Sun | Dec 8, 2019

Martin Henry | Micro states under pressure

Published:Sunday | July 8, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Martin Henry

By accident of history, July 4 is both CARICOM Day and Independence Day for the United States. It is, as well, the birth date of Norman Manley, that great Jamaican regionalist who fought so hard for the West Indies Federation - and lost.

On July 4, 1973, four Caribbean leaders signed the Treaty of Chaguaramas, which gave birth to the Caribbean Community. Errol Barrow, prime minister of Barbados; Forbes Burnham, prime minister of Guyana; Eric Williams, prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago; and Michael Manley, prime minister of Jamaica, signed the treaty, thus laying the groundwork for a 'Community for All'.

CARICOM convened its 39th Heads of Government Summit in Montego Bay, Jamaica, on July 4 in the shadow of US trade sanctions against other countries and an American presidency bent on imperially deconstructing multilateralism and taking unilateral actions to put America first and make America great again. A trade war looms. We are feeling the winds of the outer bands of the hurricane blowing in a new world order.

So here's a recent news headline: 'Bauxite squeeze - Banks refusing to do business with UC Rusal-owned Windalco amid threat of US sanctions'. The story went on to report, "The Windalco bauxite company, majority-owned by the Russian company UC Rusal, is now facing an uncertain future as both local and overseas banks are ... refusing to do business with the company. UC Rusal, which owns 93 per cent of Windalco, was among 12 Russian companies and their principals who were ... threatened with sanctions by the US government over what the American authorities consider to be Russia's 'malignant activities around the globe'. Individuals, companies, and governments around the world who do business with UC Rusal also face the risk of sanctions by the United States.The US sanctions have targeted oligarchs close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, including Oleg Deripaska, owner of US Rusal."

NCB has just pulled the plug on carrying out foreign-currency transactions for JMMB as part of the banks' expanding response to derisking threats coming from the big banks in the international banking system. According to JMMB in its release explaining the severance of the relationship by NCB, "As a result of enhanced due diligence and risk monitoring, overseas banks are promoting electronic transfers and enforcing stricter rules for how they accept foreign currencies from Caribbean-based banking/financial institution partners. As such, this has forced partner financial institutions in the Caribbean to review their own processes as well."

What future do micro-sovereign states like CARICOM states have in the unfolding geopolitical saga? Antigua & Barbuda, 89,000; St Vincent & The Grenadines, 110,000; bigger Barbados, 283,000. These are neighbourhoods in a modest-size city. Big Jamaica, at 2.7 million, is nothing more than a mid-size city. Even the largest Caribbean territories are nothing but city-sized in population: Cuba, 11.25 million; Haiti, 10.98m; Dominica Republic, 10.77m. New York City has 8.5m people; Beijing, 21.5m; Mexico City; 21.3m; and New Delhi, 16.8m.


Concentration of wealth


Micro-sovereign states work in a multilateral world where states are politely given equal voices and votes. But that's not the way of history. Imperial powers will not for long speak softly and carry an unused big stick.

Of the 233 countries and territories listed by the United Nations, 73, nearly one-third, have populations of less than one million; nearly one-half (48 per cent) have populations of under five million.

Human numbers is one thing. Money is another. The world's billionaires individually have more money than the GDP of many countries. Bill Gates could purchase all the goods and services produced by Myanmar if he liquidated all of his assets. And Myanmar is not a little country. Mark Zuckerberg has a few more billions than Tunisia's GDP. Gates is supposedly wealthier than 140 countries. There is an unprecedented concentration of wealth in the hands of a few countries and individual people.

It would be an odd world in which a UN works well and in which states are 'equal' as sovereign states. Immersed in our own times, meaning the last 70 years or so, we may be tempted to believe that a multilateral world is normal. This is not the testimony of history. Small, vulnerable states, if they existed at all, survived by forming military and economic alliances (which then steadily became large states or empires!), voluntarily sought the patronage and protection of a larger, more powerful state (in exchange for something), or were forced into some kind of vassalage by a more powerful state (into which they would most likely become completely absorbed over time creating a big empire). Peoples don't vanish. They mix and merge. Like our Tainos. It is not true that they were exterminated. They were decimated but have survived through mixing with the Spanish colonists and the Maroons. There is no Taino nation or culture visible, but the bloodline runs on.

Countries have been busy in the transient age of multilateralism in forming trade and economic blocks but less willing to engage the formation of military and political alliances, the stuff of history - and of big wars. The last really big military alliances were the Axis and Allied powers of the 1930s, which faced off in World War Two.


No appetite for political union


We have been plodding along with slow, unsteady steps in constructing a Caribbean Community and a CARICOM Single Market and Economy. There has been no appetite for political union and absolutely no capacity for military alliance. We have seen how Grenada went in 1983. A few dozen Caribbean policemen and unready soldiers trailing behind the United States Army in putting down a coup d'Ètat against a coup d'Ètat in a CARICOM member state.

The CARICOM-CSME effort has been cursed by geography and history. Tiny islands, with the exception of a couple of mainland territories, scattered over a vast sea. The barriers of colonial divisions getting in the way of practical and productive alliances. So while Jamaica shares linguistic and Anglo-cultural bonds with the former British colonies of the Eastern Caribbean, Spanish-speaking Cuba and the Dominican Republic, and French-speaking Haiti are our closest neighbours. And they have the added advantage of bulk. That's 30 million people in our immediate geographic neighbourhood versus three million in the Anglophone Eastern Caribbean a thousand miles away.

Barbados, one of the few economic jewels of CARICOM in the past, has faltered so badly that its new Mia Mottley-led government has had to defer debt payments and turn to the IMF for bailout. The tiny economies of the Caribbean, like those of the many other micro sovereign states scattered across the global landscape, may, in fact, not be viable longterm, no matter what is done. Virtually all small states are mired in unpayable debt, not having large enough economies and currency-printing presses to be coerced into debt payments. Debt, historically, has been the highway to servitude.

It is quite safe to say, from the most cursory reading of history and contemporary trend lines, that in very much less than a hundred years, neither CARICOM nor its micro sovereign member states will exist as distinguishable entities. We were all colonies of the powers contesting for territory in the Caribbean. Jamaica went from Spanish to British and remained that way. St Lucia changed hands between the French and the English a dozen times in the 18th century. A successful CARICOM might be in a somewhat better position to negotiate Caribbean relationships with the new powers of the 21st century. But then again, it mightn't make any real difference.

- Martin Henry is university administrator. Email feedback to and