Lee Kuan Yew’s Caribbean rescue in the Commonwealth

by Sir Ronald Sanders, Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Commonwealth Studies

Lee Kuan Yew, who led Singapore for three decades, died on March 23rd. He was a remarkable man who is best remembered for courageous leadership that converted a tiny island with virtually no natural resources into one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

This commentary recalls a particular role that he played on the Caribbean’s behalf in the Commonwealth, saving the leaders of the Eastern Caribbean, Barbados and Jamaica from disdain over their invitation to the United States of America to intervene in Grenada in 1983.

Singapore From Ramir Borja via Wikimedia Commons

Singapore became an economic powerhouse under Lee Kuan Yew. From Ramir Borja via Wikimedia Commons

But, first it has to be recalled that Lee Kuan Yew commanded international respect, even envy for making tiny Singapore an economic powerhouse in global terms. He tended to tolerate nothing that would likely disrupt the march toward progress of his tiny country. Small states in the Caribbean and elsewhere are often directed to the “Singapore Model” as a design they should seek to emulate. That, however, is easier said than done.

Nonetheless, it is worth recalling the ingredients Lee utilized to develop his country. A principal and overriding factor was a dominant role for the state – something which international financial institutors and Western developed nations discourage in Caribbean countries – indeed, across the Third World.

Even while maintaining a dominant role for the state, Lee actively encouraged foreign investment, recognising, in the beginning, that Singapore lacked the capital and knowhow to create industries. That is not the situation today, but it was his attitude to social democracy that improved, health, public housing and, vitally, education.

The wages and salaries of public servants today match equally payments in the private sector, resulting in public servants whose capacity is every bit as good as the best in the private sector.

Having registered the accomplishments of Lee Kuan Yew in the development and prosperity of his own country and the respect it earned him in the global community, this commentary records a crucial role he played at the 1983 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting following the US-led intervention in Grenada.

I was privileged to be an Antigua and Barbuda delegate to that conference under the leadership of then Foreign Minister Lester Bird. The temper of the meeting, particularly from the leaders of African States, was annoyance with the countries of the Eastern Caribbean, Barbados and Jamaica that had participated with the US in intervening in Grenada after the military coup that had overthrown the government, murdering its prime minister, Maurice Bishop, and other leaders.

Condemnatory statements were made by Presidents Robert Mugabe, Julius Nyrere and Kenneth Kaunda of Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Zambia respectively. Their governments – and the majority of governments of Commonwealth developing countries – had voted just weeks before at the United Nations General Assembly to condemn the US-led intervention. The Africans vented their distress at Caribbean participation with the US. Julius Nyrere called on the Commonwealth to express its anger. And so it might have done were it not for Lee Kuan Yew.

He explained that Singapore had voted at the UN against the US because its intervention in Grenada had broken a rule and breaking that rule could have “horrendous consequences”. But, he said he had listened to four Caribbean leaders who had spoken before him asking for understanding of their position. Those leaders were Lester Bird of Antigua and Barbuda, Kennedy Simmonds of St Kitts-Nevis, Eugenia Charles of Dominica and JMG ‘Tom’ Adams of Barbados.

Bird had said “when a regime murdered a prime minister and was terrorizing its own people, the governments of neighbouring countries with which there was an enduring relationship had a responsibility to act”.

Lee Kuan-Yew told the conference that despite his condemnation of the US at the UN, which he would do again, “Commonwealth leaders were presented with a paradox”. He described the paradox for his government in the following way: “Singapore voted against the American invasion because of the resulting dangers; it was nonetheless grateful that it took place because there were 110,000 happy Grenadians.” Each leader knew in his heart, he said, “that the Eastern Caribbean States’ response was right”.

He went on to observe that “it would have been much more convenient” if the Caribbean countries had the resources to intervene on their own. The matter, he said, would not have been raised at the Commonwealth Summit “nor would their action have caused great objections in the United Nations” which “would have seen it as an example of the Third World resolving its own problems”.

And he concluded that Commonwealth leaders had not gathered “to put their partners from the Eastern Caribbean in the dock”. “It was necessary to condemn the action in the United Nations because of the dangerous precedents it could create”, but he wanted the Meeting to turn away from recrimination and to come out positively with a proposal to achieve security for island states, and so make a contribution “to international stability and security”.

Not all of the heads of government at the Commonwealth summit would have welcomed Lee Kuan-Yew’s practical and pragmatic intervention, but they recognised the wisdom in it.

Lee Kuan-Yew received a respectful and careful hearing to what was a thoughtful and defining intervention – one which secretary-general, Shridath Ramphal, developed into a forward-looking statement from the summit that focussed “on the early return by Commonwealth Caribbean countries to the spirit of fraternity” and to the undertaking of “a study of the special needs of small states consonant with the right to sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

Several positive consequences flowed from Lee Kuan Yew’s statement at the summit, first it helped to bridge the divide that had occurred between Commonwealth Caribbean countries that had participated with the US in the Grenada intervention and those who had opposed; it led to the first definitive study on the challenges confronting small states; and it confirmed the value of Commonwealth heads of government meetings attended by heads themselves.

Lee Kuan-Yew should be remembered in the Caribbean for the positive and constructive role he played at the 1983 Commonwealth Summit.

Vanuatu and Tuvalu – inadequate response to human suffering

by Sir Ronald Sanders, Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Commonwealth Studies

People on the East Coast of the United States of America (US) and the Caribbean should consider how best they might lend a helping hand to the people of the islands of Tuvalu and Vanuatu in the Pacific whose lives have been shattered by Cyclone Pam that struck them on the night of March 13.

Image courtesy of Graham Crumb - Humans of Vanuatu.

Image courtesy of Graham Crumb – Humans of Vanuatu.

In the case of the Caribbean islands, it is a case of “there but for fortune go I”.

A category five Cyclone, called Pam, ripped through both Vanuatu and Tuvalu – two archipelagic countries consisting of several small islands and atolls – creating widespread destruction.  Damage was so intense that all the inhabitants of one of the Tuvalu islands had to be completely evacuated. They left behind everything they hold dear, and they now live in uncertainty about when they can return and how to start to reconstruct their lives.

The capacity of these countries to cope with ferocious cyclones, such as Pam, and the resilience to rebuild in the wake of huge damage, simply do not exist.   Both Vanuatu and Tuvalu are confronted with immediate humanitarian needs for food, shelter and fresh water.  Reports indicate that residents on some of the distant islands have resorted to drinking salt water.

The level of the immediate suffering can only be imagined by those who have not experienced the cruel conditions in which people are forced to live in the aftermath of natural disasters of this magnitude.

 The governments of Australia and New Zealand, which are the two most developed Commonwealth countries in the area, have been quick to help with humanitarian assistance.  But, the islands in the two archipelagic countries are so scattered that distribution of supplies is severely constrained, particularly as many have no landing strips.  Britain, too, has offered help amounting to £1m.  That money will be made immediately available to UN organisations and international aid agencies already working in the region.

But the lack of aid co-ordination has resulted in uneven assistance to the people of the islands, and in some cases to no help at all.   At the time of writing, the government of Vanuatu announced that food will run out on some islands within a week. The deputy chair of the National Disaster Committee, Benjamin Shing, has said the while the country appreciated the aid, the initial response could have been handled better.  He claims that the aid agencies are working on their own rather than in co-operation with the government.  He added that “in nearly every country in the world where they go in they have their own operational systems, they have their own networks and they refuse to conform to government directives”.

In the situation that Shing describes it is the already-suffering people who are hurt more as resources are duplicated or wasted in one area, and little or no help reaches others.

If, apart from Australia and New Zealand particularly, the response to the tragedy in Vanuatu and Tuvalu has not been impressive, the greater and more profound problem will be the rebuilding process.  These islands, like many in the Caribbean, do not have the capital formation in their own banking system to finance reconstruction.  They will have to turn to international financial institutions for help.   But, if the experience of the Caribbean is a measure of what they can expect, rebuilding will be a long and agonizing process.

Many Caribbean countries, such as Antigua and Barbuda, Grenada and Dominica, lost more than 3 years of gross domestic product (GDP) in 24 hours when hurricanes devastated them.  Anxious to rebuild in the wake of such massively destructive hurricanes, the governments of these countries were forced into the commercial market to secure financing to rebuild infrastructure, even while their revenues were declining from decreased production.  Hotels closed, agricultural production ceased and manufacturing halted.  The result was an increase in the national debt and uncomfortable levels of debt to GDP ratios of more than 100%.

These countries had no option.  They either had to borrow to rebuild and re-start their economies or face soaring unemployment, increase in poverty and inadequate investment in health and education services.

Right now, Vanuatu and Tuvalu are rightly focused on alleviating the suffering of their people.  But, the bigger and more fundamental problem of rebuilding – and how to pay for it – already looms large.   Australia’s Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, has told the Tuvalu Prime Minister, Enele Sopoaga, that her government would support longer-term recovery and reconstruction efforts.   Vanuatu will also need that help.   Australia alone cannot provide it, nor should it be expected to.

 As Richard Bourne of the Ramphal Institute observed recently, “with erratic climate events and sea level rise it is time for the global community to take more seriously the growing risks for island archipelagos, especially low-lying atoll states in the Pacific and Caribbean. In a single year a storm can knock 10 per cent off GDP, and certain communities are already being withdrawn from shorelines where ocean levels have risen. This is a particular challenge for the Commonwealth, where the Ramphal Institute estimates that there are some ten independent and dependent territories which might be under water in 2100”.

 In its report to Commonwealth Heads of Government, “A Commonwealth of the People: Time for Urgent Reform”, the Eminent Persons Group of which I was a member had recommended that the 53-nation Commonwealth establish a disaster management capacity.  Unfortunately the recommendation was not implemented. The details of the mechanism are laid out in the report.  Suffice to say that the proposal sought to establish a rapid Commonwealth response to natural disasters; machinery for disaster preparation and mitigation; and the means to help mobilize concessionary financing for rebuilding.

Both Vanuatu and Tuvalu could have benefited enormously from such a disaster management capacity within the Commonwealth of which they are two of the smallest and most vulnerable of member states.  The Commonwealth Secretary-General, Kamalesh Sharma, called for Commonwealth help immediately after the destructive passage of Cyclone Pam, but the Commonwealth should be doing more at times of tragedy if it is to be relevant to the people of its member states.

Let us hope that the tragedy in Vanuatu and Tuvalu is a wake-up call.  Hurricanes in the Caribbean and cyclones in the Pacific are not going away.  They are clear and present dangers.

Responses and previous commentaries: www.sirronaldsanders.com

The unhelpful geopolitics of energy in the Caribbean

Originally posted on Caribbean News Now

by Sir Ronald Sanders, ICWS Senior Research Fellow

US commentators are predicting the death of PetroCaribe, the Venezuelan oil initiative in the Caribbean, and the ascendancy of United States as the dominant player in the region’s geopolitics.

Predictions of the death of Petro Caribe may be premature, and the US would have to do a lot of work to regain the confidence of Caribbean countries.

Certainly, the so-called “Energy Summit”, held on January 25th in Washington by US Vice President Joe Biden with the leaders of 14-Caribbean Community (CARICOM) countries and the Dominican Republic, did not result in a great deal of enthusiasm. Indeed, if anything, the atmosphere generated by the meeting was one of disappointment on the Caribbean side.

The greatest disappointment was that the US government offered no official financial resources to help Caribbean countries to develop renewable energy sources or to transform their energy-generating systems to use natural gas. Instead, Vice President Biden, in obvious references to Venezuela and PetroCaribe remarked about “governments dependent on a single, increasingly unreliable, external supplier” and “no country should be able to use natural resources as a tool of coercion against any other country”.

The many Caribbean countries that have been beneficiaries of PetroCaribe would contend that, however difficult it might now be for Venezuela to maintain the initiative in its present form, it was a vital lifeline for their economies throughout the global financial crisis, which combined with cripplingly-high oil and gas prices. They might also argue that they were not coerced by Venezuela; they were thankful for the chance to defer payments, through loans, for petroleum products during a period of intense economic recession. Loans repayable over 23 years at 1% are better than gold.

Caribbean governments that have been beneficiaries of PetroCaribe are aware that, according to the IMF, Venezuela needs oil prices at about US$115 a barrel to keep its economy afloat, pay back its debt, maintain a social welfare programme, and sustain PetroCaribe. They are equally aware that the Venezuelan government puts the figure for supporting these activities much lower, claiming that “the current budget was estimated with the cost of a barrel of oil at US$60”.

But, the reality is that last week Brent crude oil dropped to US$48 a barrel, and US crude fell to US$47 a barrel, and the Venezuelan government is acutely conscious that at US$40 a barrel and below, meeting all their obligations, including servicing their debts, is extremely difficult and can only be addressed by massive cuts in spending. At that point, PetroCaribe will be severely modified if not suspended. But, that point has not yet been reached.

There are currently as many views on how long the present lower price of oil will last as there are experts who are asked to venture an opinion. The only single certainty seems to be that, in the short-term, the price of oil will not return to figures of US$100 a barrel or more. However, the United States Energy Information Administration forecasts that West Texas Intermediate crude oil prices will average around US$55 per barrel in 2015 and US$ 71 per barrel in 2016. If those projections hold true then Venezuela and PetroCaribe will still be very much a part of the energy geopolitics of the Caribbean.

At the Washington meeting, Vice President Biden boasted correctly of “the ascendancy of the Americas as the epicenter of energy production in the world”. He said, “We have more oil and gas rigs running in the United States, than all the rest of the world combined. Mexico, Canada and the United States is the new epicenter of energy — not the Arabian Peninsula. It is the new epicenter of energy in the 21st century”.

Against this background of US prosperity in energy, the Caribbean would have had a reasonable expectation that the US administration would have been responsive to the needs of the majority of Caribbean countries that have been unable to transition to renewable energy because of a lack of capital, especially access to concessional funding. Caribbean countries, particularly smaller ones in the Eastern Caribbean, need grant and concessionary funding to catalyze investment in renewable energy and to mitigate the risks involved with the development of some of the technologies, such as geothermal.

However, Mr Biden told the Caribbean representatives: “You can now purchase gas on the open market from many countries, including your neighbor, Trinidad and Tobago right now. There’s also LNG exporters in the United States with licenses to export to any of your countries, whether you have a free trade agreement or not. If you want gas, go talk to them.” In other words no official financing from the US government – the solution is to contract with US energy companies.

This position by the US raises doubts about the fortunes of a plan by the Trinidad and Tobago government to promote a US$1billion fund through the Inter-American Development Bank to address the region’s energy challenges. Without a commitment by the US to provide financing, this initiative could be still-born. Regional energy expert, Anthony Bryant points out that the government of Trinidad and Tobago “is not interested in replacing PetroCaribe but in being part of the solution to a weakening PetroCaribe.”

Trinidad and Tobago itself is being rocked by falling oil and gas prices. The country’s minister of finance, Larry Howai, said last week that the government is using “more conservative assumptions of an average of US$45 per barrel of oil and US$2.25 per mmbtu for gas to adjust our national budget”. He accepted that the adjustment “may not be enough and we need to be prepared to recalibrate our fiscal position as time goes by, based on the evolving fiscal situation”.

Given this background, the Caribbean is therefore at an interesting juncture in energy terms. The countries of the region can take advantage of the present low cost oil and gas to diversify their energy sources, improve their energy security, reduce costs and make their economies more competitive in tourism and manufacturing. To do so will require governments acting in concert and cohesion – not with beggar-thy-neighbour policies.

Improved regulation, protection of investment, transparency in awarding contracts are all important to diversifying the sources of energy in the Caribbean, but access to affordable financing is crucial. However, Caribbean countries have a much better chance of raising such capital for pan-Caribbean energy projects rather than individual national projects. All governments and energy companies should collectively go to the capital markets; they should share the risk of borrowing for viable projects and benefit from the profits that could be generated. By doing so, they could also end over-reliance on all external governments in the energy sector.

Creole Music of the French West Indies – New Explorations of an Iconic Musical Style

Join us at the launch of Creole Music of the French West Indies, A Discography on 23 January 2015 at 6.00pm

The biguine is a genre of rhythm-based music and song that probably originated in Martinique, and epitomises black Creole music from the French Antilles. The evolution of this style is explored in Creole Music of the French West Indies, A Discography, 1900-1959, edited and with an essay ‘Mascarade, biguine and the bal negrè’ by John Cowley.

Flyer Creole Book A5 Print_blog

Biguine is strongly associated with Carnival and dancing: activities that enjoyed wide popularity in Saint-Pierre, Martinique, prior to the town’s lightning destruction in 1902 as a result of the eruption of Mont Pelée, its overshadowing volcano. The settlement was sometimes known as the ‘Paris of the Caribbean’ and recognised as Martinique’s cultural capital. Despite the destruction that resulted from la catastrophe, music (and festival) survived in French jurisdictions in the area.

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Hidden archives of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO): conspiracy, incompetence or loss of institutional memory?

By Mandy Banton, Senior Research Fellow, ICWS; formerly of the UK National Archives


Despite rumours and half-truths long in existence, the official line that no locally created records of former colonial governments were transferred to London at independence was generally accepted, although few would have been so naïve as to believe another claim – that none had been destroyed.  Continue reading

Reparations for Slavery: Can a claim be sustained?

By Sir Ronald Sanders KCMG AM, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies and a former Caribbean diplomat

In 1838, British slave owners in the English-Speaking Caribbean received £11.6 billion in today’s value as compensation for the emancipation of their “property” – 655,780 human beings of African descent that they had enslaved and exploited, and, in many cases, brutalised. The freed slaves, by comparison, received nothing in recompense for their dehumanisation, their cruel treatment, the abuse of their labour and the plain injustice of their enslavement.

This is the basis on which 14 governments of the member-states of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) have decided to approach the UK law firm, Leigh Day, “to consider a legal challenge to seek compensation from three European nations for what they claim is the legacy of the Atlantic slave trade”.

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Forty-three years of Earth Day, and still no UN Ecocide Law

Indigenous Communities on the Banks of the Rio Negro, Amazon, Brazil

By the Human Rights Consortium, School of Advanced Study, University of London

Earth Day was established in 1970.  In the same year, the term ‘ecocide’ was first recorded at the Conference on War and National Responsibility in Washington.

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