IN his three and a half years as secretary general of the United Nations, António Guterres has proved himself sensitive and alert to the difficulties confronting Caribbean states.
His address to the 40th Regular Meeting of the Caricom Heads of Government on July 3 was the most important statement made by any UN secretary general about the Caribbean region.
What will be a most enduring depiction of António Guterres’ concern about the well-being of the Caribbean peoples was his appearance in Dominica and in Antigua and Barbuda in 2017 after the devastation wrought by hurricanes Irma and Maria.
On October 7, 2017, standing amidst the wreckage of decimated Barbuda from which every person had to be evacuated by the Antigua and Barbuda government, a visibly shaken Guterres declared, “I have been in areas torn by conflict. In my own country, I have seen earthquakes, I’ve seen storms… I have never seen such a high level of devastation like the one that I witnessed in Barbuda.”
He went back to UN headquarters in New York to launch an appeal for international assistance. The fact that the response was large on promises and small on delivery was not Guterres’ fault. Indeed, it is troubling to think how much less might have been delivered if the secretary general had not taken a personal interest.
At the forefront of Guterres’ thinking is that climate change is the root of the problem, not only for the Caribbean and Pacific small islands that are devastated by brutal hurricanes, but also for the entire world. This thinking was evident when he addressed the meeting of Caricom Heads of Government on July 3.
His message was meant more for the leaders who were not in the room, including those that deny the existence and effects of climate change. It was also intended for those leaders in big countries who shy away from the urgency of convincing their populations that, in the interest of the world, their carbon emissions must be significantly reduced.
Guterres minced no words in agreeing that money for building resilience is necessary now, and the unlocking of its flow is urgent.
He also identified himself with the crucial issues confronting the region to which the international financial institutions, and the major countries that control their policies, pay little more than lip service.
His words are worth emphasising.
On vulnerability: “I have assisted too many technocratic discussions about vulnerability and what it means, but having visited several small island developing states in the Pacific and the Caribbean I never found one that was not a clear case of vulnerability. That should be recognised by all.”
On de-risking: “The small size of their domestic markets and their limited capacity to participate in global markets, particularly, is damaging when it translates itself into the isolation of their financial systems from the global financial system, hinder them in generating economies of scale.”
On the restriction from access to concessional financing on the sole criterion of per capita income: “Eligibility for official development assistance and other forms of concessional financing should include vulnerability criteria, in addition to gross national income per capita… For middle-income countries that are particularly vulnerable, the multilateral development banks and development finance institutions have key roles to play in providing more long-term, low-cost debt financing.”
And, on debt: “The time has also come for the international community to consider seriously how best to address the rising problems of over-indebtedness of middle-income countries.”
And he vowed to act: “I am determined to change that by bringing more resources and strengthening UN support to SIDS.”
On a related matter, the 14 Caricom countries have been divided over the situation in Venezuela, most visibly in the Organisation of American States, where four of them have sided with anti-Nicolás Maduro supporters to seat a designee of the self-proclaimed president of Venezuela, Juan Guaidó, as the representative of Venezuela. Other Caricom countries regard the seating as contrary to the rules of the organisation and international law.
In stark contrast, Guterres has steadfastly maintained a position of honest broker over the situation in Venezuela. In the margins of July 3 Caricom meeting where the prime minister of Norway, Erna Solberg, was also present, the UN secretary general expressed strong support for the Norwegian facilitation initiative on Venezuela, and called on all parties in Venezuela to avoid any actions that might increase tensions in the country and undermine the facilitation initiative.
The difference exhibited by António Guterres is striking; it could make a difference for the Caribbean.