David Comissiong | The need for a collective CARICOM foreign policy
Monday the 21st of January, 2019 was the 99th anniversary of the birth of Barbadian national hero and Caribbean integrationist par excellence, Right Excellent Errol Walton Barrow, and was celebrated in Barbados as ‘Errol Barrow Day’ – a national public holiday.
In light of the recent happenings in the Organization of American States (OAS) when, on having to deal with a resolution that purported to delegitimise the inauguration of Nicolás Maduro as president of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, our CARICOM member states found themselves divided on the issue, with some of them voting for the resolution, others voting against, and some abstaining, I would like to focus on the role that Mr Barrow played during his illustrious career as an architect of the concept of a collective CARICOM foreign policy.
THE BIRTH OF CARICOM
It was at the historic Seventh Commonwealth Caribbean Heads of Government Conference held at Chaguaramas in Trinidad that the idea of converting the Caribbean Free Trade Association (CARIFTA) into a Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) as well as the associated idea of equipping the new CARICOM with a collective foreign policy were born.
The date was October 1972, and at that time, there were only four independent Commonwealth Caribbean nations, namely, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, and Barbados, and these newly independent states were led by Michael Manley, Eric Williams, Forbes Burnham, and Errol Barrow, respectively.
It was a time of great tension in the affairs of the world – the United States of America (USA) was ablaze with anti-Vietnam war protests; the Black Power and anti-colonial challenges to national and international structures of domination were going strong; and the so-called ‘Cold War’ between the USA and the Soviet Union was still at a dangerous peak.
Indeed, by 1972, the Caribbean had come to be regarded as one of the primary theatres of the ‘Cold War’, with the USA making every conceivable effort to isolate the revolutionary Fidel Castro-led government of Cuba.
We need to recall that when – in 1959 – the Cuban Revolution triumphed, the new revolutionary Cuban government entered a Western Hemisphere environment that was organized around the OAS – a multilateral organisation dominated by the USA and dedicated to a USA-inspired anti-Communist mission.
THE DECLARATION OF CARACAS
Furthermore, in 1954, at the instigation of a USA steeped in McCarthy era anti-Communism, the OAS issued the “Declaration of Caracas”, which declared that all Marxist revolutionary ideology was intrinsically alien to the Western Hemisphere and that Marxist revolutionary movements were to be treated as foreign invasions of the hemisphere.
It was not surprising, therefore, that as early as June 1959, the USA began pressing the OAS to take punitive actions against Cuba – a founder member of the OAS but now led by a revolutionary socialist Government.
In August 1960, the USA not only orchestrated a condemnation of Cuba at the OAS on the grounds of Cuba’s acceptance of economic assistance from the Soviet Union, but also urged Latin American states to break off diplomatic relations with Cuba – an urging that Venezuela and Colombia adhered to in 1961.
And then the “coup de grâce” came in January 1962 when, at the eighth Consultative Meeting of OAS Foreign Ministers in Uruguay, the OAS suspended Cuba’s membership, thereby effectively expelling Cuba from the OAS!
This was then followed by the US compiling a so-called “black list” of all countries still trading with Cuba and threatening to cut off US economic and military assistance to them.
But even this was seemingly not enough for the anti-Cuba forces, and during the 9th Consultative Meeting of Foreign Ministers held in Washington, DC, in July 1964, a resolution was passed, urging all governments of the Western Hemisphere to break diplomatic relations with Cuba.
And – sad to say – in the following years, every single Western Hemisphere nation, except Mexico and Canada, fell in line with the OAS stipulation and either broke diplomatic relations with Cuba or refused to recognise the revolutionary Republic of Cuba!
This then was the scenario facing the four independent Commonwealth Caribbean countries – three of them being newly installed members of the OAS – in October 1972!
And, needless-to-say, the leadership of the OAS was insisting that the new Caribbean member states must adhere to the, by then well-established, USA-supported policy of non-recognition and isolation of revolutionary Cuba.
MAGNIFICENCE OF BARROW, MANLEY, WILLIAMS, BURNHAM
The magnificent response of the Right Excellent Errol Barrow and his fellow Commonwealth Caribbean leaders – Manley, Williams, and Burnham – was to issue the following historic declaration:
“The Prime Ministers of Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago, meeting together during the Heads of Government Conference at Chaguaramas, have considered the state of their relations with the Government of Cuba and the obligations which the OAS has sought to impose upon its members in regard to relations with that Government, and make the following statement:
(1) The independent English-speaking Caribbean states, exercising their sovereign right to enter into relations with any other sovereign state and pursuing their determination to seek regional solidarity and to achieve meaningful and comprehensive economic cooperation amongst all Caribbean countries, will seek the early establishment of relations with Cuba, whether economic, diplomatic or both.
(2) To this end, the independent English-speaking Caribbean states will act together on the basis of agreed principles.”
SPEAKING TRUTH TO POWER
Here then were the four smallest and youngest states of the entire Western Hemisphere standing on principle, courageously speaking “truth to power”, and setting a noble and principled example for all the other nations of the hemisphere to follow!
Indeed, six months later – in April 1973 – Mr Barrow gave an address to the Empire Club of Toronto, Canada, and explained the significance of the unified Caribbean stance on Cuba as follows:
“……we have managed in our four countries – Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, and Barbados – to sustain our independence to the extent that we were considered to have committed an act of defiance in October last year when we took a lead in the Western Hemisphere in deciding to open diplomatic relations with the Republic of Cuba, much to the chagrin of our neighbours to the north.
“But it demonstrates that the developing countries can take a lead in conditioning the minds of people who should know better…And I have no doubt that the other countries, which are mightier and more powerful than the four small independent countries in the Caribbean, will soon, shamefacedly or not, have to follow suit…
“We cannot sit down in the Caribbean and wait for our strategy to be dictated or governed by the political or other economic or social prejudices of people in other countries because to entertain such a belief would be an abandonment of the sovereignty that we believe in, and we have never subscribed to the doctrine of limited sovereignty. And I have been, myself, very firm right from the beginning of Barbados’ independence that we would be friends of all and satellites of none.”
And so, the lesson taught to us by those architects of our Caribbean integration movement – Errol Barrow, Eric Williams, Forbes Burnham, and Michael Manley – is absolutely clear: namely, that our Caribbean Community (CARICOM) is a much more effective and respected organisation when it operates on the basis of a unified, collective foreign policy !
- David Comissiong is ambassador to CARICOM. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org