By David Rowe
LAST WEEK, for the first time in its history, Haiti hosted the CARICOM Heads of Government Summit in Port-au-Prince.
Michael Martelly the President of Haiti, with a great deal of pomp and circumstance, opened the conference, declaring Haiti open to the region.
The 18th and 19th century legacies of Toussaint Louverture , Henri Christophe and Jean-Jacques Dessalines still hover over this remarkable country, which now is effectively in charge of the transnational regional dialogue in the Caribbean.
It was clear that Haiti and the rest of the Caribbean Community sought to increase their engagement at the event, which was attended by United States Attorney General Eric Holder, in a strong show of US diplomatic support.
The world’s first independent black republic, Haiti has a natural synergy with the nations in the Commonwealth Caribbean, and the economic opportunities abound, if Haiti and the region can take advantage of them.
Haiti’s excellent coffee should be a natural export for Jamaica, Trinidad and Barbados; Haitian rice and sugar could also find a ready market for cost-conscious consumers in Jamaica.
But challenges remain for the relationship, particularly on the issue of immigration, although it seems that this issue, too, could see progress.
The Bahamas, which has an increasingly significant Haitiian population, sent a strong delegation to the conference; undocumented immigration from Haiti continues in the Bahamas, and it’s likely this was a major topic of discussion.
Haitian immigration is also a sensitive subject in the neighbouring Turks and Caicos Islands, which announced last year it would lift a ban on deportations of Haitians enacted after the devastating 2010 earthquake and has been the scene of an at times heated debate over immigration from the Francophone country.
But exclusion cannot be the basis for extended cooperation — CARICOM must deal with the issue of Haitian immigration in a reasoned and sensible way.
If Haiti is to become a full-fledged partner in CARICOM, it must focus on two major priorities: one, its ability to produce agricultural exports and distribute them effectively to the other CARICOM nations. And two, it must improve its domestic market so that the choice of many Haitians is not to seek refuge in other Caribbean economies. These two paths can very likely be achieved together.
For now, however, this renewed interaction between the Caribbean’s oldest republic and the rest of CARICOM is a very positive step forward.
David P Rowe is an attorney in Jamaica and Florida and a law professor at the University of Miami School of Law in Coral Gables, Fla
Note: the opinions expressed in Caribbean Journal Op-Eds are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Caribbean Journal.