By SIR RONALD SANDERS
HAITI’S current fiscal problems that led to four days of riots setting back the country’s already fragile economic and political stability, have implications for Caribbean Community and Common Market countries (Caricom) that cannot be ignored.
If economic and social conditions continue to deteriorate the flight of Haitians seeking refuge in other countries will intensify, and Caricom countries will be among those to which they can legitimately go.
After a period of membership of only the Community, Haiti is now also a member of the Common Market and is entitled to the full benefits of the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas which provides for movement of goods, services and several categories of workers within 14 of the 15-member countries of Caricom.
As has been argued in legal opinions presented by the Office of the General Counsel of the Secretariat, Haitians have the right to move freely within member countries of Caricom. The General Counsel’s Office is reported to have argued that “Haitian nationals, as Community nationals, are entitled to an automatic stay of six months”.
Integration theorists would argue that economic integration arrangements that are as deep as a common market ought to take place only between countries whose economies, including their fiscal and monetary policies, are similar. This similarity would help to ensure that no member of the integrated area becomes a drag on the others and that each member is able to contribute to the economic and social upliftment of all. On this basis, there could be an argument that Haiti should have been dissuaded from signing-up to the Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME) until its economy had been upgraded to a symmetrical relationship with other Caricom countries.
For instance, the European Union (EU) has not allowed every nation that has knocked on its door to join. The interested countries have to satisfy what is called the “Copenhagen criteria” which includes compliance with 35 policy fields.
Whatever the cautions that exist in economic integration theory and applied in other economic integration areas, such as the EU, they appear not to have been applied to Haiti’s admission to the CSME arrangements. Therefore, Haitian nationals have the right to stay in a Caricom country for six months, and to rights of establishment.
This position was strengthened when the new Prime Minister of Barbados, Mia Mottley, announced at the recent Caricom Heads of Government in Jamaica that her Cabinet has agreed to remove the visa requirements for Haiti. “In our view it breaches the fundamental tenets that bind us under the revised Treaty of Chaguaramas”, she said.
Only The Bahamas, which is a member of the Community but not of the Single Market arrangements, has expressly stated that “The Bahamas is not and will not be a part of CSME”. The Prime Minister, Dr Hubert Minnis, publicly declared that: “The Bahamas will not allow free movement of people within our boundaries, so we are not a part of CSME.”
In part, Dr Minnis’ unequivocal assertion arises from the Bahamian experience with Haitian migrants who arrive in The Bahamas and try to remain.
It is this problem that other Caricom governments might face if conditions in Haiti worsen and its nationals seek refuge in their territories. What appears certain is that Haitians can certainly stay for six months. This is why no Caricom government, including The Bahamas, can afford not to take a proactive interest in developments in Haiti.
Acting on the advice of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Haitian government removed fuel subsidies as part of a broader agreement in which more direct assistance would be provided to Haiti. Increases of up to 50 percent in the cost of fuels ignited protests throughout the country in which dozens of businesses were looted and several people killed as demonstrators clashed with police. Protestors also called on President Jovenel Moïse to fire the Prime Minister and Cabinet; others demanded that Moïse himself should go.
While the Haitian government reversed the removal of the subsidies in the wake of the violence, the problem is far from over. Haiti urgently needs the financing that the IMF can provide. The country is facing double-digit inflation, a depreciating currency and slow growth. It also has a budget deficit of more than US$150m, and more than 60 per cent of its people live below the poverty line. To access the IMF money, the Haitian government will have to accept IMF conditionalities, one of which is the removal of the fuel subsidies.
The way the removal of the subsidies occurred was imprudent. No public relations or information programme preceded it, nor was there any announced plan for a gradual removal within a predictable time frame that might have been more palatable. Given all this, Haiti’s economic problems will not go away. They will get worse, and they cry out for considerate international action such as was suggested by a previous managing director of the IMF, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who in 2010 called for “an international effort to support the Haitian authorities in rebuilding the country”.
Strauss-Kahn said: “We must be prepared to think on as massive a scale as then US Secretary of State George C Marshall did after World War II (in rebuilding Europe). If we seize this chance, we can help the people of Haiti escape their cycle of poverty and deprivation fuelled by merciless natural disasters that plague the Caribbean nation”.
The Haitian economic situation has changed little since 2010. The international community has still not stepped-up in the meaningful way that is needed to build and stabilise Haiti. That is what is needed, and the achievement of that objective is what other Caricom governments should join Haiti to do.
Caricom now has real skin in the Haiti game.
• Responses and previous commentaries: www.sirronaldsanders.com.
The writer is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States and the OAS. The views expressed are his own.