Thank you very much, Secretary-General, colleague Heads of Government, in particular, incoming Chair of the Caribbean Community, the Honourable Dr. Ralph Gonsalves, and
It is my distinct pleasure to have a conversation with you this morning in what is really unusual circumstances. When my brother President Bouterse asked me in July of 2018, just less than, just after one month of being the Prime Minister of Barbados, whether we would agree to become Chair of CARICOM in the first half of 2020 because of their own constitutional arrangements for an election in Suriname; I didn’t know what I was getting into when I said yes. Little did we expect that 2020 would be distinctive not only in the roundness of its number, but also in the fullness of its challenges. But nevertheless, we are here. We are standing. We are fighting. We are family.
It is against this background, therefore, that I will do what I usually do at the end, first. I want to thank you, Secretary-General, and all of the members of the Secretariat and of the regional institutions. If ever there was a time that we understood the importance of these regional institutions, it is now. Everyday countries across this region can manage who comes in and out of their borders with the assistance of IMPACS. IMPACS has made a difference from Bahamas in the north to Guyana and Suriname in the south, from Barbados in the east to Belize in the west. It has allowed us to help screening and to be able to deal with what none of us ever contemplated would be our reality – closed borders not only to the international community, but to each other.
Similarly, CARPHA, the Caribbean Public Health Agency, an institution that is less than 20 years all like IMPACS, but formed to be able to respond to the public health needs of our people without CARPHA, many countries in the region would not be able to test their own citizens, far less anyone else. We give you thanks, CARPHA, for the wonderful role that you have played.
Similarly, CDEMA. CDEMA – people hear CDEMA only every hurricane season and usually after a hurricane has devastated one of our countries. Without the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency, we would not be able to manage not just disasters like hurricanes, but the reality is that they are our point person with the World Health Organization and with the initiative that I will announce shortly that will allow our people to be able to procure from PPEs to in vitro diagnostics and all of the critical things needed to be able to deal with COVID.
Without the Secretariat, my brothers and sisters, we would not be here. So that and I can go on and on because on the issue of food security, CAHFSA will play an even more important role. The important point, my brothers and sisters, is that these regional institutions have stood the test of time, but are also playing a value, an invaluable role for us at a time when individual countries do not have the capacity on their own to meet the demands of their nations’ imperatives or the people within the context of CARICOM at this point.
I also want to thank the Pan American Health Organization and the World Health Organization, with whom Caribbean, quite frankly, would have been left to the Wild, Wild West, exposed to the ravages of all of the gale-force winds of COVID. But they have stood from their leadership right down through the organizations at our side, ensuring that any deficit that we have, whether with respect to technical expertise on island, or capacity to access product at a time when the market failures were literally swirling around the world and affecting larger countries, far less small ones like ourselves, we thank you for that cooperation.
There is no doubt, my friend, that we have to be able to also thank the Caribbean Development Bank, who has stood there for many of our countries and who, for example, have been able to be able to ensure that provisions were made so that countries would be able to continue their debt service with respect to their obligations within the Caribbean Development Bank. We thank you all. And this is a reaffirmation for me and I’m sure for many as to the vital importance of regional cooperation and regional collaboration.
What has 2020 really been about? I could give a technocratic speech or I could come and talk about what I think Caribbean people expect to hear this morning on a few issues. And I’ve chosen to do the latter. COVID-19, has literally scarred 2020 in ways that will forever be remembered throughout the annals of history. We did not expect to shut down our borders to ourselves as a family, to the rest of the world. We are regrettably mourning the death of people who are Caribbean citizens. Thankfully, the numbers were nowhere near what they could otherwise have been. And the truth is that the Caribbean represents one of those regions that has had relative success in the containment of COVID-19, as we speak, and is certainly a low -risk region with the majority of countries not showing any new positive test results in recent weeks.
Have we passed the worse? We do not know. Are we to remain engaged? Absolutely. And to that extent, those regional institutions to which I referred, as well as an initiative which has been brought to our opportunity for us, brought by the World Health Organization Director-General and indeed the countries of Africa, we want to thank them for now agreeing that the Caribbean can have access to an African Medical Supplies Platform that will allow the smallest of our countries to be able to access PPE, in vitro diagnostics, therapeutics when they come, vaccine when it comes in the same way that the largest of the countries of Africa will be able to do so, and in the same way that we will be able to make sure that what transpired in March, April and May will not be repeated going forward because we have access to the suppliers who can supply for us at the scale that we need and more importantly, a country like St. Kitts with 40,000 people will be able to procure goods at the same price as Nigeria with 200, over 200 million persons as their population base.
So that, that opportunity to be onboarded on the African Medical Supplies Platform gives us a tremendous change for our individual countries, our hospitals, our polyclinics to be able to fight off the worst ravages of COVID-19. I want to thank President Ramaphosa of South Africa, as well as President Kenyatta as Chairman of the African, Caribbean and Pacific States for agreeing that Heads of Government of the Caribbean Community will be able to have their countries benefit and participate from this platform. It is a game-changer for us in the context of the management of COVID-19.
But COVID-19 has also wrought serious economic hardship and damage to our region. And the truth is, we’ve had to make significant calls and write so many letters that I cannot even remember, to Heads of Government across the world reflecting on the fact that the Caribbean Community is the most travel and trade-dependent region in the world. And that in many instances in our Community, countries depend on tourism to the extent of almost 40 to 50 percent of their GDP, both directly and indirectly. It is a hard, hard, hard blow that this region is facing. And to that extent, therefore, we have tried to reach out to the global community on a number of issues with respect to being able to handle our increased debt load, to being able to deal with the fact that we are not getting the revenue in this fiscal year that we would otherwise expect. And that therefore, when you combine these factors along with the other factors that we have faced with respect to the climate crisis, like the water situation or the sargassum situation, as well as the risk that we now face in the hurricane season, then the Caribbean is exceedingly vulnerable economically and nationally to these circumstances.
What has it meant? That we continue to ask for extraordinary assistance, that we ask the world not to treat us as if we were invisible, that we ask the world to listen to our peculiar circumstances.
I’m happy to report that after months of writing and months of lobbying that we’ve had from some of our partners, very positive responses. Indeed, as recent as last night, I received a letter from the Secretary of State of the United States of America, Mr. Mike Pompeo, as well as the Secretary of Treasury, Mr. Steve Mnuchin, jointly signed by them and written to me as Chair of the Caribbean Community. And while I will not read the entire letter, I will make available the letter to colleague Heads of Government and to two other interested parties, largely because for the first time, we have now before us, a significant and bold initiative, an opportunity to be able to work together with our partners within the hemisphere to see how best we can blunt the instruments or blunt the consequences of COVID-19 as we go forward.
In the letter, it was made absolutely clear that the United States has committed itself and has developed a multifaceted framework that they believe will help the region address the immediate humanitarian needs as well as assistance in the long term recovery. Indeed, in the letter, it goes on to state specifically, one, first – if requested, the United States would support temporary access to the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development just for COVID-19 related assistance for the Bahamas and Barbados, the two Caribbean graduates from the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development.
Let me say that we have been making and arguing this case for over two years and we have made it more recently, again, in all of our correspondence to the heads of the international financial institutions and to the Heads of Government across the entire global community, in the Americas, in Europe, in Asia, across the entire global community, that one – that at the very least, those countries in the Caribbean that have been graduated from access to concessional funding from the World Bank ought to be given access now, largely because the needs in a pandemic or the needs coming out of a hurricane, as was the case with the Bahamas, with Hurricane Dorian, require that they have access to concessional funding that will allow us to meet the most urgent demands of survival first and then thereafter to begin the journey of transformation once we have ensured that we can cause as many of our people to survive this awful pandemic.
The United States of America has in this letter made it very clear that for this period of time that those countries, Barbados and the Bahamas, should be able to access funds, concessional funds from the World Bank going forward.
Similarly, they have also added that in addition, “we will not object on the basis of income classification to borrowing by members from the Inter-American Development Bank to assist with economic or health recovery efforts”. This is also substantive for us, and this is what we were asking for, like with the exceptional access to the World Bank and we, too, have gotten it with respect to this letter. They continue, “we have engaged with the World Bank staff to impress upon them that economic reform programs that can be supported by the international financial institutions should receive necessary and appropriate financing consistent with the World Bank’s commitments on support to small states under the recent capital increase package. We urge you as Chair of CARICOM, to encourage those countries to engage constructively with the international financial institutions, including the IMF, on the type of strong reforms to public finance and governance that you are implementing in your own country. To address immediate liquidity needs, the United States has leveraged its leadership at the IMF to support a total of 1.7 billion dollars in new emergency funding for Caribbean countries. Bahamas, Barbados, Dominica, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Haiti, Jamaica, St. Lucia and St. Vincent and the Grenadines have benefited from IMF emergency funding to address the humanitarian and economic ramifications of COVID-19 pandemic. For the poorest countries in the region, the United States has advanced the G20 and Paris Club Debt Service Suspension Initiative. Five CARICOM member states are currently eligible specifically, St. Lucia, Dominica, Grenada, St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Haiti. For countries in the region not eligible for the Debt Service Suspension Initiative, but which faced debt service constraints, the United States will support swift debt rescheduling through the Paris Club. We encourage potential recipients to develop an economic reform program that can be supported by the IMF and to work with their non-Paris Club, bilateral creditors and private sector creditors to provide appropriate and comparable treatment”.
They then go on to encourage member states to be aware that they can be in touch with the Department of Treasury’s Technical Assistance Office that is already standing ready to give assistance in areas ranging from economic reforms, tax administration, public financial management, capital market development and infrastructure.
Now colleagues what does all of that mean? And they go on with other things in the letter and make it clear the opportunities that they will do to support the World Bank and the IDB and their own bilateral support for the region. There is no doubt that this letter is one of the most bold and significant responses from the United States government to our region. And this region has to acknowledge that. You have heard me on different occasions be equally blunt and frank when we feel that we are not being listened to or we are not being heard. I cannot tell the people of the region that that has not happened today because we have received a framework for conversation and I trust and pray that colleague Heads and ourselves will have the opportunity to be able to appropriately respond to the letter that has been sent, I believe in good faith, by Secretary Mnuchin and by Secretary Pompeo, but more importantly, responding in areas that we have been arguing for and asking for over the course of the last few months.
Does it come without difficulty? No, it doesn’t. Are there difficulties before us economically? Of course there are. Our economies cannot see the decline in revenue and the expansion in expenditure that we are seeing in the last few months and it be business as usual. And it is best that always, we work together, particularly on those types of reforms that will help make us more resilient to be able to take advantage of the circumstances necessary to propel growth in a post-COVID-19 environment.
Does it mean that we have therefore to sit down and negotiate and see how best it works for us? Of course. And even if we have to relate to international parties, we do so on our terms and circumstances that allow us to be able to frame what is best for us and how best do we restructure aspects of our economy, aspects of our debt to be able to allow us to meet the needs of our population going forward.
I thank the persons who have allowed us, therefore, to reach this point, and I accept that this is now a platform for discussion with the ball being in the court of the Caribbean Community, to determine what it is prepared to accept within the context of the support that it is finally receiving from countries in the region who appreciate that this pandemic has the potential to destabilize this neighbourhood such that we would not only be facing economic decline, but also the spectacle of migration that has regrettably so accompanied economic recession in so many other parts of the world.