Editorial | Fulfilling Owen Arthur’s mission
ADHERENTS OF the logic of West Indian integration and its most sustainable manifestation, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), as Dr Ralph Gonsalves, the prime minister of St Vincent, says, owe Owen Arthur “an immense debt of gratitude”.
This newspaper is counted among that group. For, as Dr Gonsalves observed, with slight hyperbole, Mr Arthur, the former Barbadian prime minister, aged 70, who died on Monday, was not only the “chief architect, advocate and intellectual guide of the CARICOM Single Market and Economy”, but was “deeply committed to making our union in the Caribbean more perfect … [and] the best practicable institutional, political and economic expression of our Caribbean civilisation”.
Yet, we suspect that at his death, Mr Arthur was disappointed at the slow pace with which the integration process has advanced, and the unwillingness of regional leaders to translate their appreciation of its sensibleness into practical institutional action. For, creating a genuine and effective single market would require a greater sharing of sovereignty, which, thus far, the community’s members have been reluctant to countenance.
Mr Arthur’s long and successful premiership of Barbados provided an obvious platform from which he could provide the sustained intellectual and practical leadership, for which he is credited, to the effort of transforming CARICOM from a free-trade and functional cooperation group of 15 mostly former British West Indian colonies.
He was prime minister for 14 years, from 1994 to 2008, successfully leading the Barbados Labour Party in three general elections. His tenure was a period of steadiness and consistent growth after the fiscal instability and difficult macroeconomic adjustments of the early 1990s, during Erskine Sandiford’s Democratic Labour Party administration.
But while Barbados’ polity has been historically supportive of regionalism, Mr Arthur’s absolute commitment to the process would probably have also been impacted by the weight of his leadership of Grantley Adams’ party, the committed regionalist and premier of the short-lived West Indies Federation. Moreover, Owen Arthur studied, and worked, in Jamaica – at the then National Planning Agency (now Planning Institute of Jamaica) and the Jamaica Bauxite Institute – during the heady, though politically unstable, period of the 1970s when Michael Manley was at the forefront of the campaign of connecting what is now referred to as the ‘global south’ and partnering with regional colleagues to revive, and expand, the integration movement.
Of uncommon intellect, Mr Arthur brought his own mind to the leadership of Barbados and his conception of the Caribbean. One thread, however, that remained constant between himself and the early architects of integration was the idea that the combined sum of the region’s small islands is greater than the product of their individual parts.
There, too, the certainty that legitimate civilisation existed among the people of the Caribbean.
It was this sense of himself, and of the capacity of the West Indians, that caused Owen Arthur to, five years ago, in defence of the Caribbean Court of Justice, declare at a forum hosted by The Gleaner: “I would be offended if somebody wanted to get justice for me … (or) against me by taking me before a court in Britain (the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council). Let my Caribbean people try me.”
Mr Arthur, however, wasn’t blinded to weaknesses and petty insularities that encrust, and often detain, the logic of integration. “The Caribbean,” he said at the same forum, “has paid a tremendous price for insular nationalism, and the difficulty in bringing the Caribbean together in a single market and a single economy is that (upon being) granted independence, all of us have become either Barbadians or Jamaicans or whatever else. On the fundamental matters where we have to give up sovereignty to pool it in support of a bigger common good, there is the greatest unwillingness to do so.”
He was willing, too, to question established certainties, and when circumstances warrant it, adjust certitudes. He was, for instance, ready to entertain a review, and possible overhaul, of CARICOM to include its expansion to other countries in the Caribbean Basin. Ever the pragmatist, he understood, also, that sustaining CARICOM had to start with those who are in it believing in its value – and demonstrating that faith. “CARICOM has come to appear as such a dismal failure that only a strong confidence-boosting measure will suffice to rescue it,” he said at a 2016 discussion in Kingston.
Current global dynamics, including the COVID-19 pandemic and the deepening assault on multilateralism, have revealed dangers for small, weak states like those in the Caribbean. But an institution such as CARICOM, appropriately employed, provides some insulation against the headwinds – and vindication of the likes of Owen Arthur.