CARICOM, The Patriarchy and Plastic Bottles

July 7th, 2018

Over the past few days, Jamaica, as incoming Chair, has been proudly hosting the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) 39th annual Conference of Heads of Government in Montego Bay for approximately 200 foreign officials. We have been regaled with numerous social media posts, video clips with cameras panning across sunlit views of the coastline and happy, smiling officials perpetually shaking hands. We have seen nice clips of our Prime Minister and others, looking very serious, signing documents. Yes, some agreements were signed. The President of Cuba was the special guest (people seem a little confused about his name, but it is not Castro). The President of Chile was there too, on a working visit.

The final photo op in Montego Bay. (Photo: CARICOM)

The final photo op in Montego Bay. A non-waving photograph. (Photo: CARICOM)

There were also the inevitable photo ops (nowadays, one sometimes has to wave at the camera in photo ops – hello, or goodbye?) The photo ops revealed what we already knew: that of all fifteen CARICOM member states, just one has a woman at the helm – the newly-elected Mia Mottley of Barbados. Apart from her, there was a sprinkling of women, including our own very competent Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade, Senator Kamina Johnson Smith. One of the five Associate Members, the Turks and Caicos Islands, has a woman premier, the Hon. Sharlene Cartwright-Robinson. Most of the other women present were interpreters and assistants and hard-working members of the CARICOM Secretariat, standing discreetly in the background while the men signed documents.

Anyway, as the acrid smoke of burning tires lit by protesters drifted over Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s Juvenel Moïse handed over the chairmanship to Prime Minister Holness. Beautiful speeches about “deepening ties,” “regional integration” and “building resilience” were composed and delivered, as immigration officers gave their fellow Caribbean citizens the cold shoulder at airports, farmers toiled in drought-stricken fields, and schoolchildren answered the call of nature in pit latrines.

A woman talks to the men at CARICOM's 39th Heads of Government meeting. (Photo: CARICOM)

A woman talks to the men at CARICOM’s 39th Heads of Government meeting. (Photo: CARICOM)

Pardon me for the cynicism. However, a ray of hope emerged, in the shape of the aforementioned lone woman. Not just because 50 or 51 percent of the CARICOM population is represented at this annual meeting by one person, once more – but because of what she said. “Why are we so obsessed with diagnosing what is wrong? When last have we looked to our own people and their actions to show us, to tell us what is right?” asked Barbadian Prime Minister Mia Mottley in her address. She added: “If we are truly to integrate our region then our Caribbean people must be at the center of what we do.” I hope these are not mere words – but yes, of course, they must. They elected you.

Our super Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade Kamina Johnson Smith, one of the very few women whose voice was heard at a microphone at the CARICOM Conference. (Photo: CARICOM)

Our super Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade Kamina Johnson Smith, one of the very few women whose voice was heard at a microphone at the CARICOM Conference. Senator Johnson Smith is also currently presiding over the Council of Ministers of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) States. (Photo: CARICOM)

Apropos of “the people,” Prime Minister Mottley later came up with a revolutionary idea: Why not live stream the proceedings of the CARICOM Heads of Government meeting? Well! What a startling suggestion for the men. They like to keep things to themselves, from time to time issuing a communiqué (including the final one, which often bears a striking resemblance to the previous year’s). While they all love social media, no doubt, the thought of their citizens actually hearing and understanding what is happening in real time (and perhaps, even, commenting live, with emojis etc. – as on Facebook live) might certainly upset those male egos. Why did it take a woman to come up with this “no-brainer”? Is it because women leaders are less bound by ego? The jury is out, on that one.

Why, they could also have citizen opinion polls, Twitter chats and the like! The traditional media could stream the audio and video live on selected radio and television channels. Everyone listens to the radio. There could be a CARICOM meeting app!

I’m getting carried away, here.

All of this would take the mystery (and power) out of things. Well, let’s see what happens – if anything. My cynicism is creeping in again, but so much is said at these meetings and so little action results. This applies to the few women leaders as well as the men, unfortunately. The inertia is crippling.

Men with plastic, at a meeting with the Chilean President. Not a great look, people. (Photo: Twitter)

Men with plastic, at a meeting with the Chilean President (center). Not a great look, people. (Photo: Twitter)

One more observation: I noticed literally a couple of dozen plastic water bottles lined up on a table at a meeting with the President of Chile and his officials. It was so obvious I could only conclude that it was a deliberate advertisement for a particular Jamaican company. If so, how crass. It certainly wasn’t a Plastic Free July at the Convention Centre. How lovely it would have been to promote the Conference as a “green” or “sustainable” summit. Well, at least climate change and disaster preparedness were on the agenda, as a small hurricane named Beryl emerged in the Atlantic.

Next year, the annual CARICOM get-together will be forty years old. They say life begins at forty. So let’s stop the patriarchal back-slapping and get down to business. And let’s get the people involved in a meaningful way.

 

 

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