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I am delighted to welcome you all to the opening of this historic Twenty-third Meeting of the Conference of Heads of Government of the Caribbean Community.

I do not use the word “historic” lightly since on this occasion, not only do we celebrate the twenty-ninth year of our existence as a Caribbean family, but we also add to our number with the accession of the Republic of Haiti, making us a Community of fifteen Member States. We are very happy and honoured to have President Aristide with us today as Haiti, a country whose glorious struggle for independence inspired so many others in the hemisphere has now formally joined the Community.

I am especially pleased to welcome the newest member of our fraternity – the honourable Perry Christie, Prime Minister of The Bahamas – and to welcome back into our midst the Honourable Patrick Manning, Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago.

I extend a warm greeting to the Heads of regional and inter-regional institutions who have joined us for the occasion. I wish to recognise the distinguished Secretaries General of the Organisation of American States; the Association of Caribbean States; the Commonwealth; and the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group. Your participation in our Conference will provide an important dynamic for our regional integration process.

I am eager to recognise and applaud Dr. Rhoda Reddock, who has been awarded the CARICOM Triennial Award for Women. This award is a well-deserved tribute to her personally as well as to the role women continues to play with envied distinction in the development of our countries.

I would also wish to acknowledge the important part, which our young people also play in shaping the Region’s future, and would wish to suggest that perhaps the time has come for us to establish an annual Award to honour and encourage their special contributions.

I t would be remiss of me were I not to place on record the Community’s appreciation and thanks to the Honourable Said Musa, Prime Minister of Belize. His active and enlightened leadership provided our the past six months has augmented the Community’s dynamism. During my tenure of office as Chairman, I will work to build on those efforts and advance our common cause.

Colleagues, Excellencies, distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen

As we address the agenda of this Conference, let us resist any urge to diminish the significance, implications, and benefits of the progress we have recorded as a Community. Similarly, and with equal vigor we must combat any sentiments serving to impair our vision or reduce our resolve.

Over the past three decades, we have taken many initiatives to build our Community home. There have been varying insights of what these have meant for the future of the Region. For some – especially those who have been involved in their implementation, these initiatives have evidently contributed significantly to the progress of our member states towards greater integration.

However, for the majority of the people of the Community, there is not as yet a full understanding of the of the importance of these endeavours to their lives. Perhaps unwittingly we as Governments have contributed to their lack of perception of what we have and are undertaking in their name and in their interest. Perhaps through legitimate preoccupations we have failed to inform them significantly of our objectives. Consequently, we are often perceived to be out of touch with reality. More damning is that we are often viewed as lacking the necessary political will to commit to a higher level of integration. It is not surprising therefore that they often do not see the relevance of our efforts to their lives. This must be changed.

It is therefore imperative that we bridge the gap between perceptions and the reality in order to receive popular support for our actions. We must employ in a deliberate and sustained manner all available means to keep our citizens informed of what we are doing so that they become part of a common enterprise. Governments and the Community Secretariat must find innovative ways to bring the life, culture, struggles, successes and triumphs of our people into the living rooms of all our citizens. These images must constantly be before their minds and inscribed in the memories of our people creating empathy, forging relationships, and leading to the discovery of our common identity.

It is not enough to tend to the admirable technical details of our enterprises while omitting the beneficiaries. It will not be sufficient to clothe the issues that concern us in a garb of complexities. We must make the complexities of the issues understandable to every citizen thereby earning their understanding and support.

The farmer in the village, the worker in the factory, and the student in the classroom will never become engaged if the issues vital to our Community are conveyed in technical terms such as derogation and post-Contonou agreement. They must be made aware how impending measures and arrangements will impact them and the future of their children.

In moving to establish the CARICOM Single Market and Economy we must let our people appreciate the fact that it is a process not an event which happens miraculously. We cannot jut turn a switch and expect it to begin operating immediately. Our people must understand this if they are not to be disillusioned by the pace of development. If it is to become a reality, there must be the patient and painstaking creation of the requisite arrangements and institutions.

Colleagues, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen: As incoming Chairman, I hope, with the concurrence of my fellow Heads, we could focus on the following issues in the near future:

– the formulation of a Common Agricultural Policy:

As the Head of Government with lead responsibility for Agriculture, I intend to see whether we cannot build on past efforts to develop a Common Agricultural Policy. The Regional Transformation Policy on Agriculture has its limitations and most of the agricultural studies done have served merely to guide our external trade negotiations. It is not enough for the full development of our agriculture sector from a production perspective. More than anything else at this stage we need a policy and strategy which will allow us to decide on what sort of institutions and mechanisms are needed to achieve this goal.

Secondly – the creation of multilateral regimes:

We must continue to support the concept of the Caribbean Sea as a special area for sustainable development. I would also like to see, in this context, a common fisheries regime that would allow for rational exploitation and adequate conservation of stocks. Similarly, since our economic zones often overlap, it also makes sense for us to seek agreement on a generally acceptable basis for maritime delimitation and the sharing of resources. This would avoid controversy on such issues as sovereignty and allow us to proceed to jointly utilise our resources for the benefit of our peoples. There may be many other areas where we may develop multilateral cooperation arrangements.

Thirdly: a review of regional institutions:

It is commendable that we have already embarked on a review of the functioning of the Community’s organs, including the Secretariat. We must now extend the review to other Community institutions to ensure that they too are functioning efficiently and effectively. Many of them may have to be strengthened, some modified and some closed. Some of us may fear that such closures will be interpreted as a lack of commitment sending the wrong signals to others in the international community. But the world has changed and the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas has set us a new task. Our institutions must be made relevant to current realities.

Far too often we create institutions that become self-perpetuating although they have lost their effectiveness. Our fiscal situation does not permit institutions luxuries. We must therefore rationalise these bodies and by doing so, we may locate the resources to support those that serve us well. We may have to make tough decisions but so be it if it helps the Community to survive and prosper.

The proposal for joint representation in the execution of our foreign policies is clearly an idea whose time has come. The international agenda has become very comprehensive and complex for us to deal with individually. We should therefore seek to combine our limited human and financial resources in order to be able to address it successfully. I would also propose that in dealing with the multilateral financial institutions, we consult and coordinate with each other in order to avoid some of the difficulties encountered in our negotiations with these bodies.

Fourthly – a common approach to the problems of crime and insecurity in the Region:

The problem of increasing crime and insecurity which are now holding people and our economies to ransom must be addressed promptly and fully at this meeting. All of our States, to one degree or another, have been caught-up in the spiral of arms and drug trafficking rampaging throughout the hemisphere. Our societies once safe and secure from violence, are now exposed to a multiplicity of threats. Our citizens have to fear for their lives as new forms of domestic terrorism are let loose. It is possible for small bands of disgruntled citizens sheltering under various guises to terrorise entire populations. This must not be allowed to succeed. In addition to disruptions in our way of life, we must face the reduction of investment in the Region.

Fifthly – the promotion of greater accountability for democratic governance:

Another area which affects our ability to attract investment is the perception abroad of poor governance in some of our countries. Now that we have signed on to the Inter-American Charter, which is firm in its proscription of extra-constitutional measures to remove Governments, we must establish an instrument of our own that will go beyond clear principles to deal with some of the current challenges. Governments are obligated to honour these commitments. We must ensure that the instrument to be devised is capable of meting out sanctions not only to recalcitrant Governments but also to Opposition groups, or Civil Society which by their actions may threaten our democratic traditions. Moreover, we must not only pledge ourselves to good governance but we must be held accountable when we do not honour our commitment. Unless we do this, we will lose credibility in the international community and our image will be tarnished

Sixthly – the greater involvement of civil society in our activities:

As far as our relations with Civil Society are concerned, it is significant that our Conference this year has been preceded by a meeting of its representatives, under the banner “Forward Together”. The dialogue, which we had earlier today, will undoubtedly serve to inform the decisions which we as Governments make. The greater involvement of Civil Society – women, young people, all members of Civil Society – is needed for the achievement of the goals of the Community.

Seventhly – the promotion of a larger vision of the Caribbean

Last but not least, we must project the reach of CARICOM beyond its geographic confines. We can do this through our diaspora in the North. Belize has opened the possibilities in Central America. Guyana and Suriname can do this in South America. This vast economic territory remains largely uncharted and yet if offers many tantalising opportunities to us as a Region. Because of their strategic location on the shoulder of the sub-continent, Guyana and Suriname can serve as an important gateway for the Community’s trade and economic relations with countries in the southern hemisphere.

Citizens of the Community must rest assured that this poses no threat to their interests but rather would expand opportunities for us all.

Colleagues, Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen:

It is my hope that over the next two days, we can pursue this larger vision. At the same time, I expect that our deliberations will be concluded with despatch to allow you an opportunity to savour not only the charms of Georgetown, our coastal capital but also of the interior of the country where the true beauty of Guyana lies. You will then appreciate, I know, the full dimension of the Caribbean Community and the vast potential it holds for the economic development of all our peoples.

Again, I welcome you all!

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