The first Northern Caribbean Conference, hosted by Jamaica National Building Society on Friday 17 December, has the potential to be “game changer” according to Joe Clark, the former prime minister of Canada, who chaired the event.
The conference, which attracted 160 delegates from the Northern Caribbean region, including the Cayman Islands, the Bahamas, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica and Puerto Rico, aimed to explore the potential for cooperation in key areas such as trade, tourism, education, security and climate change.
While some of these issues may seem insurmountable for countries individually, Mr. Clark said, they are “achievable within the context of a unified sub-region”.
Cayman Islands Premier McKeeva Bush noted the need for the region to work together and announced visa exemptions for Jamaican nationals, who hold valid US, UK or Canadian visas or a US green card. “Hopefully that will be in place by the end of January,” he said. He called on the Caymanians attending the event to “educate our people on why this is necessary”. “It should not have been in place in the first instance,” Mr. Bush said.
In addition a new one to five day business visa will be introduced for business travellers visiting for legitimate business purposes. “In these instances the business visa will replace the need for these persons to obtain temporary work permits for short trips to attend business meetings or conferences,” he noted.
“I doubt that it should have ever been intended that people who hold diplomatic passports should be requiring a visa,” Mr. Bush added.
Mr. Bush also noted the need to cooperate on security matters, including illegal immigration, arms and drug trafficking and other crime. Highlighting the current dialogue between the RCIPS, the legal department and cabinet to amend witness anonymity and witness protection legislation in Cayman, he said: “I will be very interested in hearing the thoughts on the possibility of building closer alliances within the Northern Caribbean for witness protection.”
Mr. Bush further explored potential areas for cooperation in education, asking whether bachelor’s students would currently benefit from the best possible internship opportunities, as part of their studies, in the region. He also hinted at the potential for education exchange programmes, such as a semester abroad option and teacher exchange programmes and suggested a new concept of research assistance for graduate students. Mr. Bush said he will “hopefully in the next six months inaugurate” a Science Council, which will seek to commission locally, regionally and internationally “research that we don’t have, but that we need as a developing country”.
Competing as a region
Both Mr. Bush and Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding were keen to emphasise that the conference did not aim to replace CARICOM’s efforts in terms of Caribbean integration. Mr. Golding pointed out that Caribbean nations “were at different stages in their development and there was an inherent danger” in that it fuels the desire “to insulate and protect ourselves from each other”.
“Part of our problem in the Caribbean is that we have spent too much time struggling to compete with each other instead of pooling our energies and determining how we together can compete with the rest of the world,” Mr. Golding said.
The Jamaican prime minister identified tourism, health services and education as areas of opportunities that ought to be pursued. In terms of tourism he supported a common destination marketing which could offer “packaging options” that would enable visitors to pick and choose a holiday spanning several countries in the region and represent more value for money. Health services are also ripe for cooperation, for example in the form of critical back office support to health providers, he said. The provision of educational services is a third area that could be exploited, Mr. Golding added, given the increasing cost of education.
Kenneth McClintock, lieutenant governor and secretary of state for Puerto Rico, in turn focused on energy as an essential requirement for achieving sustainable economic growth. The strong dependency of foreign diesel and heavy oil for electricity generation in Caribbean countries is resulting in a significant drain of foreign reserves that affect economic and social development as well as the ability of Caribbean countries to attract investors, he said. “You can’t do business if you are paying [25 to 50 cents] per kilowatt hour, when our competitors in the rest of the world are paying 10 and 11 cents.”
Mr. McClintock said he had found when visiting Cayman and speaking to its people “that as Puerto Rico you are blessed by a high dosage of sunlight and quite a bit of wind, yet we have almost nothing in place to harness all that solar and wind power.
“Why not transform the entire Caribbean into the world’s first energy self-sufficient region?” he asked. Interconnecting the individual electricity grids with submarine cables in the Caribbean would be a way to achieve the necessary economies of scale, an option that is currently explored by the governments of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. A similar project will be implemented in 2011 between Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. The interconnection of electricity grids in the Caribbean would also make it easier to adopt renewable energy forms, he said.
Former Jamaican prime minister Percival Patterson noted that under a UN declaration the Caribbean Sea will become a “specially protected area” from 1 May, 2011. Caribbean states will then have responsibility to ensure proper garbage disposal and for effective management of the Caribbean Sea. “This is a rare opportunity for collaboration,” he said, to establish a new management regime which will include the provision of facilities for the disposal of waste from ships as well as to deal with potential marine spills.
The one-day conference, held at the Ritz-Carlton in the Cayman Islands, featured panel sessions exploring sub-regional cooperation around trade, tourism, migration, education and crime. Although not all Northern Caribbean countries were able to send delegates to the event, a follow-up on the outcomes is tentatively planned as part of the American-Caribbean dialogue in about three months.