Over the course of this week, the debate has been raging about how Trinidad and Tobago should structure its aid to the region in light of the devastation left in the wake of Hurricane Tomas.
The main point of contention is whether this country should attach conditionalities to its assistance. Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar has said that any assistance which this country gives to the region must benefit T&T in some way. This is a different approach to what was done under the Manning Administration. Or is it?
Even those who have little interest in cricket would have forgotten that T&T "accepted" the "Brown Package" for the 2007 Cricket World Cup instead of going after one of the packages that would have included more high-profile games and brought more income into the country. The then Prime Minister made it clear that this was done to secure continued support for this country's bid to secure the Secretariat of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).
For several years T&T has been without a clear and coherent foreign policy. This has resulted in decisions being made on the fly.
More recently, T&T–at Governmental level–and others in Caricom have been assisting with the overall reconstruction of Haiti. Assuming the economy of that country, a Caricom bretheren, were to experience a boom anytime in the next 20 years, should T&T not position herself to benefit as well? The Government of any country is obligated to look after its citizens first. Remember when all Caricom countries save Barbados (and Guyana because it was initially deemed ineligible) dumped T&T and switched to Venezuelan oil because they felt the terms of sale were more beneficial to them under the PetroCaribe initiative? We had to live with that decision and we did.
Wealth cannot be increased if it is simply divided. Just as the argument against unproductive social expenditure at home remains a strong and compelling one, so too is the argument against just dishing out money to other states–whether they need it or want it.
On the matter at hand, the Prime Minister recounted her conversation with the Prime Minister of St Vincent Dr Ralph Gonsalves in which the latter said there was a need for housing following the devastation wreaked by Tomas. If the T&T Government pays local contractors, engineers, architects and skilled labourers to provide the houses and these locals provide value for money, is that arrangement not one from which both parties benefit? St Vincent gets houses and locals get work.
The bigger picture
More importantly than the immediate issue though is the country's ideology toward a single Caribbean civilisation. Are we committed to a untied Caribbean? If so, what do we mean by The Caribbean–are Cuba, the DR and the European overseas territories included? What does T&T want to get out of this relationship and what are we prepared to give? What do we expect of the other countries?
If not, why? What are the implications? What are the alternatives? Once we start answering these questions, we can put together a more coherent and consistent approach to external relations.
Ultimately though, a country's foreign policy must further its national interests. At a time when T&T is running a debt to GDP ratio of nearly 50 per cent, it is unreasonable to ask this country to give money away. T&T can help no one else if she is floundering. That is a reality that our Caribbean family must appreciate.
On the other hand, Caribbean people are proud and do not like to be "reproached." Taking that into consideration, the frankness of the Prime Minister's statement would have caused some discomfort. The actions of the Government and the generosity of her people of T&T can overcome what is at worst, unfortunate phraseology.
Unlike the European countries, T&T is no former colonial power. Unlike the US, this country never claimed supremacy in the region (Munroe Doctrine). This country was not responsible for the displacement of people to the Caribbean and did nothing to undermine the development of real, sustainable economies and institutions in the archipelago. Therefore, the discussion about any potential for aid from T&T to any other Caribbean country (and vice versa) is very different from the discussion about aid from the EU or US to the region. However, given the statements and events of the last week, T&T is in danger of losing twice. On the one hand the country was morally and now verbally committed to providing assistance, so we have to s(p)end some money. However, even in fulfilling that promise, T&T is in a position where we can be disliked even for what we do. This situation can be salvaged but the government will have to do some reaching out.
We should help our Caribbean brothers and sisters for that is indeed what they are�family. T&T should not however, cut off her nose to spoil her face. The Prime Minister is right. She is looking out for the interests of her people but, going forward, a better way should be found to explain our interests to the region.