Saturday, 13 February 2010

Were we there, or did we arrive?

One headline in the February 9, 2010 edition of the Cuban newspaper, Granma, caught my attention as I continued to look at the situation in Haiti and the challenge it poses to the Caribbean Community; both as a formal institution for the achievement of integration and as a community of people living in the same space who believe they ought to share a common future.

Granma headlines a story on Cuban assistance to Haiti in the wake of the January 12 earthquake with: “Cuba is not arriving, Cuba is already here.”

It is a fitting slogan in the context not only of Cuba’s longstanding philanthropic diplomacy in the Caribbean, but as a starting point in considering the Caricom “response” to the post-earthquake crisis.

The USA, for certain, was already there, so were Canada and France and the United Nations. China and Spain and others also found themselves there long before arrangements for a Caricom photo-op were being considered – an opportunity scuttled by ineptitude.

But, what is the truth? Were we (Caricom) already there, or did we have to “arrive”?

In a sense, Caricom has long been in Haiti and Haiti has long been in Caricom. I am not talking about the country’s formal accession to Caricom in 2002 following provisional membership in 1998, but about the things that have joined Haiti to Jamaica, Cuba, The Bahamas, Turks and Caicos and other neighbours over many generations.

But, the question stands: Was Caricom, the institution, there for Haiti on January 12? And this does not mean the office occupied by St Lucian diplomat, Earl Huntley – a facility that was closed in 2004 “following the interruption of democratic governance” (when former President Jean Bertrand Aristide was voluntarily/involuntarily whisked away in the face of violent political clashes) and only re-opened in 2007 through the largesse of the Canadian government.

It can be said that the assembling of Caricom aviation officials for a workshop in Haiti the very day of the earthquake constituted a “Caricom” presence in the country. But, was Caricom there?
We have to be truthful. The answer is NO.

As I have argued over the years Caricom, as an institution, was never prepared for Haiti’s membership. The Caricom Secretariat struggled with issues of language, bureaucratic culture, political dynamic and geography for years, since the initial move to bring Haiti into the fold in the mid 1990s.

The countries of Caricom have also never fully come to terms with Haitian membership. Many Haitian officials (not, now, including those with diplomatic passports), journalists, artistes and business persons have faced the embarrassment and inconvenience of restrictive visa regimes for travel by Haitians within Caricom. Even when the experiment of a “single domestic space” for the Cricket World Cup was initiated in 2007, Haitians continued to be discriminated against by Caricom member countries.

It is true that the first time and only time I went to Haiti was in 1994 and I remember having to apply for a Haitian visa in Miami then. That requirement was eventually dropped around the time provisional membership was accorded the country in 1998. But, to date, not even those Caricom states not immediately affected by the inflow of Haitian economic refugees have budged with this restriction.

Yet, during visits to Guyana and Jamaica in the days following the earthquake, I witnessed a caring and generousity on the part of Caricom nationals that I must say I have only witnessed before through the efforts to put Grenada back on its feet following the impact of Hurricane Ivan back in 2004.

Yes, Caricom arrived in Haiti through the aid sent, journalistic assignments and the generous monetary contributions of citizens which in some instances exceeded the financial contributions of their countries. And yes, Caricom arrived via the Caribbean Disaster Management Agency and official visits by diplomats and bureaucrats. But, they were not there, they had to arrive.

The failure and inability of the official institution to adopt a leadership posture in even one aspect of the process of rescuing, healing, counseling and protecting the people of Haiti rendered it an irrelevance in the scheme of things.

This is not to blame anyone for anything. It is simply to state a fact.

Haiti, for instance, is due to chair the meeting of Caricom Heads in July. Let’s see.

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