The arms control debate arrived in Haiti on Monday as members of the regional trade bloc sought the United States' help in ensuring that an international treaty aimed at regulating the $70 billion global arms trade includes a provision for small arms.
The issue was among several vexing crime and security concerns raised during a closed-door discussion with US Attorney General Eric Holder, who attended a summit of the 15-member Caribbean Community (Caricom), before flying to St Thomas in the US Virgin Islands on Monday afternoon.
This is the first time since Haiti joined the mostly English-speaking trade bloc in 2002 that a Haitian president has hosted a Caricom summit and served as the trade bloc's chairman.
"It is the small arms and ammunition which do the most damage in the Caricom region," said Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, whose oil-rich twin-island nation is in charge of security issues within the bloc. "We want to have inside of that treaty, provisions dealing with small arms."
Holder, meeting with journalists afterward, said the Obama administration "is currently reviewing the treaty to see what position it will take."
Treaty negotiations were put on hold last year by the UN General Assembly amid concerns by some countries over its repercussions. They are expected to resume in March.
"If one looks at the proposals that President Obama has made with regard to firearms, gun safety measures in the United States, we are doing all we can to decrease trafficking of weapons by those who do so illegally," Holder said.
Several studies have shown that a rise in violent crimes is hurting the tourist-dependent economies of the region and stymies development.
In welcoming leaders to Haiti at the opening of the summit, President Michel Martelly said it was important for them to "strengthen our cooperation in order to defeat" criminal networks that "threaten whole swaths of our economic systems and cause social and political upheavals.
"Given our limited resources, it is appropriate that we receive support in this struggle," said Martelly, who is serving a six-month term as Caricom chairman.
One area where Holder did voice some support was on the issue of criminal deportees. He acknowledged there is a need for the US "to make sure we give enough notice for people who are being released and deported from the United States" so that receiving nations can better prepare for the arrivals.
Some Caribbean leaders, however, would like the US to reverse its policy of deporting criminals to their birth countries.
Holder called the discussions with Caribbean leaders "frank and candid" but didn't offer more details.
Six Caribbean prime ministers and presidents attended the summit, which ended yesterday. Among the six leaders who didn't make it but sent government representatives are those of Grenada and Barbados. A general election was held in Grenada yesterday while the general election in Barbados is tomorrow.
All in attendance recognised the historic nature of Haiti hosting the conference just three years after it was devastated by the hemisphere's worst earthquake. The quake left 1.5 million Haitians homeless, and more than 300,000 dead.
Among them were workers helping Haiti to take full advantage of Caricom membership via free trade.
"There can be no greater indicator, symbolic and substantive, that Haiti has taken its rightful place within the Caribbean Community," Caricom Secretary General Irwin Laroque said.
Laroque said Haiti's implementation of a single market — which will allow the free movement of goods and services — presents "opportunities for improving the lives of the people of Haiti through cooperation in areas such as health and education, and economic benefits to be derived from commerce and trade."
Martelly said the meeting and Haiti's push for further Caribbean integration symbolises a new dynamic for his nation.
"Haiti no longer wants to be left behind," he said.
"It's an opportunity to see, apart from the images on television — a Haiti of misery, a Haiti of problems — that Haiti has other facets that it can also offer and contribute too," said Martelly.