CANADA

Communing in the Caribbean

JOHN HAY February 28 1983
CANADA

Communing in the Caribbean

JOHN HAY February 28 1983

Communing in the Caribbean

It was easy enough for winter-weary Canadians to be skeptical—or envious—of Pierre Trudeau’s pressing engagement this week on the tropical island of St. Lucia. Even the prime minister’s officials acknowledged that the agenda for the meeting of Commonwealth Caribbean leaders (plus Trudeau) was left loose for freewheeling talk. Nobody predicted either momentous diplomacy or decisive agreements. The minisummit promised instead to be another of those distinctively Commonwealth conferences: a relaxed prime ministerial seminar on current affairs, without the pressures of deal-making or decision-taking. But however breezy the beach-front atmosphere might be, there was no avoiding the miseries and dangers that the world recession has imposed on the region. As a Commons committee said in a recent study of the area, “Poverty is a storehouse for social chaos.”

Like other poor Third World countries, the Caribbean nations are caught in a nasty double bind that the recession has created. First, rich-country demand for many of their commodities has slumped—whether for Jamaica’s bauxite, Trinidad and Tobago’s oil or the foodstuffs from a score of other islands. And prices have fallen along with demand. Second, international banks have tightened their credit and now offer fewer loans amid the contagious fear of defaults that is sweeping through the international banking system. That means that deficits cannot so easily be covered by bank loans.

The responses of the Caribbean prime ministers to these troubles have been as

different as the countries themselves. They range from the rhetorically florid Marxism of Grenada’s Maurice Bishop to the businessman’s free enterprise of Jamaica’s Edward Seaga. For his part, Trudeau could only reaffirm Ottawa’s January, 1981, announcement—that the region would henceforth be an area of foreign policy concentration and that aid would double by 1986-87. Officials still insist that total aid, including funds channelled through international agencies, will rise to about $90 million a year in 1986-87, from $43 million last year. In fact, however, bilateral aid to the Commonwealth Caribbean has declined to about $30 million, from about $36 million in 1981-82.

If Caribbean leaders have yet to see the true color of the promised Canadian aid money, they are also awaiting the full effect of the so-called Caribbean Basin Initiative proposed by Ronald Reagan last February. Congress has passed the president’s $350-million (U.S.) special aid package. But it still has not approved his plan to give U.S. firms tax credits for investing in the Caribbean and to provide duty-free access for most Caribbean exports into the U.S. market. Canada’s trade record is better, according to federal officials, who say that 95 per cent of Caribbean exports enter Canada duty free. Even the U.S. aid figure itself is misleading. Fully $128 million of the $350 million was directed to one country—El Salvador—and it does not even have a Caribbean coast. Caribbean recovery clearly will depend not on aid but on a healthier and fairer world economic system.

JOHN HAY