Stop the rot between Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago
Relations between Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago are becoming increasingly difficult. This deterioration in relations between two of the most influential countries in the 15-member Caribbean Community (CARICOM) does not serve the interests of either country or the Community as a whole.
Urgent steps should have been taken some time ago to defuse the growing tension between the two countries over trade matters. That tension has now worsened over a recent denial of entry of Jamaicans to Trinidad and Tobago that has been highly publicised and widely decried in Jamaica.
In a commentary in June this year, entitled "No need for a trade war between Jamaican and Trinidad and Tobago", I said "It may be that in some form of quiet diplomacy unknown to the publics of the 15-nation CARICOM, the Secretary-General of the CARICOM Secretariat is already engaged in behind-the-scenes activity to try to end the verbal slogging that has characterised the recent relations between Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago. If that is so, then hopefully his efforts will result in an understanding of how the two most populous English-speaking countries in CARICOM can resolve the differences that have arisen. If no such initiative has as yet been taken, then consideration might be given to doing so".
On the information available, it seems that either no effort was made to solve the trade problems between the two countries, or any such effort failed. Whichever it is, the current situation is a festering sore that urgently needs constructive attention.
Vocal elements of the Jamaican private sector are concerned about the huge trade deficit that Jamaica experiences with Trinidad and Tobago. They are also concerned that many Jamaican products are unable to compete against Trinidad and Tobago products both in their own domestic market and in the wider CARICOM market. They attribute this situation to cheaper energy made available by the Government of Trinidad and Tobago to its industries.
The trade figures are as follows: In US dollars, the value of Jamaica's imports from Trinidad and Tobago is: 721.0 m (2010); 877.7 m (2011) and 702.2 m (2012) while the value of its exports to Trinidad and Tobago is: 19.1 m (2010); 21.0 m (2011) and 18.3 m (2012). However, it is important to note that imports of mineral fuels, lubricants and related material represented 82.6%, 85.3% and 81% of Jamaica's total imports from Trinidad and Tobago in 2010, 2011 and 2012. If Jamaica had not imported those energy-related products from Trinidad and Tobago, it would have had to do so from elsewhere, probably at a higher cost.
Nonetheless, it is clear that Jamaica experiences a large trade deficit with Trinidad and Tobago. While a large trade deficit with Trinidad and Tobago among CARICOM member States is not unique to Jamaica, Jamaica is the largest market of all CARICOM countries for Trinidad and Tobago products. Over the three-year period, 2010 to 2012, the trade surplus in Trinidad and Tobago's favour was US$2.24 billion.
Even if Jamaica were not undergoing its current grim economic situation, the severe imbalance in trade should be addressed. But, what is certain is that an organised boycott of Trinidad and Tobago products that is currently being proposed in Jamaica is not the answer. As the Trinidad and Tobago Foreign Minister, Winston Dookeran, pointed out, "both countries will lose if there's any containment of trade because out of trade comes employment opportunities in Jamaica and they too will be put at risk".
A real opportunity now exists to find a permanent solution to this increasingly contentious issue that has the potential for souring the overall relations between these two countries and spilling-over into the CARICOM community as a whole. The opportunity has arisen through an invitation by the Jamaica Foreign Minister, A J Nicholson, to Dookeran for talks on the other festering issue of entry to Trinidad and Tobago by Jamaicans.
On November 19, Trinidad and Tobago immigration officials denied entry to 13 Jamaicans and sent them back to Jamaica the following day. News of this outraged a large number of Jamaican people who feel that the island's nationals are wrongfully denied rights of "hassle-free" travel accorded to all CARICOM citizens by the CARICOM Treaty; a 2007 decision of CARICOM Heads of Government; and a judgement given by the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) in October 2013. The immigration authorities appear to have denied the 13 persons automatic entry and stay in the country because of a view that they could become "a charge on the public purse". In denying them entry, immigration officers did not take account of "Community Law", which has precedence over inconsistent domestic legislation, as stated by the CCJ.
In accordance with the CCJ ruling the 13 persons should have been allowed "to consult an attorney or a consular official of their country". They should also have been given in writing the reasons for denying them entry and advised that they could challenge the decision. It appears that they were not given those entitlements. Further, the CCJ judgement requires the government of Trinidad and Tobago, like all other CARICOM governments, to put machinery in place "to provide effective and accessible appeal or review procedures with adequate safeguards to protect the rights of the persons denied entry". This machinery has not been established by Trinidad and Tobago or by many other CARICOM governments – an issue that will escalate in coming months unless governments adhere to the law.
The talks between Nicholson and Dookeran, while important on the issue of right of entry, should also now include the problem of trade. Mr Dookeran should go to Jamaica with a clear mandate from his government to put constructive proposals to his Jamaican counterpart on the trade issues. After all, Trinidad and Tobago has gained enormously from trade arrangements with all CARICOM countries, and with Jamaica in particular. On the Jamaican side, as the Jamaica Observer said in a recent Editorial, more Jamaican producers have to improve their capacity "to produce goods and services at prices that are internationally competitive in price and quality".
Last June, I suggested that addressing the trade difficulties between the countries will "require a mix of innovative approaches which could include the deeper integration of the factors of production between Jamaica and several CARICOM countries, particularly Trinidad and Tobago; investment by Trinidad and Tobago financial institutions and companies in the productive sectors of Jamaica to help promote economic growth and more employment; and, maybe, even an "aid for trade" component given that Trinidad and Tobago has enjoyed a consistently high balance of trade surplus with Jamaica".
In their mutual interest the Governments of Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica should address the problem comprehensively and constructively.