Thu | Sep 29, 2016

2009, the Caribbean's 'Annus horribilis'

Published:Friday | January 1, 2010 | 12:00 AM



Caricom headquarters in Georgetown, Guyana. - File

In 1992, Britain's Queen Elizabeth used the term "annus horribilis" to describe the year in which the marriages of her two sons, Charles and Andrew, broke down and Windsor Castle caught fire.

Seventeen years later, Caribbean countries experiencing their own annus horribilis, joined the rest of the world in seeking to come to terms with a global economic crisis that has led to significant job losses, visits to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the use of the dreaded 'R' word, recession, to describe the negative performance of their economies.

Jamaica led the way to the Washington-based financial institution, and by yearend was still negotiating a US$1.3 billion standby agreement which the Bruce Golding-led administration said was necessary to offset the shortfall in foreign-exchange earnings being experienced by the country.

The government was also forced to change some of the measures contained in the J$21.8 billion (US$1.8 billion) tax package that it first outlined on December 17, following widespread public disenchantment and threats of street demonstrations by the main opposition People's National Party (PNP).

Dominica, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia and St Vincent and the Grenadines also entered into agreements with the IMF by utilising either the Rapid Response Facility (RRF) or the Exogenous Shocks Facility (ESF).

But on the surface, these appeared less onerous than the IMF agreement reached with Antigua and Barbuda which called for significant cutbacks to government spending - including the public-sector wage bill, a more efficient tax-collection regime and outsourcing of some government services - even as the main opposition Antigua Labour Party (ALP) staged street demonstrations and warned of further economic hardship for citizens.

"I don't think we can get away from the fact that what we are embarking upon right now is a programme that will put Antigua and Barbuda on a path of fiscal and debt sustainability, in order to create the necessary fiscal space to generate the type of economic growth that we all want to see," said Finance Minister Harold Lovell.

Restore economy

As the year drew to a close, the region's chief public servant, Edwin Carrington, the secretary general of the Guyana-based Caribbean Community (CARICOM), said regional countries were yet to benefit from a promise made by the world's industrialised countries to restore credit, jobs and growth in the world economy.

"One of the difficulties we have had is to identify what has been the resource benefit we have received following the G-20 meeting of April 2, where the quantum of resources to the IMF, for example, was significantly increased by some trillion United States (US) dollars," Carrington said.

The G-20 countries had pledged US$1.1 trillion, including an allocation of US$750 billion for an emergency resources account at the IMF, which is used to help nations in financial crisis, and US$250 billion for new Special Drawing Rights.

"We have not seen any significant inflow from that, we have not heard or seen any significant change in policies of the IMF as an example.

"We are hoping that more pressure can be brought on that institution for adjustment in its policies to facilitate access by countries such as ours and you see that a number of our CARICOM countries right now are before the IMF seeking assistance."

By yearend, the Caribbean countries were among developing countries calling for the establishment of a fund to assist small island developing states (SIDS) combat the effects of climate change.

In their Port-of-Spain consensus, the 53 Commonwealth leaders welcomed Britain's offer of a proposed Copenhagen Launch Fund starting next year "to a level of resources of US$10 billion annually by 2012".

But Guyana's president Bharrat Jagdeo said the fund should be viewed as interim financing for climate change issues.

"We must not lose sight of the main financing proposal," he told a news conference, adding that studies have shown that it would take about one per cent of global Gross Domestic Product (GDP) estimated at US$300 billion to deal with adaptation, mitigation and technology transfer related to the impact of climate change.

Jagdeo further noted that the World Bank has estimated the adaptation needs of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) at between US$75 billion to US$80 billion per annum "and we are (here) talking about 10 billion".

In a year when the Soufriere Hills volcano in Montserrat was generally quiet, the demise of the Trinidad-based regional conglomerate, CL Financial, shook the entire region and despite a multi-billion dollar rescue package announced by the Patrick Manning-led government, the company, along with its flagship enterprise - Colonial Life Insurance Company (CLICO) - rode into a strong wave of discontent from policyholders and Caribbean stakeholders, including governments.

"We are going to weather the storm, all of us. And the only way to do it is to take action swiftly and decisively," the Trinidad and Tobago Finance Minister Karen Nunez-Tesheira said soon after signing the memorandum of understanding that led to government funding in exchange for collateral and an equity interest in CLICO.

"In this way, our financial sector will remain healthy and our people will be able to depend on those systems which are so integral to our present security and future prosperity," she said, later having to fend off calls for her own resignation over the CLICO issue.

But while the Trinidad and Tobago finance minister was able to remain in her job, the CLICO affair brought its own share of intrigue to the region.

The judicial manager for CLICO in Guyana, Maria Van Beek, was shot and injured and in Trinidad and Tobago, attorney general Bridgid Annisette-George resigned with Prime Minister Manning saying she anticipated that she would have found herself in a conflict-of-interest situation regarding CLICO.

In Barbados, the David Thompson administration easily defeated a motion of no confidence after the Opposition Leader, Mia Mottley, sought to condemn the prime minister, in his capacity as minister of finance, charging that he had misled the public and had failed to take "urgent and immediate action" to protect the almost 40,000 local policyholders in CLICO.

Ironically, towards the end of the year, Mottley was herself fending off attempts to undermine her position as leader of the Barbados Labour Party (BLP).

But while Mottley was able to survive, others were not so lucky in 2009.

In a year when the mighty Texan billionaire Allen Stanford fell from grace, Grenada's attorney general Jimmy Bristol was also forced to resign after admitting that he made an error in judgment when he wrote United States prosecutors on government stationery seeking clemency for his relative.

A statement from the Office of the Prime Minister said that Bristol had been asked to submit his resignation after it became known that he had written US prosecutors in his current capacity using government stationery to plead for Emmanuel Ganpot, who was sentenced on August 13.

Bristol, a former president of the Grenada Bar Association, told reporters that he accepted full responsibility for what he described as an error in judgment and had since apologised to the prime minister.

In Stanford's case, it was an alleged multibillion-dollar Ponzi scheme that secured his demise and at yearend he remained cooped up in a federal prison in US and is reportedly on the brink of a nervous breakdown.

Haiti's prime minister Michele Pierre-Louise was ousted and replaced by economist Jean Max Bellervie after the Senate voted to remove her on the grounds that she had failed to improve the lives of citizens since she was appointed to office a year ago.

In the Turks and Caicos Islands, businessman Galmore Williams, who was sworn in as the second premier of the British overseas territory, also found himself out of a job, after London announced a partial suspension of the constitution of the island.

The move by London was triggered by the release of an interim report by a Commission of Inquiry, led by Sir Robin Auld, which pointed to "clear signs of political amorality and immaturity and general administrative incompetence" on the part of the Michael Misick-led government.

Resigned

Misick had earlier resigned after serving for six years in the post, making way for Williams to take over the job.

In two other British overseas territories, the incumbents fell by the wayside.

In the Cayman Islands, the general election was won by the United Democratic Party in convincing fashion, reversing the previous election's results when the incumbent People's Progressive Movement took five seats, with the remaining place going to an independent candidate.

Voters also gave support to a revised constitution that resulted in the island having a premier instead of a leader of government business.

In Montserrat, Reuben Meade led his Movement for Change and Prosperity into office, scoring a convincing victory in the general election in September, winning six of the nine seats at stake.

While it is his second turn as chief minister, Meade had the last laugh on his predecessor, Dr Lowell Lewis, who fired him as a minister before the polls. Lewis, who contested the election as an independent candidate, is now one of three opposition legislators.

Politically, it was a good year for Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer of Antigua and Barbuda and his Dominican counterpart Roosevelt Skerrit.

Skerrit was returned to office in convincing style on December 18, eliminating the once formidable Dominica Freedom Party and watched in glee as the main opposition United Workers Party was barely able to win three of the 21 seats that were at stake in the election.

Meanwhile, Spencer was just able to hang on to the government in the March 12 general election, the ALP, which won seven seats, has gone to the courts challenging the outcome in six constituencies.

But the courts have thrown out two of the six election challenges, providing welcome news for the Spencer administration, which claimed nine of the 17 seats in the election.

In St Kitts and Nevis, the government of Prime Minister Dr Denzil Douglas gave the various court challenges by the main opposition People's Action Movement, as the main reason for its delay in naming a date for general elections but over in Suriname, President Ronald Venetiaan has already announced that the general elections for a new legislature will be held on May 25 next year.

New constitution rejected

St Vincent and the Grenadines Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves had also hoped that he too would have been in a position to fix the date for general elections in his country, but in November he suffered a major setback after voters overwhelmingly rejected a new constitution in an historic referendum.

Official figures showed that 55.6 per cent of the electorate sided with the opposition New Democratic Party (NDP) that had called on voters to reject the proposed document that would have replaced the one handed down to the island nation upon independence from Britain in 1979. The 'yes vote' campaign of the government, which endorsed the 'home-grown' constitution, received 43.1 per cent of the votes cast. The government had required a 66.7 per cent support from the registered 97,751 eligible voters and political commentators said for many people, the referendum was indeed a political vote.

By yearend, Prime Minister Gonsalves said despite the failure of the electorate to approve the new constitution, he was still hopeful that Vincentians, in time, would have a greater understanding of the failed document.

"It is unfortunate that the government was unable to persuade the majority of our people to vote in the referendum for a new constitution, a home-grown constitution of the highest quality in freedom and democracy," he said in a radio broadcast.

Migration also emerged as a major talking point in the Caribbean during 2009, with the Barbados government, reiterating its commitment to the regional integration process while announcing a six-month amnesty for CARICOM nationals who have been living in the country illegally.

Prime Minister Thompson said the amnesty came out of a recommendation of a Cabinet sub-committee on immigration that was established to develop a new and comprehensive immigration policy for Barbados.

"With effect from 1st June 2009, all undocumented CARICOM nationals who entered Barbados prior to the 31st December, 2005 and remained undocumented for a period of eight years or more, are required to come forward and have their status regularised," he said.

The move by Bridgetown was bitterly opposed by some regional governments, notably Guyana and St Vincent and was a major talking point at the annual CARICOM summit in Guyana in July.

In the end, the regional leaders reaffirmed their commitment to the free movement of nationals across the region, consistent with the provisions contained in the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas that governs the 15-member grouping.

However, they also recognised the right of member governments to pursue domestic immigration policies, even as they urged that it must not be done outside of commitments to Articles 45 and 46 of the treaty.

The migration issue highlighted the arguments in 2009 over the need for closer political and economic integration in the region, particularly after Trinidad and Tobago warmed to the idea of a political and economic union with the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) by 2013.

"You want to come, the doors are open. We are not trying to mash up anything," Manning said, in an apparent response to concerns expressed by Jamaica's Bruce Golding that the proposed Trinidad-OECS union would pose problem for the wider CARICOM.

"What we are after is a collaborative arrangement, economically and politically, that would redound to the benefit of all ... uplifting the standard of all countries of the region," Manning said.

His Dominican counterpart acknowledged that there were "some sceptics who have raised the issue that we are mashing up, so to speak of CARICOM ... and we are going to divorce ourselves from CARICOM, the answer to that is no.

"I believe what will happen is that you will have a stronger CARICOM and a stronger sub-region, but it is not a situation where we will be breaking up," Skerrit added.

Financial crisis

Grenada's Prime Minister Tillman Thomas said the current global financial crisis has provided the opportune time for small countries like those in the sub-regional grouping to strengthen ties and to work more closely with each other.

"As the developed world struggles to grapple with the massive economic downturn, we as small states are not immune. We need to build on our successes, pursue many more joint initiatives and to collectively strengthen the integration process," he added.

In December, the nine-member OECS grouping signed on to a new treaty establishing an economic union among themselves, with the chairman and St Kitts and Nevis Prime Minister Dr Denzil Douglas saying it represents "a fundamental philosophical transformation and political commitment to deepening the level of integration among member states".

The closure of the Grenada Today newspaper over a libel suit filed by former prime minister Dr Keith Mitchell and the end of publication of Bermuda's only weekly newspaper, the near-century-old Mid-Ocean News, highlighted the problems the media faced during 2009.

A novel influenza named after an animal quickly reached pandemic status, resulting in the deaths of many citizens across the region.

Swine flu, which is also known as H1N1, first emerged in Mexico and spread quickly to the point that the World Health Organisation (WHO) was forced to elevate its alert just short of a full-blown pandemic. WHO Director General Margaret Chan called on all countries, including those in the Caribbean, to activate their pandemic plans, including heightened surveillance and infection-control measures.

"It really is the whole of humanity that is under threat in a pandemic," she said of the influenza with symptoms that included a fever of more than 100 C, body aches, coughing, a sore throat, respiratory congestion and, in some cases, vomiting and diarrhoea.

Murders continued unabated in several Caribbean countries such as Jamaica, Belize, The Bahamas and Trinidad and Tobago, whose situations proved most worrisome.

In the case of Jamaica, the Bruce Golding-led Government parted ways with Commissioner of Police Rear Admiral Hardley Lewin, who failed to bring about a reduction in the whopping figure of more than 1,600 murders recorded last year.

Golding, in announcing the resignation of the top cop in October, told parliament that 2005 was the year that Jamaica recorded the highest number of murders ever - 1,674, an average of 4.6 per day - and that up to the end of September, the figure was 1,361 murders, an average of 4.5 per day.

"At the meeting with the Commissioner, I reiterated my concerns and expressed the view that the police needed to be more assertive and proactive in its operations in order to reduce of the level of crime and restore a sense of calm to the country," Golding told parliament.

In Trinidad and Tobago, while law-enforcement officials were pleased with a reduction in the record 545 murders recorded last year, the number of people killed still surpassed 500 in 2009.

During the last 12 months, the region bade farewell to a number of its nationals, including Janet Jagan, the former Guyanese president, prominent Barbados businessman and Independent Senator Sir John Stanley Goddard, Bermuda's Health Minister Nelson Bascome, distinguished Caribbean linguist Dr Richard Allsopp, women's world boxing champion Jizelle Salandy, the veteran Trinidadian calypsonian Mighty Duke (Kelvin Pope), Antiguan cultural icon Reginald Knight and prominent Jamaican playwright, Trevor Rhone.

- CMC



Trinidad and Tobago's Prime Minister Patrick Manning signs the final declaration of the 5th Summit of the Americas in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, Sunday, April 19, 2009. Trinidad also hosted the Commonwealth Heads of Government Summit in November 2009.