Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Fred Mitchell joins the discussion on CARICOM’s survival

Saving CARICOM, pt. 1

• This commentary is taken from a lecture given by Minister of Foreign Affairs and Immigration Fred Mitchell on February 6 at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine in Trinidad and Tobago. Mitchell’s address was on “Saving CARICOM”.

Kamau Brathwaite, the Barbadian poet writes in his work “Negus”:
It is not enough to be free
of the red white and blue
of the drag of the dragon…

In the days just before Christmas the great man Nelson Mandela died. The Bahamian prime minister had made arrangements to get to South Africa on a commercial airline. We received a call from the secretary general’s office at CARICOM to say that the prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, had offered a Caribbean Airlines flight to all CARICOM countries without cost and would we take advantage of the offer. Our prime minister agreed right away. He was joined by the president of Haiti, deputy prime ministers of Grenada and St. Lucia, the foreign minister of Barbados and ambassador from Antigua and Barbuda. That single gesture of Caribbean outreach made an impression on Africa and ourselves which went beyond what money could buy.

The prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, who is ethnically Indian, wore on the occasion an African dress and headwear. She was resplendent. She joined the heads of Jamaica, Guyana and Suriname, who had already made their way there. We appeared in South Africa as a team. That is CARICOM at its best. This was no group of groveling mendicants, as Errol Barrow had once lamented about Caribbean leaders. In South Africa, the leaders got along well and the chemistry was there. It is that chemistry about which Prime Minister Kenny Anthony spoke last year when he hosted the heads of government conference as being the key to CARICOM’s survival.

Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar’s decision reinforced the great comfort which The Bahamas got when in September last year CARICOM issued a statement in support of The Bahamas in the face of withering criticism by Cuban-American protestors in Miami. We knew we were not alone. Someone had our back.

Tonight’s discussion is about CARICOM’s survival.

I am pleased to be here. This is a special honor for me and for The Bahamas. Being up at the northern end of the chain people tend to think of us as a world away and a world apart but I have come to tell you this evening that we see ourselves as an integrated part of this region. Our founding father the late Sir Lynden Pindling on July 4, 1983 committed our country to this CARICOM project. He reaffirmed that by signing the Grand Anse Declaration in 1989 committing The Bahamas to the Single Market and Economy although we have some ways to go.

All governments of The Bahamas, admittedly with varying degrees of enthusiasm, have embraced the notion that we have a common future together.

I come, therefore, tonight representing that generation of Bahamians to whom the task of governance for today has been entrusted, to renew our commitment to the CARICOM enterprise.

CARICOM is not just an economic project. It is the very soul of our people from Bermuda to Suriname. It is that narrative that I have come to tell.

In doing so I begin by saying thank you to my hosts for their gracious invitation to listen to what I have to say. I recall Pastor David Johnson who has now sadly passed away. He was being honored with the naming of the village Christmas tree in my Fox Hill constituency. He was then 77-years-old. He said he could not believe it. He could still on that cool winter evening in Nassau remember when he was running around in short pants and talking about the elders of the Fox Hill village. Now, he said they are calling me one of the elders.

That is the stark reality of time. It reminds us that our time on the stage is short; but I committed myself a long time ago to the notion that if I ever got a chance to be on the public stage I would not squander the opportunity. I would do what I was called upon to do.

So this then is dedicated to all of those teachers and their patience from the time I was a little boy; my parents, particularly my mother, who forced me to wake up early each morning and get ahead of the day; dedicated to Dawson Conliffe and Bonaventure Dean, my old headmasters. All now gone on but they live on the heart and mind of their student.

I thank Dr. Monica Davis, the honorary consul for The Bahamas to Trinidad and Tobago, who graduated with me from high school in The Bahamas way back in June of 1970 at the Catholic High School in Nassau, St. Augustine’s College.

James Baldwin reminds us in “The Amen Corner” how strange life is, the twists and turns it takes. I call these Dickensian moments after the pattern in those Dickens novels where someone disappears at the start of the book and then magically pops up at the end of the book with a smart and pleasant surprise.

I would like to thank the Secretary General Irwin La Rocque for his kindly providing me with access to the secretariat’s headquarters building where this work was largely written and to his supportive staff. The speech was written in Georgetown, Guyana which V.S. Naipaul, the Trinidadian-born writer, described in turns as “the most beautiful city in the West Indies” and then “the most exquisite city in the British Caribbean”.

I also thank the current prime minister of The Bahamas, Perry Christie, for permitting my participation in this, even as he complained that I was going to be away from home too long. However, I have always enjoyed a good relationship with all my bosses and with this boss the relationship is no different. I thank my constituents and Cabinet and parliamentary colleagues for their understanding and support.

I would however be remiss if I did not also dedicate this evening’s presentation to a man I greatly admired and respected. The name: Rex Nettleford. I first met him when I travelled with the late Winston Saunders, a Bahamian scholar and cultural icon in his own right, to Kingston for CARIFESTA in 1976. To quote one of the English ladies of quality who admired him, this man Rex Nettleford simply said “the most wonderful things”. He had a way of expressing life that could not be copied. He was an intellectual leader in Jamaica and widely admired and respected throughout the region as a dancer, choreographer, lecturer, trade unionist, writer, thinker, vice chancellor of the University of The West Indies and finally as the chairman of the Public Service Commission in Jamaica. He died at the age of 76 on February 2, 2010, four years ago.

CARICOM is an idea born from the genetics of the people themselves. I, for example, am the grandson of a Barbadian Sonny Forde who came to The Bahamas with his father at the turn of the last century as a baby. His father was a tailor for the Bahamian police force. My great grand grandmother was named Angelina Barrow. I never knew any of them.

The founder of our country Sir Lynden Pindling was the son of a Jamaican policeman who emigrated to The Bahamas. Many in the Cabinet that ended the white minority rule government in 1967 had one parent from the southern Caribbean. Indeed, today the governor general of The Bahamas, Sir Arthur Foulkes, is the son of a Haitian woman. Our first black member of Parliament in The Bahamas was Haitian, a man by the name Stephen Dillette elected in 1834.

Lynden Pindling was a classmate in law school in London of the late Dame Lois Browne Evans of Bermuda. She founded the PLP (Progressive Labour Party) in Bermuda with the advice and counsel of Sir Lynden of the PLP (Progressive Liberal Party) of The Bahamas. The rallying cry of both parties to this day is “ All the way!”. It was Ewart Brown, a successor of Dame Lois and a former Bermuda premier, who mooted the idea at a CARICOM Heads of Government meeting of a CARICOM airline that could provide transport for people from Bermuda to Suriname within a single day without having to traverse Miami.

I dedicate this to Rex Nettleford because he always talked about “the Caribbean ethos”. That is what this evening’s address is really about: the Caribbean ethos. The CARICOM project came about and continues and will continue because of the Caribbean ethos – what St. Vincent’s Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves amongst others has called “ the Caribbean civilization”.

So I am deeply indebted to Rex for imbuing in me a sense of hope and confidence that we as a people will one day get to the promised land.

Shortly after he died, there was a symposium in Kingston which was dedicated to his work and life. Some of Jamaica’s intellectuals and scholars were there. I was invited to lunch with some of them. For the first time in the history of my relationship with Jamaicans I detected despair. This was in the middle of the Dudus affair.

They lamented what had happened to their country. They did not see a way forward. They did not think that even with all their intellectual capacity that they could see a way out. They lamented the rise of criminal behavior in every enterprise, going so far as to say that they were shocked that some of the most respected business people in the country were infected by criminal enterprises.

This left me quite disturbed. I had come up at a time when Jamaica was bold and strong and relentless, no despair. Even in the worst of the economic issues of the Manley years, that remained true. Michael Manley himself told me that he was unreconstructed, unapologetic and unrepentant. That was the Jamaica I knew.

• Fred Mitchell is the member of Parliament for Fox Hill and minister of foreign affairs and immigration.

March 05, 2014

- Saving CARICOM, pt. 2

- Saving CARICOM, pt. 3

- Saving CARICOM pt.4

- Saving CARICOM, pt. 5