At the CARICOM heads of state meeting in St Kitts and Nevis in early July, Haiti was finally readmitted as a full participating member of the Caribbean regional body, bringing an end to a suspension that lasted more than two years.
Following the collapse of the Lavalas Family party government and its replacement by the interim government administration headed by Gérard Latortue in March 2004, Caribbean leaders said that the very basis of electoral democracy had been disregarded. On the grounds that the Latortue administration could not be accepted as a legitimate representative of the Haitian people, and in protest against the unconstitutional demise of the Aristide government, Haiti was henceforth not invited to participate in CARICOM meetings.
But with the election of President René Préval and a new legislature earlier this year, CARICOM leaders have hailed the return of democracy and welcomed Haiti back into the organisation. At the St Kitts and Nevis summit meeting, CARICOM secretary-general, Edwin Carrington, described the re-admission of Haiti a 'victory for democracy in the region.'
Although the process of joining CARICOM began in 1997, Haiti was not admitted as full member until 1999, and final accession was only ratified by the Haitian Parliament on 13 May 2002. President Aristide signed the revised Chaguaramas Treaty on 4 July 2003, and trade between Haiti and the other countries of the region officially began on 1 January 2004.
With the interruption in the relationship during the Latortue years, interest is now focusing on just what Haiti's membership of the region's main economic and political body will mean in practice. Haiti is the newest member of the 15-strong organisation and has by far the largest population - its eight million people outnumber the combined total of the populations of all the other 14 member states - but it is also the poorest member of CARICOM.
For Eddy Labossière, vice-president of the Haitian Economists' Association, the advantages of Haiti's membership of CARICOM are obvious. He told the Haitian newspaper, Le Nouvelliste, that the creation of a CARICOM single market (CSM) will have important ramifications for Haiti. He stated his belief that "considering the economic advantages of membership of the CARICOM single market, Haiti cannot afford to be outside CARICOM."
The CSM is the first component of what, by 2008, will become the CARICOM Single Market and Economy (CSME). It came into existence at the end of January 2006 when six Caribbean states - Jamaica, Barbados, Belize, Guyana, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago - signed an accord in Kingston. The CSME, which provides for the free movement of goods, skills, labour and services across the region, is regarded by Caribbean governments as the correct response to the changing global environment characterised by the establishment of mega trading blocs and the loss of preferential treatment for regional goods and services on the world market.
More immediately, at the international aid donors' conference in Port-au-Prince on 25 July, the presence of a CARICOM delegation gave some indication of what benefits Haiti can expect from membership of the regional body. The delegation announced that the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) would allocate US$17m to fund Haitian government development projects during the coming financial year (October-September).
During the donors' conference it was also announced that Haiti will have access to the Petroleum Fund. This fund was established by Trinidad and Tobago in 2004 to provide relief to CARICOM member states experiencing economic hardship resulting from persistently high international prices for energy products.
Colin Granderson, CARICOM's assistant secretary-general for foreign relations - and former head of the joint UN/OAS civilian mission in Haiti (MICIVIH) in the 1990s - was part of the delegation at the donors' conference. He said CARICOM would "do the utmost with its own resources to lend support to Haiti's efforts to create the necessary conditions for reconciliation, reconstruction and recovery".
Further cooperation will be the subject of discussion in the months ahead, and some criticisms have been raised about CARICOM's slow response to Haiti's needs, given that President Préval was elected in a first round contest held in February. For example, in late May, Reginald Dumas, the Trinidadian diplomat who was United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan's Special Adviser on Haiti between February and August 2004, said the regional body should have re-engaged with Haiti before Préval's inauguration as President in mid-May.
Following the July donors' conference, when the CARICOM delegation also agreed with President Preval to despatch a six-person technical mission, together with a representative of the CDB, to Haiti in September for talks with a Haitian counterpart delegation, Dumas said, "I continue to be disappointed by the speed of CARICOM's response to Haiti's plight, but it does seem as if things are stirring at last."
As well as facing immense economic challenges, Haiti is also grappling with a resumption of violent crime and kidnapping for ransom. In mid-August, the United Nations extended the mandate of its peacekeeping mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) for an additional six months. The force currently consists more than 6,300 troops and nearly 1,700 police officers, but the new UN mandate sets a ceiling of 7,200 troops and of a police component of up to 1,951 officers.
In June, a grouping of British and Irish development non-governmental organisations working in Haiti and in solidarity with the Haitian people (the Haiti Advocacy Platform Ireland/UK) asked if Caribbean countries could shoulder some of the burden of supplying officers to the UN police contingent in Haiti (UNPOL). Currently there are police officers from 37 nations participating in the UNPOL, but only one of them is from the Caribbean. Osmond Griffith is the former commanding officer of the Coast Guard Unit of the Royal Grenada Police Force, and is currently in Haiti on assignment to the MINUSTAH. He serves as chief of the UNPOL technical advisors attached to the Haitian Coast Guard, and heads a six-man team from France, Canada and the USA.
Reginald Dumas doubts that CARICOM states can respond with more officers, given their own law and order problems. He said, "I see no prospect of CARICOM police in Haiti, especially given the crime wave in the islands."
Nonetheless, Albert Ramdin, assistant secretary-general of the Organisation of East Caribbean States, has joined the call for Caribbean states to do more. Following the St Kitts and Nevis heads of state meeting, he said, "We are living in very challenging times for Caribbean economies, but every country could train some police...within their own police forces to strengthen the Haitian national police."
Further developments in CARICOM/Haitian relations await a planned visit to Haiti by a group of Caribbean heads of state.