Assistant Secretary General Speech


May 26, 2008 - San Andrés Island, Colombia


Allow me to extend my gratitude to the Caribbean Studies Association (CSA) and its President, Dr. Anton Allahar, for the kind invitation to participate in this important event in the beautiful Caribbean island of San Andrés, Colombia.

I would also like to take this opportunity to recognize the on-going relationship between the CSA and the OAS and to thank the Association for its role in fostering debate on development challenges and opportunities in the Caribbean.

In our opinion, the CSA is the premier gathering of academics and experts in all things Caribbean. I myself am a strong believer in greater engagement between regional, inter-governmental organizations and institutions such as the CSA, recognizing the wealth of resources that you represent. It is against this background that we have embarked upon a collaboration with the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington DC to start later this year a two year program called “Caribbean Questions” to discuss some of the issues you will discussing from a policy perspective and I do hope that some of you will be able to join this program.

In this respect, I am pleased to note that the CSA has recently been granted observer status in the Council for Human and Social Development (COHSOD) of CARICOM and I am confident that you, the members of the CSA, will be able to make an even more tangible contribution to development in the Caribbean via such linkages and I understand that the first opportunity to do so will be in the area of the Pan Caribbean Partnership Against HIV/AIDS, (PANCAP).

I am also pleased to be back in Colombia. As you know, the beautiful city of Medellín will be host, next week, to this year’s 38th Regular OAS General Assembly on June 1-3, where we will focus on the importance of Youth and Democratic Values in the Americas and their role in strengthening democratic governance and at the same time, strengthening our democracies by focusing on our youth. I am pleased to note that some of the related issues to this theme are part of your extensive programming for this week.

In the run-up to the General Assembly, I have been privileged to have been able to visit some of this country’s most culturally-diverse cities such as Cartagena, Bogotá, Medellín, and now San Andrés. The beauty and cultural richness found in this island are symbolic of the abundant diversity which exists in most of the Greater Caribbean. I think that it is therefore quite fitting that San Andrés, a wonderful example of the essence and importance of a Diaspora community, has been chosen to be the venue for this Forum.

Historically, Diaspora communities have been agents of positive change and progress for themselves, the community they have adopted as their new home as well as for the community they left behind. Today there is no doubt that they continue to contribute to the growing multiculturalism of the countries in which they settle, making valuable contributions to the intellectual, scientific, political, economic, social and cultural life of their host countries. A lot of this positive energy derives from the fact that Diaspora communities have often emerged from situations of conflict, exclusion and poverty and therefore aspire to a peaceful and prosperous existence.

The Diaspora phenomenon is an important part of any country’s history, present and future. Indeed, migration is as old as mankind and, as you all know, migration has been a fundamental part of Caribbean life for centuries. In particular, one cannot divorce the history of the Caribbean Diaspora from the migratory patterns of the last 500 years.

The mass movement of Caribbean peoples stretches back to the forced migration of the slave trade of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, while the social dislocation brought about by the Haitian revolution (1791-1804) also caused tens of thousands of people to move within the Caribbean. The Abolition of slavery in the English-speaking Caribbean in 1833 followed one year later by Emancipation also led to increased inter-island migration. However, for the last century, economic and voluntary migration has been a particular feature of the region.

Even before the advent of political independence for most of the English-speaking Caribbean in the early 1960s, people from the Caribbean had already begun to migrate in large numbers, particularly to Britain in the aftermath of the Second World War, in search of work, and a better way of life. Over the course of the century, almost 6 million people – that is, almost the same number of people again as there are in the English-speaking Caribbean - are estimated to have moved from the Caribbean to Europe and North America.

We believe that international migration is and can be a positive force for development both in the countries of origin, as well as in the countries of destination. Many of our people, many of our friends and family, many of us, for varying reasons, have left our countries of birth in search of higher education, a better standard of living, a better environment to raise our children or simply to escape the constraints of our small island societies.

Whatever the circumstances, most of our Caribbean migrants have not given up on their home countries. They have not abandoned their national identity, manifest through culture, art, music, dance, cuisine, language, and in their willingness to contribute to the development of the country they left behind, while at the same time making significant contributions to their adoptive country.

In 2002, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) calculated that at least 20 million of the world’s migrants had been born in Latin American and Caribbean countries. Today, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that there are approximately 192 million people living outside their country of birth, that is to say, three percent of the world population - and the number of migrants is expected to grow at an annual rate of 2.9 percent. It therefore clear that Diaspora communities will continue to grow and that it is high time to pay attention to this group in terms of their challenges and opportunities.

In the last fifty years, the entire Caribbean region - English, Dutch, French and Spanish-speaking - has shifted from being a net importer of labor to becoming a net exporter. The Caribbean represents one of the largest Diaspora communities in the world, in proportion to its overall population. For example, it is estimated that Cubans and Dominicans from the Dominican Republic in the USA are equivalent to 8% of their respective populations of origin (UNECLAC 2002: 237). And, in some of the smaller states like St. Kitts and Nevis, Grenada, and Belize, annual labor migration accounts for as much as 12% of their population, thereby transferring their population growth to the destination countries.

The Caribbean Diaspora represents a source of human, social, cultural and financial capital to both the receiving and originating countries. To support the development of the Caribbean region, policies and programs must be created to acknowledge, tap into and harness the huge political, economic and cultural potential of these tremendous communities scattered across North America, Europe, Central America and further afield. It is within this context that I believe that the Caribbean Diaspora is relevant to Caribbean nations; more than ever politicians and policy makers should consider the Diaspora as a new financial, knowledge and labor resource for the social and economic development of Caribbean economies.

Members of the Anglophone Caribbean Diaspora come from countries where strong traditions of democracy, respect for the rule of law, good governance and human rights have been well entrenched. And whilst it is true that these foundation values are increasingly under threat in the Caribbean today, in an almost paradoxical way, the sense of community and nostalgia for a paradise lost (whether real or imagined) are kept alive in immigrant communities across the Diaspora.

All this was very clearly recognized last year, when the landmark Conference on the Caribbean was held in Washington, DC, on 19th-21st June, during the observation of Caribbean American Heritage Month in the United States. The Conference, subtitled “A 2020 Vision”, was meant to serve as a vehicle for deepening and broadening relations at all levels between CARICOM and the USA, and a central pillar was the engagement of CARICOM Heads and Ministers with the Caribbean Diaspora in the USA, to mobilize their support in a number of ways for the benefit of the Caribbean region, of the people back home in the region. I am pleased to say that the sessions with the Diaspora were all held at the OAS.

The Caribbean Diaspora already engenders projects and programs to support schools, nursing homes, hospitals and other elements of the social safety net. It also provides much needed relief support when natural disasters hit. The challenge here is to harness the obvious goodwill and sizeable resources in a more structured manner.

We all know of the importance of remittances. Latin American and Caribbean migrants send billions of dollars in remittances to their homelands each year, transferring some US$66.5 billion in 2007, about seven percent more than in the previous year, according to estimates by the Inter-American Development Bank’s Multilateral Investment Fund. About 75 percent of those flows come from the United States. Re-directing the resources of Caribbean nationals into Caribbean investment can help propel the Caribbean economies forward. Continued inaction on this front will limit the Caribbean to modest rather than exponential growth rates in the future.

The Caribbean also remains a reliable source of skilled labor. No effort should be spared to use these resources and those of the Diaspora community to strengthen the capacity at home to develop overseas niche markets for Caribbean products. The Caribbean Diaspora, often referred as the Visiting Friends and Relatives or VFR market, remains a largely untapped market from an investment perspective. At the same time, the Caribbean Diaspora should seize the economic opportunities that the Caribbean Community Single Market and Economy (CSME) represent for their communities and home countries. Again, governments should find ways of promoting and facilitating investments of the Caribbean Diaspora in the economies of the Caribbean nations.

As a political strategy, the Conference on the Caribbean demonstrated a strong consensus that the Caribbean Diaspora should be dedicated advocates for Caribbean interests, in that it can be a powerful and consistent voice for Caribbean interests with regard to the passing of relevant legislation in the United States.

The Caribbean Diaspora itself must look for ways to strengthen its international and domestic interests through established communities in the United States, Europe and Canada. As has been the case of the Cuban population in America, especially in South Florida, where they have exerted significant political influence, so too can our Haitian, Jamaican and Dominican Republic communities.

The role of the Diaspora in promoting economic development and good governance, and even in conflict resolution and building trust in some countries, is an issue that I regard as significant, timely and warranting closer attention by our policy makers in the region.

As we witness the negative effects of transnational crime, the drug trade, youth gangs and illegal trafficking in arms, for example, we must search for alternative ways of countering these phenomena with policies that stimulate the repatriation of skills and knowledge and seek to include the Diaspora into the overall vision of Caribbean integration and development.
Additionally, as the Caribbean places more and more emphasis on tourism to meet its economic needs and boost foreign exchange reserves, governments may also consider Diaspora communities as new avenues for tourism promotion and expansion. Nor should we overlook the social and political opportunities of our Diaspora communities in other regions of the hemisphere.
In this regard, it is appropriate, as we are in San Andrés, to draw attention to the contributions of the historically well-established Caribbean communities of Central America, such as the communities of Puerto Limón in Costa Rica, Colon in Panama, and Bluefields in Nicaragua, and in other parts of the Caribbean Basin. These communities have contributed to the construction of heterogeneous cultural identities within Central American nations. And now, maybe, these communities can be meaningfully engaged by Caribbean nations as a resource and experience on how to further strengthen the relations between the Caribbean Community and Latin America in general and with the Central American Republics in particular. We all will be surprised to know how little we know about each other, what moves us and why, so that we can build a more meaningful relationship.
Yet, as I understand it, this Diaspora has drawn little attention from international scholarly circles outside of anthropological research. I strongly support the notion that a more comprehensive analysis of the Central American-Caribbean context is long overdue. And here I urge you to not only limit yourselves to the English- and Spanish speaking Caribbean, but also to explore and analyze the experiences in the Dutch- and French speaking Caribbean.
Advances in transportation and communication during the 20th century have paved the way for the creation of multicultural societies that include vibrant Diaspora communities. Multiculturalism is now valued more than ever. Multiculturalism is both the hope of globalization and its challenge. It should represent the peaceful coexistence and celebration of diversity, and not the loss of cultural identity. We cannot allow cultural differences to be used as the basis or pretext for conflict. Diaspora communities are uniquely endowed with the multicultural experiences which allow us to transcend false perceptions of “the other.” They must raise their voices for peace and development.

As Assistant Secretary General of the OAS, I have prioritized the centrality of such thematic issues as youth, migration, gender, peace- building, dialogue and development, all of which are fundamental elements of the four pillars of the OAS: democracy, multidimensional security, human rights and integral development. These debates have provided an opportunity for member states to come together with all other relevant stakeholders, to identify new partnerships and innovative solutions. I firmly believe that Diaspora communities are key stakeholders that should be part of this engagement.

The OAS recognizes the importance of the Caribbean in the hemispheric body, not only because CARICOM Member States represent almost half of the membership, but also because of the meaningful contribution the sub-region can continue to make towards peace, democracy, governance and integration to the benefit of all the members of the Organization.

As we move towards the preparation the next Summit of the Americas in Port of Spain, in April 2009, which the Government of Trinidad & Tobago promises to be people-focused and results-driven, with the theme, “Securing Our Citizens’ Future by Promoting Human Prosperity, Energy Security and Environmental Sustainability”, the OAS will continue to work hard with Member States to identify and provide opportunities for Diaspora communities to be heard. In this regard, CARICOM Member States will most definitely have an important contribution to make by advancing the needs and interests of this constituency.

In closing, I wish to congratulate Dr. Anton Allahar and the organizing committee on the excellent arrangements put in place for this annual conference and on the all-encompassing program that has been prepared. I regret that I do not have the time to stay for the whole week, to engage with you on issues of particular interest to me, like the panels on political and electoral dynamics and on the changing international panorama for the Caribbean. I look forward to the results of these discussions and I do hope that these will not only be academically relevant but also oriented towards informing and influencing policy.

In the mean time I can assure you that my commitment to building the relationship with the CSA is as firm as ever and I look forward to engaging with your incoming board led by Dr. Patricia Mohamed, as our institutional relationship goes from strength to strength.

In closing I would like to take this opportunity to extend an invitation to CSA to organize in collaboration with my Office at the OAS Headquarters in Washington DC a seminar before the end of 2008 to present the most relevant results and engage in a discussion with the Permanent Representatives, representatives of the international multilateral and financial institutions as well as legislative policy makers.

It was indeed a honor and pleasure to address you tonight and I thank you for your time and wish you well in your proceedings.