Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves addresses Caribbean Exporters’ Colloquium

St. Vincent and the Grenadines Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves on Wednesday March 20, 2013 warned that crime and difficulties surrounding regional air transportation were major stumbling blocks towards making greater progress in regional trade.

Addressing the two-day colloquium hosted by the Barbados-based Caribbean Export Development Agency (Caribbean Export) Gonsalves said high crime levels in several countries were not only a deterrent for tourists but also a disincentive for potential investors.

He said that the high rate of crime particularly in Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica continues to hinder investment opportunities as they escalate the security costs of doing business.

“If you can’t work a late shift, if the business has to have extra security, if skilled people don’t want to come to work because they feel they can go somewhere else where they are safe, we are in trouble. A citizen’s security is vital  – women and men have to go home after late shifts. I know it affects people at an individual level.”

The St. Vincent and the Grenadines Prime Minister said that another obstacle to regional trade is that the serious limitations posed by almost non-existent transportation facilities.  He said on the issue of regional air transportation, there was need for a resolution in the matter of the competition between LIAT and the Trinidad and Tobago-based Caribbean Airlines.

“Yes there is need to address matters such as energy costs, fuel and we need to address the subsidy which CAL (Caribbean Airlines) is getting and competing with LIAT in the same space, the same single economic space. It seems that whoever you put in charge of CAL, something happens to them, the logic as to how we should work together is clear.”

He said regional governments all have the capacity to do better.  “I don’t understand why we are in the position that we are, we ought not to have these problems. My message is very simple, we have a lot of possibilities and we have some limitations, we can get things done but we have to build a modern competitive, many sided post colonial economies t hat are national, regional and global,” he told the conference.

Earlier, Barbados Foreign Affairs Minister Maxine McClean urged Caribbean governments to capitalise on opportunities to work together to chart a path towards regional economic development.  McClean highlighted the importance of trade to counteract “perceived weaknesses” across the region.  “This is a critical step in our regional integration process, we are hampered not only by size by our vulnerability to external shocks.  In the Caribbean our geographical location also presents a major challenge as we strive to successfully penetrate other markets.

“The time has come for us to accept that we must pursue this matter on a collective basis as well in order to advance individual levels of development,” she said, adding that leaders of government, business and civil society must cooperate closely to develop a regional strategy as it relates to trade and called on them to take up the charge to capitalize on the many opportunities that have been created.

“This strategy must recognize our various national strengths, at the same time we must continue to mitigate our national weaknesses, as the global market is continually falling.

“We must develop an export or die mentality, we can no longer sustain our increasing import bills across the region, business persons must counter this by being innovative in their thinking and the importance of research and development as we strive to maintain competitiveness.

“The business community must take up the charge to capitalize on the opportunities created, it is not going to be an easy task, while governments have sought to do it, the task will ultimately be undertaken by the private sector,” McClean said.

During the opening ceremony, Caribbean Export Executive Director, Pamela Coke Hamilton, announced the establishment of the private sector advisory group with the objective of hearing about the key challenges affecting export.

But she lamented that five years after the Caribbean Forum (CARIFORUM) countries and the European Union had signed the EPA, the majority of member states have not yet made inroads in penetrating the EU market.

“The region having enjoyed unparallel access to the most developed markets of the world for over four decades has not been able to utilize this aspect to transform our economies and increase our trade performance.”

By Kathy Barrett, CMC