Advancing Integration Between Caricom and Central America
by Odeen Ishmael
Guyana Journal, July 2007
Caracas, 28 June 2007: As part of the efforts to expand regional integration, the second joint summit of heads of state and government of the Caribbean Community (Caricom) and the Central American Integration System (SICA) convened in Belize City, Belize on 12 May 2007. The first summit was held in February 2002, also in Belize City. And now with a more organized approach to integration in place, the leaders decided to hold future summits every two years, with Nicaragua hosting the next one in May 2009.
In preparation for this recent summit, the Ministers responsible for Foreign Affairs, the Economy and Foreign Trade held discussions in Belize in February 2007 on strengthening the political dialogue and cooperation, and expanding trade between the two hemispheric sub-regions.
Significantly, the summit reaffirmed the action plan drawn up by the Foreign Ministers at their February meeting, by which Caricom and SICA aimed to further increase cooperation in numerous areas, including human development, health, housing, poverty eradication, environment and disaster mitigation, foreign policy coordination, foreign trade and investment, crime and security, the fight against corruption, air transportation, tourism, and cultural exchanges.
For many years, both sides had expressed the importance of establishing a joint free trade agreement (FTA). The Foreign Trade Ministers, during the February meeting, agreed on this direction, and the summit formalized this by deciding to start discussions for such an accord. The heads decided to use as a basis the current Caricom-Costa Rica FTA which provides for accession by other countries of the two sub-regions and regarded as the most appropriate tool for achieving the early realization of enhanced trade relations among the participating countries.
As a result of this decision, a preparatory meeting of Caricom and SICA representatives was subsequently held in Panama City on 30 May to discuss the framework of the FTA. Among the issues considered were the legal format that would constitute the agreement; the amendments and revisions that must be incorporated to align the integration of the other SICA members into the framework of the Costa Rica Caricom FTA; and market access such as rules of origin, customs, rules and administrative procedures.
A critical trade issue, which has seen a long running difference between the two sub-regions, is over the matter of preferential treatment by the European Union for bananas produced in Caricom member-states. Commenting on this problem which was aired at the summit, Barbados Prime Minister Owen Arthur emphasized that since Caricom and Central America have a common and shared vulnerability, they must really try to find common ground on matters where there is a common vulnerability. Noting that this situation has existed for some time, he said that it is through meetings like this and through the determination to find means and mechanisms for cooperation in the future that such conflict in the past may be avoided in the future.
But it was not just the trade issue that took center stage. Other crucial matters such as natural disasters, energy, investments and transportation received emphasis. Observing that natural disasters and climate change present a grave danger to Central America and the Caribbean, the summit saw the necessity for closer coordination between the relevant bodies established within the framework of Caricom and SICA. As a result, a high level meeting on Environment and Disaster Prevention and Mitigation is currently being planned for Honduras in order to discuss and analyze a proposal for a joint project in both sub-regions.
And in a further effort to intensify their efforts to combat and mitigate the potentially devastating impact of climate change on the countries of both regions, Caricom and SICA will also collaborate on proposals that may be incorporated in the multilateral regime presently being negotiated. They will also support the proposal that the UN Economic and Social Council should hold a special session at the level of Foreign Ministers in the margins of the 62nd Session of the UN General Assembly in September this year.
In addition, the summit involved itself in a thorough discussion on the question of energy in the light of the serious effect of energy costs on the economies of both sub-regions. The leaders discussed practical ways to address this situation, including pursuing renewable energy alternatives, diversifying energy sources and encouraging energy conservation. They also set an objective to harmonize regional energy policies and strengthen the energy sector in the member-states.
An important part of the discussions centered on the question of security and the expanding problem of crime. In this respect, both groups decided to advance cooperation in the fight against organized crime, including illicit trafficking in small arms and light weapons, drug trafficking, among other criminal activities, through the exchange of information and the establishment of mechanisms aimed at reinforcing such collaboration.
Hailing the summit as a success and pointing to the agreement reached between the two sub-regions, Belizes Prime Minister Said Musa said, We believe that this bold initiative will not only bring our peoples closer together but also help in the fight against poverty.
Indeed, both Caricom and SICA have cooperated in many hemispheric and other multilateral issues over the past decade. Such cooperation is very active at the UN where both groupings participate as members of the Latin American and Caribbean Group (GRULAC) and at the OAS where they share similar views on political, economic and social problems affecting the smaller economies of the hemisphere.
Undoubtedly, this overdue summit has reinvigorated the natural alliance between Caricom and SICA whose member-states are all classified as smaller economies. Operating from the cooperation agreement of this summit and the action plan crafted by the Foreign Ministers, both sub-regions can now take concrete decisions in their mutual interests at multilateral forums such as the OAS, the UN and at the World Trade Organisation discussions. More particularly, by increasing their political consultations on a more streamlined basis in the regional, hemispheric and international forums, they are now in a better position to identify areas of consensus while working to develop joint positions and coordinate on issues of mutual interest regionally and internationally.
(The writer is Guyanas Ambassador to Venezuela. The views expressed are solely those of the writer.)