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World Perspective | THE CARIBBEAN

Together They Stand, Divided They Fall, 8 Neighbors Figure

May 09, 1998|MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BRIDGETOWN, Barbados — In this remote corner of the Caribbean, leaders of eight tiny island states scattered across hundreds of miles of open sea are trying to become one.

Bucking a global trend, under which thousands of miles of borders have been redrawn and more than a dozen new nations have been carved in the last decade out of failed federations, the prime ministers of these West Indies islands are quietly attempting a feat that eluded their forefathers for generations: confederation.

Never mind that the combined population of this new union still would be less than 1 million on about 1,500 square miles--smaller than most American states--with an economy dwarfed by most nations.

In meetings and speeches here and throughout the other islands, the mostly young prime ministers have agreed that they will be stronger as one than as many. And divided, as they are, all will fall.

"Any attempt to meet the challenges of the new global economic order alone is bound to end in failure," declared Prime Minister Kenny Anthony of St. Lucia on a recent visit here. "The nation-state concept of economic management, upon which our development was predicated, is obsolete."

James F. Mitchell, prime minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, added: "I know absolutely no reason why we should remain separated as we are. I do know thousands of reasons why we should unite."

In March, Prime Minister Owen Arthur weighed in with the most decisive move. His nation, Barbados, the most prosperous of the eight island states and the one seen by analysts as having the most to lose, created a task force to link itself with its seven neighbors.

Those seven already share a common currency, court system and security arrangements in a loose alliance, the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States.

But behind what Anthony calls the "Initiative of the Little Eight" is a shared realization that each island state's economy is too small to support individual, independent countries.

The confederation, meanwhile, would be similar in structure to Canada or Switzerland. It would let each island state keep its national government and internal laws, but all would share foreign and economic policy, defense, higher education and judiciary.

The federation members would be: Barbados; St. Lucia; Grenada; Dominica; St. Vincent and the Grenadines; St. Kitts and Nevis; Antigua and Barbuda; and Montserrat, the only member that remains a British colony.

The push for union--though rooted in a deep populist desire to join people who share similar cultures, slave roots in Africa and parallel histories of colonialism--faces a stiff challenge from its own history. A previous attempt four decades ago failed miserably: The Federation of the West Indies, created by Britain when the islands were colonies in 1958, lasted just four years.

Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago pulled out of the 10-state federation in 1962, leaving the others in what Arthur Lewis, then-president of the Caribbean Development Bank, called the "Agony of the Eight."

Reviewing the decades of bickering that followed, Anthony recently noted: "The Caribbean has had a long, disheartening record of failure to suppress our instincts of disunity."

In 1987, William Demas, one of Lewis' successors, briefly rekindled interest in unification.

"All of us West Indians are basically one people, one nation . . . psychologically, emotionally and culturally," he said. "We do have our island differences, but underlying those differences there is a basic and definite West Indian identity."

But Demas' appeal fell flat. It was only after a new generation of leaders came to power in most of the eight island states in recent years--many of them educated at the same university at the same time--that the recent initiative took shape.

Assessing the confederation's future, Victor Hinkson, an aide to the Barbados prime minister, said: "One must be realistic. I don't know that it'll happen in my lifetime. I wish it would.

"I'm a fervent federalist," he said. "It's the only way we can survive."

"Look at the world today. Look at Europe. Everybody is grouping up," Hinkson said.

"I think the Caribbean would be left holding the bag if it didn't group up," he said. "And I think our leaders realize that. It will happen here. It's only a question of time."

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