. Our financial services sector has been targeted repeatedly, despite our adherence to the myriad ever changing rules and regulations put forward by the OECD, FATF and other relevant global authorities.
We object to being targeted and placed on lists of so-called ‘non-cooperative jurisdictions’ by countries that claim to be in an economic partnership with us. The economic partnership EPA has failed to deliver the promised developmental benefits to all of its members.
The EPA has failed to deliver its promised benefits to all its members.
We object to the lack of consultation, and to the lack of real understanding or empathy regarding the impact of these policies on small and vulnerable economies.
The latest measure being adopted is the global minimum corporate tax initiative.
A global minimum corporate tax rate would remove our flexibility as sovereign nations to adopt tax policies that best suit our circumstances.
Small and micro-states must be able to use taxation policies as legitimate instruments to better compensate for small market size, remote location, lack of resources, and industrial disadvantage.
We refuse to accept being condemned to uncompetitiveness and underdevelopment. We are determined to achieve the sustainable goals for our people.
While we acknowledge that the global tax system is in need of renovation, we emphasize that CARICOM states are not the problem. We should not be collateral damage on the road to a fairer international tax regime.
We cannot throw up our hands in despair. We must continue to collectively fight these inequalities.
This is another opportunity for us to act in concert and join with other affected small and micro-states to advocate for a carve-out. We must continually monitor the emerging threats in this sector, whether from the OECD, the EU or any other source.
These realities encourage us to move more urgently with the implementation of the CARICOM Single Market and Economy (CSME). We can no longer afford the luxury of delaying approval of key instruments such as the Financial Services Agreement, Investment Policy and Incentive Regimes and the Development and Regulation of a Regional Securities Market. The full operationalization of the CSME is required for the transformation of our economies and to fight for a robust post COVID recovery.
As I advocated seven years ago in my very first statement to this Conference: “Advancing the integration movement cannot be achieved by waiting for the most reluctant of us to act. The time has come for integration by a ‘’coalition of the willing’’ in various sectors of the economy, instead of allowing those who are reluctant to stymie our efforts to advance.”
That statement still holds good today.
In fact, on our agenda, is a Protocol that will allow any group of Member States within CARICOM to move more quickly in various areas of integration than the general membership, and I urge colleagues to approve it instead of kicking it down the road.
CARICOM needs to be able to shift gears and to graduate from being a one-speed entity to being an organization that accommodates the various priorities and urgencies of all its members in particular areas.
Agriculture and ICT
Moving our economies forward is also dependent on the widespread enhancement of our Information and Communication Technology infrastructure. The cost of telecommunications and access to cheaper and more efficient broadband is a sine qua non for our economic development.
The provision of affordable broadband is a public good, as vital as the provision of water or electricity.
This is why I am encouraged by the recent reports of negotiations to reduce roaming charges in the Region. It is a first step, but a very important one, leading I hope to more progress towards establishing the Single ICT space.
The economic potential that lies within that initiative is limitless.
A similar sentiment can be expressed with respect to the possibilities of our agriculture and agro-industry. It is a truism that no nation could be considered great if it cannot feed itself and this could be extended to our Community.
Food and Nutrition Security is an achievable goal and I look forward to the recommendations on the matter from the Ministerial Task Force which we established.
The nutrition element is vital as we battle against Non-Communicable Diseases which are rampant in our Region and continue to deplete our human resources are a result of the effects of debilitating illnesses and protracted deaths.
The Nassau Declaration that health of the Region is the wealth of the region still applies. It was CARICOM that brought the attention of the world to the plague of NCDs and we must maintain our leadership in this matter of life and death.
I believe that, like the CSME and Crime and Security, the health of our Region’s people, must be a permanent item on the agenda for meetings of the Conference.
Political Crisis in Haiti
Colleagues, it is with alarm and grave concern, that I have seen the reports emanating from our Member State Haiti.
I am aware that we have made many overtures to provide good offices, to help resolve the seemingly intractable political issues that have plagued the country.
More recently the horrific level of violence has caused significant loss of life and has made thousands flee their homes for safety.
This is an untenable situation in one of our Member States and we must redouble our efforts to bring a resolution that allows some level of normality to return to Haiti.
CARICOM has made beneficial interventions to resolve political crises in Haiti before, and we should not shrink from doing so now.
There are almost two dozen items on our agenda for this meeting, and I urge all of us to approach them with a sense of urgency and decisiveness.
Finally, let us not engage in the developmental malpractice of kicking the can down the road.
I look forward to a most successful Conference.