The Nation (Barbados)
’Much more’ still after US talks
by TONY BEST
"THERE IS A LOT on the plate."
Dame Billie Miller, Barbados’ and the Caribbean’s longest serving Minister of Foreign Affairs, was referring to the "work that must be done" to transform a week of discussions in Washington into a concrete plan of action that would chart the way forward for economic and social relations between the Caribbean and the United States in the years ahead.
"We have quite a lot of work to do," she said as she reflected on the results of the meetings with President George Bush, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, Congressional leaders, including Charles Rangel, the powerful Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee of the House of Representatives, and with the Diaspora, the hundreds of West Indians who travelled to Washington at their own expense from across the United States to interact with experts and Caribbean leaders.
"Nothing like this was ever tried before and it was seven years in the making," said Dame Billie. "It was really gratifying to see how it turned out."
Of the plethora of issues placed on the table by the Caribbean and Washington, trade and economic partnerships, security and education stand out as the ones, which triggered the most far reaching exchanges and could lead to vital arrangements between the two.
Take the case of trade and economic partnerships, an area of considerable interest to every Caribbean country and its leaders.
They virtually secured an agreement from President Bush and many of the movers and shakers on Capitol Hill that they would work together, not only to extend the duty free provisions of the Caribbean Basin Economic Recovery Act and the benefits of the trade promotion legislation, but modernise and expand their partnership to include services and other vital economic sectors.
Dame Billie said extensive discussions and analyses must now take place before the two sides could sit down and work out the contents of a long term and predictable, perhaps permanent, scheme.
"A great deal of discussion has to go on within the Regional Negotiating Machinery, the Council for Trade and Economic Development, COTED," she said.
"The ministers of trade must have very serious discussions and must have the results of important studies presented to them so that we can be perfectly clear as to where our best options lie.
"I would like the discussions to begin soon, but given what has to be done, I am not in a position to say what the timetable would be."
Even so, Dame Billie thinks they must meet to see how the Office of the United States Trade Representative was interpreting "Mr Bush’s words" and commitments to the region.
"We must also put before them the options which we feel we are able to articulate and discuss at this time," she added.
But one thing is clear.
As the Caribbean and the Europeans move ahead with their efforts to conclude an economic partnership agreement by the end of this year, the CARICOM region knows Washington would be looking over the collective shoulders of the various countries and the European Union to see the final provisions of their pact with a view to getting somewhat similar concessions.
The question of education, according to the minister, also produced a "very interesting, rich, and very engaging part of the discussions in all of the meetings," whether with the president, the Congress or the Diaspora.
With the Caribbean losing many of its graduates to North America, and with countries in the Caribbean seeking to increase the opportunities for tertiary level education at a time when Cuba and Venezuela are providing hundreds of scholarships to West Indian students, the move to explore closer ties between the United States and the region, was important, she said. Drugs in focus
Dame Billie pinpointed security, especially the problem of drug trafficking and the steady flow of small arms and ammunition into the region as another focal point of the deliberations.
Prime Minister Owen Arthur told President Bush that in much the same way that the region was allocating more of its funds to stem the flow of cocaine and other illegal substances through the Caribbean, the United States should also hike its spending to combat trafficking because North America was ultimately the destination of the illegal trade.
Interestingly, Arthur had taken pains to remind President Bush that although the United States had given the Regional Security System some surveillance aircraft, which was being used to monitor and track down narcotics traffickers, Washington had withdrawn funding for fuel and to pay the salaries of the pilots, a cost Barbados had picked up.
"We in the Caribbean are doing quite a lot to help ourselves but a great deal more has to be done by the [drug] receiving countries," said Dame Billie.