(FinalCall.com) – Barbados Prime Minister Owen Arthur recently went on the offensive, defending his nation’s right to speak out on international issues, a right that was challenged by an envoy of U.S. President George W. Bush during a recent television interview with members of the regional press.

“The Barbadian government will fearlessly and freely state its opinion on international matters,” Mr. Owen said during a forum called the “World Commission on the Social Dimension of Globalization: A Caribbean Dialogue,” hosted by the International Labor Organization in collaboration with the government of Barbados.

“The acceptance of the notion that we should not express ourselves freely on serious matters which concern our sovereign interest is a betrayal of the nature of our independence,” Mr. Owen added.


The Barbadian government was reacting to a veiled threat from Washington, carried by Otto Reich, that the Caribbean should not fear a backlash because of the 15-member Caribbean Community secretariat (CARICOM) stance against the U.S. invasion of Iraq without the full endorsement of the United Nations. Mr. Reich singled out the Barbadian Parliament for making their criticism of the Bush administration public.

An editorial in the April 10 issue of the Barbadian Advocate highlighted the thorn in Mr. Reich’s claw: “Ironically, it is being said that some of the language used in Bridgetown [capital of Barbados] to express objection to the Iraq war was less than appropriate, that the Legislature was not the place to cast a shadow on a 500-vote majority by which Mr. George W. Bush allegedly won the U.S. presidency in 2000.”

Mr. Reich said Washington would not “take retaliatory action or punitive measures or anything like that, but the American people do listen to this and our Congress listens, and this type of language does not lead to a better understanding between our countries.”

Washington’s threat prompted Barbados Deputy Prime Minister Billie Miller to reaffirm that her nation would not allow anyone to dictate its politics and that it reserved the right to disagree with the United States. She also pointed out the hypocrisy that Mr. Reich chose to use television to speak about the government of Barbados, while stating that differences of opinion should be discussed in private.

David Comissiong, a Barbados-based activist, said the region could not afford to treat lightly the comments by Mr. Reich. “It is hoped that a unified CARICOM will ultimately have a common policy, whether or not it occasionally collides with that of a powerful, long-standing ally such as the U.S.,” Mr. Comissiong said.

But the Caribbean press in New York City reports the existence of an “apparent disagreement in CARICOM about how forcefully they should react to the war.” St. Vincent and the Grenadines’ Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves said in nationwide radio and television broadcasts that any condemnation of the Iraqi conflict by the region would be antithetical to its own interests.

“It would also exaggerate the region’s powerlessness,” he was quoted as saying. “The region’s reaction must take into consideration the legitimate security interests of the U.S., particularly after the criminal, murderous acts of September 11,” Mr. Gonsalves said.

At the same time, the U.S. ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago, Roy Austin, told reporters that Washington had not tried to bully the region into backing its position on the war.

Observers said the CARICOM chasm on the war widened when diplomats could not agree on the language of a joint statement to the Security Council asking for a ceasefire. Barbados, Grenada, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, St. Lucia and Jamaica were reported as approving the joint release. Antigua and Barbuda, St. Vincents, the Bahamas and others, reportedly had difficulty with its tone.

But Jamaica did not wait and issued its own letter to the Security Council during the second week of the conflict. In the letter, Jamaica’s U.N. ambassador, Stafford Neil, called for a ceasefire in the conflict: “Jamaica believes that it is never too late for peace. The Security Council must remain engaged and take bold steps to achieve a cessation of hostilities,” Ambassador Neil said.

While Caribbean leaders prepared to gather in Jamaica’s Montega Bay for a regional economic summit at Final Call presstime, observers caution that this is not the first time that Mr. Reich’s visit coincided with a meeting of Caribbean leaders. In February, he traveled to Trinidad and Tobago ahead of the annual mid-year summit, only to see regional leaders adopt their stance against the war. Caribbean leaders are expressing the need for unity, according to observers.

The Caribbean knows all too well Washington’s economic might, Mr. Comissiong said, adding that the region’s banana industry suffered as a result of U.S. pressure at the World Trade Organization to halt the preferential treatment it enjoyed on the European market.

He said Washington holds the key to a number of requests by the Caribbean for some form of preferential treatment, as negotiations for the Free Trade Area of the Americas gathers momentum. Recently, Trinidad and Tobago officials said Washington had indicated its willingness to fund a Port of Spain initiative to construct an intra-Caribbean gas pipeline to supply natural gas to the region.

Analysts believe that pipeline deal fueled the statement on April 10 by Trinidad and Tobago’s Foreign Minister Knowlson Gift that his nation was focusing on Iraq’s rehabilitation and reconstruction. During his weekly media briefing, Mr. Gift said this is not the time for post-mortems or placing blame.

“Of course what happened is a tragedy, but lamenting should not overshadow what needs to be done,” Mr. Gift said.

Mr. Comissiong suggests that as the leaders meet in Montega Bay, they best be aware of the mood of their various populations on the situation in Iraq. He said while the region’s people did not protest in the streets, they have staged demonstrations outside the various U.S. embassies in the region. Other activists have taken to the media to voice their opposition.

Jamaica’s Roman Catholic priest Ernie Gordon, writing in the Jamaican Observer, said, “Washington’s attack on Iraq was a serious political mistake, that renders no country in the world with a sense of security.” He said there was a lesson to be learned by the Caribbean.

“We have made errors in the region by giving credence to the U.S. to remove the leaders of Panama, Haiti, Grenada and Chile. Now the ghosts of those decisions are haunting us,” Mr. Comissiong warned.