By Peter Richards
MONTEGO BAY, Jamaica, Jun 30, 2010 (IPS) - Caribbean Community (Caricom) leaders are gathering here next week for their annual summit still struggling to recover from the two-year global economic and financial crisis that has taken a major toll on their individual economies.
Especially hard hit have been the tourism industry and remittances from abroad. The Guyana-based Caricom Secretariat says that at least half of the 15-member grouping will record either zero or negative growth this year, while high unemployment and other factors are likely to exacerbate the situation.
"This state of affairs cannot be separated from our continuing major social problems related to crime and security," Caricom Secretary-General Edwin Carrington told reporters ahead of the Jul. 4-7 event.
His economic adviser, Dr. Maurice Odle, added that a looming debt crisis and the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico would also be on the agenda.
Caricom countries have been working towards a Single Market and Economy (CSME) by the year 2015, but the initiative has suffered several setbacks.
"The goalpost on CSME inauguration keeps shifting as a number of member states continue to falter in honouring their pledges to close the yawning gaps on implementation of treaty-based policies and programmes," says veteran Caribbean journalist Rickey Singh.
St. Vincent and the Grenadines Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves, a stalwart of the integration process, said he believes that Caricom could learn from the progress being made by the sub-regional Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), which recently signed a treaty establishing an economic union among themselves that provides for improved governance and deeper cooperation among member states.
Carrington believes that this weekend's summit, which coincides with Caricom's 37th anniversary, will provide the impetus "as we embark on the second decade of the new millennium".
The meeting will no doubt be dominated by issues such as the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) that the Caribbean signed with European nearly two years ago, negotiations with Canada for a new trade and development accord, and way to strengthen relations with the United States.
The outgoing Caricom chair and prime minister of Dominica, Roosevelt Skerrit, said that in the past "there has not been sufficient political dialogue" with Washington.
"We are receptive to dialogue and President Obama has recognised that and he is taking a different approach to the Caribbean," Skerrit said.
The Barack Obama administration pledged 45 million dollars to the region this year under the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative. In April, Secretary of Defence Robert Gates made a further commitment of 79 million dollars for the security initiative for next year.
Following a 90-minute meeting with Caribbean leaders in Barbados earlier this month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also announced that the region was in line to receive a further 170 million dollars in funding for HIV/AIDS and climate change programmes.
Caricom has also sought to deepen its relations with its Latin American neighbours through Brazil and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CALC) as well as the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) and UNASUR.
The catastrophic January earthquake in Haiti and the pending presidential and legislative elections there are also matters that the regional leaders will have to deal with during their Montego Bay summit.
Carrington said that the reconstruction of the only French- speaking member of Caricom has been a major focus and "demands that we all pitch in to bolster the efforts of the Haitian people".
But, like the international donor community, Caricom is fearful that the arrival of the hurricane and rainy seasons could seriously hamper efforts to rebuild a country where more than a million people became homeless following the Jan. 12 earthquake that killed an estimated 300,000 people.
Haitian President René Préval this week announced that the elections will take place on Nov. 28 and he intends to step down in keeping with the constitutional deadline of Feb. 7 even though the parliament recently approved an extension of that date to May.
Climate change issues, particularly as the region gears up to attend a major meeting in Cancun, Mexico in November, will also be a major talking point here, given the outcome of the Copenhagen conference last December.
"Every step must be taken by the region to prepare for that meeting to ensure that the results, in particular the maximum rise in global temperature, do not exceed 1.5 degrees," said Carrington.
"The region's mantra of '1.5 to stay alive' is not a mere slogan for our islands and low-lying coastal states. Its achievement is vital for our very survival," he told reporters.
The four-day summit will also be the first opportunity for Kamla Persad Bissessar, the first ever woman prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, to interact with her regional colleagues since her May 24 general election victory.