Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Caricom's elusive transport agenda


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NOW THAT Carnival 2013 is over Trinidad and Tobago may well give some thought to last weekend's statement by Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves of St Vincent and the Grenadines that this country is breaching Caricom's Revised Treaty in providing fuel subsidy support to state-owned Caribbean Airlines (CAL).

Gonsalves currently wears two hats pertaining to regional air transport— he is chairman of the shareholders group for island-hopping airline LIAT and he has lead responsibility among Caricom Heads of Government for air and sea transportation.

He plans to meet with Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar in Haiti next week to discuss a legal opinion he has confirming, he said, T&T's "contravention" of the Caricom Treaty.

Apparently conscious of the sensitivity of the issue for the T&T Government, Gonsalves thought it prudent to make clear at his press conference in Kingstown that he was "not seeking a fight over the fuel subsidy" with Persad-Bissessar.

Rather, he stressed, the need was for an informed, healthy discussion based on the legal opinion he had sought and obtained on behalf of the major shareholder governments of LIAT. Among these governments are Barbados and Antigua and Barbuda and his own in Kingstown.

Given the Caricom-wide concerns about recurring problems in the air-transport sector and various headaches so often faced by the region's travelling public, next week's inter-sessional meeting of regional leaders in Haiti can hardly avoid a serious discussion on regional air and sea transportation.

Even before Prime Minister Gonsalves' intervention the very experienced chairman of LIAT and former long-serving secretary general of the Caribbean Tourism Organisation, Dr Jean Holder, had made a public appeal for an urgent special meeting of Caricom leaders (including private sector representatives) to deal with the problem of regional air transportation.

In a region where economies are heavily dependent on tourism and full of endless talking about the importance of tackling air transportation issues, while giving some priority attention also to the value of commercial maritime transport, the call by the LIAT chairman should have served as a reminder to the Community's leaders of their own mantra for urgent practical responses to this most vital sector.

The pity is that, once again, the people of the 15-member Community have been left to speculate on the priority issues for the two-day inter-sessional meeting in Port-au-Prince that gets underway on February 18.

Among prime ministers expected to be absent will be those of Grenada (Tillman Thomas) and Barbados (Freundel Stuart) who are currently leading their respective parties' campaigns for elections that will occur within two days of each other — February 19 for Grenadians and February 21 for Barbadians.

At the time of writing there was also concern about the participation by prime minister of St Kitts and Nevis, Dr Denzil Douglas, currently dealing with a no-confidence motion against his Labour Party government.

Nevertheless, the urgent need to seriously grapple, on a united front, with the challenges facing regional transportation (sea and air) cannot be expected to be endlessly deferred for yet another inter-sessional meeting or the regular summit of Heads of Government.

Is there going to be a response to the LIAT chairman's appeal for a special meeting on regional air transportation? Further, and by extension, will Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar take a new initiative to pursue her own thoughtful commitment for the proposed fast-ferry service from T&T to the Eastern Caribbean chain of islands?

Despite the unfortunate remark at her first participation in a Caricom summit, as Prime Minister in 2010, that T&T must not be viewed as an "ATM machine" for Community partners, Mrs Persad-Bissessar would know how T&T's trade and economic successes depend on continuing positive support from the Eastern Caribbean in general.

For his part, Prime Minister Gonsalves, passionate advocate of regionalism that he is, would be fully sensitised to the vision and commitment of past administrations in Port of Spain in significant aid initiatives to Caricom via, for instance, the Caribbean Development Fund and functioning of the T&T Petroleum Fund — both under the watch of then prime minister Patrick Manning.

Let's hope the meeting between Prime Ministers Persad-Bissessar and Gonsalves will be both civil and productive. More importantly, that the communiqué from next week's Inter-sessional offers hope for urgent and practical initiatives on the way forward for regional air and sea transportation.

After all, it's high time to end the ole talk and song and dance posturings on regional air and sea transportation.