CARICOM’s Defining Moment

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Local politicians, and more recently general citizens, have come to question the relevance of CARICOM as a regional bloc. We often bristle at them, espousing virtues of regionalism, integration and free trade. These ideals are no doubt useful to some regional players (See Trinidad and Tobago), but do not always serve the greater good of the region. That may be as a result of pettiness, xenophobia, cultural stereotypes and a whole host of other barriers, real and perceived. However, I believe a far more important issue now calls for the unique attention of each Member State in CARICOM: the dignity of the Haitian people in the Dominican Republic (DR). In this matter of modern day apartheid, CARICOM’s defining moment has come. This situation forces our region to confront what we have so far swept under the rug: xenophobia, regional bias against Haitians and now overt and institutional racism. Will CARICOM continue to be a sleeping giant or will it awaken to seriously call international attention to what amounts to insidious racism in the Dominican Republic?

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When the Constitutional Court in that country ruled in favour of stripping generations of Dominicans of Haitian descent of their citizenship, it knew well it was violating basic tenets of human rights. And perhaps predictably, the government of the Dominican Republic has invoked what Prime Minister of St. Vincent & the Grenadines, Dr. Ralph Gonsalves, refers to as “the fig leaf of sovereignty”. That is not uncommon in situations like these. In pursuit of injustice many countries often clothe themselves in sovereignty. Here in Jamaica, we reject the “gay agenda” as an affront to sovereignty. The Republic of South Africa used that line of argument in defense of second class citizenship for blacks. Southern States in the United States invoked the ideals of sovereignty in segregating blacks, denying interracial marriages and more recently, to exclude gays and lesbians from the institution of marriage. The argument isn’t new, but it has been discredited and refuted. It should have no more relevance here.

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Since the sovereign defense can no longer hold, it is nothing short of shameful that the regional bloc has so far only issued a paper trail of statements, while the Dominican Republic carries out its racist agenda masquerading as constitutional interpretation. Shameful, but not surprising. This is because CARICOM member States are themselves guilty of an injustice of a different, but not unrelated, kind. As members, we have adopted manifestly unjust immigration policies which treats our neighbours as aliens, worthy of distrust and abuse. In principle, how different is that from what the Supreme Court in the DR has done? Take the Bahamas, for instance, the mass round up of CARICOM nationals, particularly Jamaicans and Haitians, is tainted by xenophobia, never mind statements to the contrary. When we here in Jamaica demanded that the humanitarian efforts of our government towards the Haitians who came to our shores after that devastating earthquake stop, we demonstrated our own prejudices. Recall that the outrage was based, in part, on cultural stereotypes of the Haitian people (ie. they all work obeah and participate in black magic). And when the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago rebuked Jamaicans by declaring that her country was not an ATM, she was no doubt speaking to a well-known regional stereotype of Jamaicans as lazy and freeloading. With such a record how can CARICOM presume to have the moral authority to seriously confront the situation in the Dominican Republic? After all, we are guilty of widespread and rampant discrimination and stereotyping. That is also at the heart of the problem in the DR. Our relative inaction is therefore not surprising; we have been crippled by our own discriminatory practices.

As a region, we must use this opportunity to confront our own prejudices. If we are ever to be effective as a bloc, we cannot continue to be a house divided among ourselves. It weakens the geopolitical strength of the region and calls into question the continued viability of CARICOM. If the bloc cannot work to protect one of the weakest members, what exactly is the point of integration? The clearest example of the dysfunction was the protracted effort to settle on a single candidate for the post of Secretary General of the Commonwealth of Nations.

The crisis in the Dominican Republic presents an opportunity to define ourselves once more. So what exactly should that defining solution look like? Those who argue for wide ranging sanctions and boycotts are misguided, as history shows those things only hurt and destabilize the poor, the very people we are called to protect. Instead, CARICOM and her member States must begin a campaign to impose targeted sanctions against the political and financial class in the DR. These sanctions must range from travel bans to exerting pressure on the financial system in that country. The ruling class must be targeted if there is to be any meaningful corrective action. CARICOM must do more than talk, it must act, and act in one accord. Some member States are no doubt hesitant about taking a strident stance against the DR; they are after all the largest economy in the region. It would be a mistake to make such a calculation. As the Los Angeles Times opines, our larger hemispheric partners  must demonstrate the same outrage they do when chemical gas is allegedly employed against a country’s people, and when a rogue nation threatens to acquire nuclear capabilities. Anything less suggests Haitian lives do not matter. Now, more than ever, there is a requirement to affirm the dignity of black lives.

Finally, I admit myself disappointed that Jamaica hasn’t taken a more active role in condemning this atrocity. There was a time when we led in this region; we seem to have abdicated that role in favour of a policy of appeasement. A colleague of mine attributes this to the fact that “one of Jamaica’s leading homegrown financial institutions needs the DR market. Shameful, but again, not surprising.

Let us hope we resolve as a region to confront and dispel our own prejudices, and then move to tackle the distressing human rights situation in the Dominican Republic. The principles of human decency demands no less. This is CARICOM’s defining moment.

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