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Raffique Shah


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Of flying fish and crabs in a barrel

February 15, 2004
By Raffique Shah

THE latest "flying fish war" between Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago is reflective of the Caribbean "crabs in a barrel" mentality that has characterised the region's politics for as far back as one cares to recall. The harsh exchange of words between the two governments, and the sabre-rattling by their vocally-armed forces-fishermen's organisations, chambers of commerce, manufacturers' associations-speak volumes of the political immaturity that persists in the Caribbean, not just among its politicians, but among so many of its people as well. Against the backdrop of a "fish war", one wonders if Caribbean integration, an imperative if the region is to have a place in the newly-shaped global sun, is as stillborn as the Federation is dead.

I cannot claim to know all the facts surrounding the issue at hand. And public statements by Prime Ministers Owen Arthur and Patrick Manning have compounded the confusion. Already Arthur has accused Manning of lying. Well, he didn't say it outright, but he implied that by his denial of any talks on the issue while the two men were in Nigeria recently. It is not the first time Arthur has levelled such allegation against as T&T Prime Minister. He did it when Basdeo Panday was in office, and that on another issue.

Unless these fellas are vying for stage-presence in the Caribbean Comedy Festival, they must know that one PM accusing another of not telling the truth is a serious matter. Here, for example, with Manning couching his responses in diplomatic language, there is the feeling that he is guilty of lying and trying to cover it up. Arthur must have known that his statement would have elicited that kind of response in T&T. Countries have gone to war for less than such insults, perceived or real. I would be more than angry if I were in Manning's position and were wrongfully accused of lying. Hell, I might even be tempted to send a contingent from my armed forces to demand an apology-or face an invasion!

But that's the comic side of the real gangrene that has long set in among most Caribbean countries. One has merely to look at the cacophony coming from those in office and those in opposition on the issue of the Caribbean Court of Appeal. When a judge delivers what is seen as an impartial verdict, the judiciary as a whole comes in for high praise. Witness the Maha Sabha's victory in court last week, following which high praises were sung about the independence of our Judiciary. But the same people would also insist that our judges can be politically influenced (a charge made by someone interviewed by that Ottawa journalist) when it suits their agenda.

So the Caribbean Court of Appeal, which I opposed during the height of the cocaine trafficking in the region during the 1980s (the "coke dons" had money to buy governments, far less a few judges!), remains in limbo. And in spite of common tariff agreements in place to allow for free trade in the region, there are always obstacles placed or threats made in this regard, as Arthur seems to want to implement in this current impasse. One might ask, too, whatever happened to the plan for freedom of movement of people in Caricom countries?

The insularity festers beneath the veneer of unity displayed at gatherings of Heads of Governments of the Caricom. I have given up on Bajan immigration officers understanding that Trinidadians do not exactly want to sneak into their two-by-two island seeking refuge or refugee status. They seem to have a manual that says every Trini is a cocaine mule, that every Guyanese is a potential illegal immigrant, that Vincies are thieves, and so on. Their overcrowded barracoon must remain a haven for preferably White tourists. One wonders why the Barbados Tourist Board bothers to come here to promote tourism in general, and their festivals in particular, when we are made to feel so unwelcome the moment we arrive at their airport.

It's this air of superiority on that side of Caricom that bothers me most. In the current fishing dispute for example-and tell me, how many countries that share ocean-boundaries don't have territorial or fishing problems?-two fishermen who were arrested by our Coast Guard and later freed by a Tobago magistrate were treated like conquering heroes when they returned home! In our case, Venezuela's Guardia Nacional routinely arrest, sometimes even shoot at, our fishermen. Many are arrested and thrown into jails on the Main without the authorities so much as informing our Government of their detention.

Do we make a fuss if our boys cross the boundary and attempt to fish in the people's waters? Do we make heroes of people who break bilateral or international agreements and embarrass the country? No we do not, because we do not see ourselves as being superior in any way to the Venezuelans or the Bajans or Guyanese. Oh, we might poke fun at their expense. But we treat all visitors, whether they are from Barbados or Bulgaria, equally. That does not mean we "suck up" to them, as so many Bajans do in the case of Europeans, stooping for their suppers (and understandably so). But we are courteous, from our Immigration officers to Customs personnel, taxi-drivers and the general population.

Barbadian fishermen have no right to be in our waters once they are not covered by an agreement between the two countries. It's that simple. If they so like "flying fish", and have seen this bony species drift to Tobago's waters, then let the Tobago fishermen make the catches and sell them to the Bajans. If or when an agreement is in place, then you abide by that. But you don't come barging into our waters, spend days or weeks depleting our resources, and turn around and spit in our faces. No way, Baje! But having said that, I need add that both governments should work speedily to bring an agreement into place since it would facilitate our Bajan friends who have a love for that species of fish. Here, we relish the king fish, red fish, salmon, carite, shark and some others. But not the "flying fish". So you can have it-but do so legally!

As a parting shot, let me say this to our fishermen. For as long as they remain close-to-the-shore players, dependent on small catches in small pirogues, they will remain victims of the Bajans, who are equipped to spend days on sea; or the Taiwanese, who fish hundreds of miles off-shore and spend months gathering commercial catches. They must either move with the times... or move aside.