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TRADING IN WONDERLAND IN THE CARIBBEAN

I went to the University of the West Indies Mona Campus in Jamaica in 1968 on a Serve and Learn scheme with the UK Overseas Development AdminIstration.

The British invaded Anguilla in March 1969 with 200 paratroopers, where a local leader, Ronald Webster, was trying to secede from newly independent St Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla to start a country with 6,000 people.  Or revert to being a British Colony. The rebel flag was the Union Jack. Anguilla had been kicked around like a stray cat by the leaders of St Kitts.  I joined a student occupation of the Kingston British High Commission to protest against using parachutists to deal with this.

We seized the mobile telephone exchange from the receptionist. We sat on the floor awaiting the Jamaican riot squad. The door burst open. A lady came in with a huge tray of tea. “ Now who takes it with,” she said, “and who takes it without.” Totally disarmed by tea, the revolution ended. Better than paratroopers.

In Alice and Wonderland Alice found a bottle that said “Drink Me”, and it made her smaller and smaller, or bigger and bigger. But in the Caribbean things only seemed to get smaller and smaller relative to things that got bigger and bigger.

Every time Caribbean countries tried to make a bigger grouping, there was always another one backed by the United States that was much bigger. So the Eastern Caribbean islands (the Windwards and Leewards) and then CARICOM, including Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad & Tobago and Guyana, were always playing catch-up.

When the UK joined the “ Common Market”, the Lome Convention, or Africa, Caribbean, Pacific (ACP) agreement was set up to link British overseas interests with the European Economic Community. Not including Asia where British Commonwealth links were much too big to be swallowed by Brussels. Not yet!

That’s how smaller Caribbean and Pacific islands got tacked onto bigger French and British links with Africa.  For the Caribbean countries the Lome Convention was a neo-colonial but paternalistic deal covering aid, trade and political cooperation. It was not fantastic, but it was better than a kick in the teeth. In the Caribbean the big fish always ate the little fish, and the little fish ate mud.

Now with Europe on their side British-imported Caribbean bananas! could be protected from cheaper dollar bananas from the Dominican Republic, Colombia and Panama. For a while.

It took the EU until the end of the twentieth century to end this Francophone-Anglophone colonial legacy and bring the EU aid and trade instruments together into one global system, including Asia and Latin America, and to end the ACP Agreement. Then the British bananas had to compete with all the other bananas.

The ACP was an alternative to successive Western hemisphere US-led Free Trade Associations. Caribbean countries benefitted from both. But trade constraints were painfully obvious. First of all size, like Alice in Wonderland. Secondly often oligopolistic economies dominated by King Bananas, King Sugar and King Tourism.

In the Caribbean, as in Africa, many countries had reservations about new post-Lome’ Regional Cooperation Agreements between them and the EU. The ACP component parts now felt smaller. The EU seemed bigger. It looked like divide and rule. The ball-game also changed. The free trade focus shifted to supporting rapid development so as to get into investment and financial services.

In the upcoming post-Brexit UK round of new Free Trade Agreements can the UK do better than the EU? By cutting tariffs, reducing Non-Tariff Barriers, by aggressively helping partners overcome barriers, and by making movement of people, capital and investment easier. Carribbean markets are not big. But maybe lots of friendly little deals could make a big deal for the UK and the Caribbean.

@ Terry Lacey
05.09.2020

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