Daniel Thwaites, Contributor
It's a beautiful thing to behold when Jamaicans decide to pull together for a common goal. We've seen it before with the Reggae Boyz and Sunshine Girls, with the sprinters at various Olympic Games, and now with Tessanne Chin, who is as charming and graceful a winner of 'The Voice' as we could ever hope for, and a tremendous advertisement for the country.
I'm also happy because she received such strong support from other Caribbean nationals, and we're so proud of her that the talk about boycotting Trinidad seems to have subsided somewhat. For a moment there, it seemed as if the boycott would turn into a rallying point for narrow nationalist sentiment and a general 'pissedoffedness' about the imbalances in our trade relations.
Because of my susceptibility to fads and popular sentiment, I was all on board with it and getting ramped up. So much so I even called up an old Trinidadian friend and without any specific provocation started to cuss har off. She replied in true Trini form. Boy, dem can cuss sweet!
That was when I decided to bite the bullet and boycott Trinidadian products. The first most obvious one was gasolene, and I figured I could manage that by using kerosene, or by baptising the gas oil (like my granny used to baptise pork and make it beef) to make it all Venezuelan. Then I realised that the cooking gas comes from Trinidad. That's a big inconvenience, but wood-fire food tastes better anyway - so you know what? I could do that too. Plus, it's not me doing the cooking, so I issued the decree: "Henceforth in this household, no more cooking gas, and back to the wood fire of our ancestors!" I can't record here exactly what I was told, but I realised that maybe my wife is part-Trini.
That wasn't enough to stop me, though, and the campaign persisted. Then further investigation revealed that Excelsior Water Crackers are now made by a Trinidadian concern. My word! What a setback. That was the cracker that broke the camel's back. Let's face it: the Excelsior Water Cracker is a superior cracker.
I also remember that the Trinidadian 'invasion' initially took place in response to the mega crisis of FINSAC. In those days, they had something of the aspect of saviours from the South.
Anyway, my point is that I have Tessanne to thank for saving me from sure compromise, for I would have had to 'hide an' lick' with the water crackers if the boycott had gone into full gear.
The truth is that underlying CARICOM, there has to be some genuine widespread feeling of connectedness among the ex-colonies of the British. If that completely deteriorates or evaporates, then so will the basis of the league.
In any event, just as with people, it is difficult for countries of very unequal means to be friends, for as a rule, the opportunities for mutual resentment and contempt will multiply. This might prove to be a problem, since our Caribbean neighbours are showing some determination to gain wealth, while we are at best uncertain and conflicted about it.
Shrimp Farm Closures
Look at how Jamaica's only two shrimp farms - Caribbean Aquaculture Ltd and Trans Global Aquaculture - have shut down, citing unwieldy or unworking Government bureaucracy, a crushing tax regime, and thievery. To start with, this represents deep social and governmental failure, best outlined by a letter to The Gleaner published December 10: 'Why are we poor? Because we're stupid!' which, among other excellent points, showed that the authorities tend to be quite laid-back about protecting the private property rights of farmers.
But CARICOM has a part in it, too. Vitus Evans, former director of Caribbean Aquaculture Ltd, described the maze he navigated as a Jamaican farmer seeking duty-exemption on inputs to compete with tax-free shrimp imports from CARICOM: "The process of applying meant we had to first order the feed, get the pro forma invoice, send it to the Rural Agricultural Development Authority, which then sent the invoice to the Ministry of Agriculture, which then sent it to the finance ministry for approval … . The entire process took two to three months, within which time we had to feed the shrimp. That bureaucracy didn't work, and when we did get the waivers and should collect back from Customs, we just haven't been able to collect on those invoices."
I'm exhausted just reading about it!
The passing away or withdrawal of a business is worthy of lamentation, particularly when it is for reasons such as the inability of the business owner to nail down every last shrimp and owing to snail-paced or labyrinthine governmental bureaucracy. Here you have a whole ecology of commercial activity going extinct. Where people had work, now they sit idly. Where there was opportunity for training and the diffusion of ideas and sound commercial habits, now there is a void.
OBJECTS OF PREDATION
One problem is that many Jamaicans, and too many in Government, have been taught to see businesses as mere objects of predation. For historical reasons, but also for purposes of political demagoguery, it has been drilled into many of us that the businessman is exploitative, and is therefore deserving of any trickery. This is a great scourge on our society. The alternative mindset, still far too uncommon and needing nurture in our society, is that businesses ought to be treasured as engines for private profit that are necessary for, and conducive to, the common good.
There are so many stories of investors, be they locals, foreigners or returning residents, who lose their shirts because of bureaucratic humbug and theft, that I'm amazed people continue to attempt it. I suppose it goes to show that people either don't read the newspapers, don't believe what they read, or are foolhardy. Either way, we had better start to treat investors better before they start to catch on.
The loss of these shrimp farms is a serious indictment. We have twisted ourselves into such a serious contortion where we are open to imports from everywhere, but incapable of getting out of our own way to produce what we can right here.
It's frustrating, not just because shrimp, properly prepared, are quite delectable, comparable to my Tessanne-rescued Exclesior Water Crackers. Consider that there are scores of families without a breadwinner this week when that was quite avoidable.
Daniel Thwaites is a partner of Thwaites Law Firm in Jamaica, and Thwaites, Lundgren & D'Arcy in New York. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.