Caribbean Matters: CARICOM meets in Belize to discuss food insecurity, COVID, tourism, and Ukraine

Caribbean Matters: CARICOM meets in Belize to discuss food insecurity, COVID, tourism, and Ukraine

While most of our focus here in the U.S. has been on events in Ukraine and on President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address on Tuesday, key figures in the Caribbean were gathered for the 33rd session of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), held in Belize on March 1-2. No matter how far away from Europe, events taking place there will have a global impact, and the Caribbean is no exception.

That does not mean that Ukraine was a primary focus of the gathering. The Caribbean has been grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on tourism, along with climate change and food insecurity. 

In the second story of this series in September 2021, linked below, I introduced CARICOM and promised to report on their activities. I have to admit I was sorely disappointed but not surprised when I did a news search before writing this to discover that the only U.S. mainland newspaper I found with a story on the upcoming CARICOM was the New York Amsterdam News, a Black paper.

Caribbean Matters is a weekly series from Daily Kos. If you are unfamiliar with the region, check out Caribbean Matters: Getting to know the countries of the Caribbean.

A little background: CARICOM was formed in 1973, and initially comprised English-speaking countries of the Caribbean that were former British colonies, expanding later to include Suriname (Dutch-speaking) and Haiti (French and Creole speaking):

The Caribbean Community (CARICOM) is a grouping of  twenty countries: fifteen Member States and five Associate Members. It is home to  approximately sixteen million citizens, 60% of whom are under the age of 30,  and from the main ethnic groups of Indigenous Peoples, Africans, Indians, Europeans, Chinese,  Portuguese and Javanese. The Community is multi-lingual; with English as the major language complemented by French and Dutch and variations of these, as well as African and Asian expressions.

Stretching from The Bahamas in the north to Suriname and Guyana in South America, CARICOM comprises states that are considered developing countries, and except for Belize, in Central America and Guyana and Suriname in South America, all  Members and Associate Members are island states.

While these states are all relatively small, both in terms of population and size, there is also  great diversity with regards to geography and population as well as the levels of economic and social development.

Though the Dominican Republic (DR) has applied several times to join, CARICOM suspended consideration of their application in a strongly worded statement in 2013 after the DR stripped “tens of thousands of Dominicans, mostly of Haitian descent, of citizenship rendering them stateless and with no recourse to appeal.” Though Cuba is not a member, CARICOM has had longstanding ties with with the country that include trading agreements, and Cuba has provided quite a bit of medical assistance during times of crisis. As a U.S. colony, Puerto Rico cannot join, though it has sought closer ties in the past.

Tuesday’s meeting was opened by Secretary General Dr. Carla Barnett, who addressed the impact of the pandemic. Contrary to what we saw at the State of the Union address in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, CARICOM delegates seated around the table were masked. Barnett holds the distinction of being the first woman to hold the position of secretary general.

Diplomat Magazine had this report when Barnett broke the glass ceiling, which is something I’m pleased to see happening across the Caribbean. 

Dr. Barnett has extensive experience at the executive level of the public service in Belize and the CARICOM Region. Her work experience includes service as Financial Secretary and Deputy Governor/Acting Governor at the Central Bank of Belize.  She has also served as a Vice President at the Caribbean Development Bank and is now a Senator in Belize’s Upper House. Moreover, Dr Barnett, who served as the first female Deputy Secretary-General of CARICOM from 1997 to 2002, has now taken her distinction to the highest level as the first female to become Secretary-General.

In a congratulatory message, Prime Minister of Barbados and former Chair of CARICOM, the Hon. Mia Amor Mottley, described Dr. Barnett as “perfect for the job in the Region at this time when economies have collapsed and what we need is a sound economist to lead us on a path to growth.” Prime Minister Mottley said, “Her vast experience in regional organisations such as the Caribbean Development Bank, the Central Bank of Belize and elsewhere, has sharpened her for the position she is about to assume — not because she is a woman, but because of her competencies.” “However, her being the first woman means that young girls across the Region can be inspired by Dr. Barnett’s accomplishments and begin their moon journey,” she said.

Here is the video coverage of the opening events.

Transcript of Barnett’s opening remarks:

Chair, heads of government, distinguished delegates, we gather together for the first time in almost two years. The circumstances that occasioned that hiatus are still with us. We are learning to live with it, and to conduct our affairs in what can only be described as a new normal. This we have to abide by coming to grips with repairing the health, social and economic devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic. Once again, a disaster not of our own making has befallen us.

Significant obstacles still lay in our path. Much too many of our citizens remain unvaccinated; much too many of our children are out of school; much too many of our businesses are floundering with the resultant effect on employment.

However, one thing we have learned over the 49 years of our existence is that we are a resilient community bound together, particularly, in times of adversity. This is such a time.

Incoming Chairman Juan Antonio Briceño, the prime minister of Belize who is affectionately known as “Johnny Briceño,” was the next speaker. His opened his remarks with a warm welcome and immediately segued into the impact of climate change and the pandemic.

San Pedro is a destination which attracts many foreign and local tourists.

It epitomizes beauty and leisure—which unfortunately many of us will not get to fully enjoy this week!

But San Pedro is truly a microcosm of the challenges we are all facing as small islands and low-lying coastal developing states.

Beaches here are eroding because of rising sea levels; the Belize Barrier Reef, a World Heritage Site, is struggling due to coral bleaching; a growing population is testing the limits of the island’s capacity.

More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic dealt a devastating blow to San Pedro’s lucrative tourism industry.

But the resilient people of San Pedro did not succumb.

When tourism ebbed, they pivoted to fishing.

Pioneering coral transplantation is restoring the reef.

And a herculean beach reclamation project is underway.

Yes, we are adapting and mitigating.

We are spending millions to meet these crises because we must even though we did little to cause them. Unfair, yes. The harsh reality of the 21st century.

He also addressed the Russian invasion of Ukraine:

We meet at a time when unprecedented and existential challenges coincide with our citizens’ expectations for relief and prosperity.

The international climate is riddled with crises, conflicts and suffering.

Every country, every region is managing, they say, unprecedented challenges, with, they say, inadequate sources.

The global unraveling is occurring against the backdrop of what appears to be a new cold war.

As we meet, Russia has invaded Ukraine.

This is a flagrant violation of international law.

We condemn in the strongest terms this unjustified invasion.

There must be an immediate cessation of hostilities and immediate and unilateral withdrawal of all Russian troops from Ukraine.

We call for all to respect their obligations under international humanitarian law.

The final speaker was Gaston Browne, the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, and the outgoing chairperson of CARICOM. He made these full remarks addressing what is currently happening in Ukraine, recent events in Haiti, the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and food insecurity:

All around us, very dangerous and volatile changes threaten to overwhelm the international order as we have come to know it.

As I speak, the guns of war are once again roaring in Europe in a military confrontation, that could bring two nuclear-armed world powers into open conflict.

The implications of this development for world peace and security are almost too frightening to contemplate. […]

Six months ago, hardly had I assumed my responsibilities as chairman of CARICOM than we had the tragic news of the assassination of one of our colleagues, the president of Haiti, Jovenel Moise.

This was an event almost unheard of in our region, but a tragic reminder that our region is not immune from the forces of instability and criminality swirling around the world.

Barely had Haiti come to terms with the tragic loss of her president than she was struck by an earthquake, followed shortly by the passage of Tropical Storm Grace. […]

Vaccine hesitancy also emerged as a significant regional challenge. […]

Greater attention will also be focused on climate emergency accountability as we aggressively examine the legal recourses available to us under the appropriate international tribunal for the loss and damage, to end the injustices suffered as a result of the reckless actions of major polluters. […]

Food and nutrition security is an achievable goal, and I look forward to the recommendations on the urgent implementation of the plan from the Ministerial Task Force, which is chaired by the distinguished president of Guyana.

The nutrition element is vital as we battle against noncommunicable diseases which are rampant in our region and continue to deplete our human resources, as a result of the effects of debilitating illnesses and pre-mature deaths.

The issue of food security is of major importance. Caribbean journalist and environmental writer with a focus on food and agriculture Daphne Ewing-Chow wrote this for Forbes on the likely impact of the Ukraine invasion:

With an annual average of 19 per cent of all imports to the 15-member states of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), consisting of food and agricultural goods in the amount of more than $5 billion each year, which is typically covered by tourism-generated foreign reserves, Caribbean food security is deeply threatened by any major disruption that impacts the region.

And for those member states that import up to 60% and sometimes as much as 90% of their food supplies, there are massive implications surrounding any war on this scale in the context of Covid-19 stricken flailing economies and struggling tourism sectors. “As small island developing states that are still largely import dependent for our food, we remain extremely vulnerable to these external shocks,” says Floyd Green, Jamaican Minister of Government and former Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries.

And no group stands to suffer more from the fall out than the poor and marginalized who were already feeling the financial brunt of the pandemic.

Though Ukraine is about 6,000 miles away from the Caribbean, this war can have dire consequences for Caribbean cupboards.

On a lighter note, if you are watching the opening ceremonies video and curious about the white shirts you see worn by most of the male and some female participants—different from European standard of dark suits—they are wearing “guayaberas.” The history of this clothing is told on the History Miami website.

Men wearing guayaberas are a familiar sight in Latin America and the Caribbean. A traditional piece of menswear, the shirt is distinguished by its four front pockets and two vertical stripes of pleating and/or embroidery. Its widespread usage and distinctive appearance has made it the most iconic piece of clothing associated with the cultural life of Latin American and Caribbean populations worldwide.

When in Belize, guayaberas is a must 😉 Official Photo of the CARICOM Heads of Government Meeting in Belize 📷👇🏽

— abolish di monarchy 🇧🇿 (@kevinjohnchen) March 1, 2022

I’ll have more on the second day of the meeting in the comments section, along with the weekly Caribbean news roundup.

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