CARICOM Secretary-General Dr. Carla Natalie Barnett.
CARICOM Secretary-General Dr. Carla Natalie Barnett.
Courtesy caricom.org

For the first time in its 48-year history, the Caribbean Community’s Guyana-based executive secretariat will be headed up by a woman, assisted by another.

On Tuesday, regional leaders meeting virtually in a special session, decided to unanimously select Belizean Dr. Carla Natalie Barnett as the eighth CARICOM secretary-general to replace outgoing two-term chief executive, Irwin LaRocque of Dominica She will take up her new role on Aug. 15, 2021.

The historic significance of Dr. Barnett’s appointment was not lost on regional observers as two women — Dr. Barnett and long serving Deputy Secretary General, Dr. Manorma Soeknandan — were the only two candidates to have applied for the top CARICOM position this time around. Soeknandan, an accomplished veteran of the regional system, is from Suriname and has been toiling as deputy chief executive since 2014. The leaders said in their release that while both candidates were eminently qualified for the top chair, Barnett had greater support over Soeknandan as they picked her as their unanimous candidate.

Outgoing CARICOM Secretary General, Irwin LaRocque of Dominica. caricom.org

For Barnett, her appointment gives the region the kind of political, geographic and gender spread in terms of who runs the daily affairs of a region stretching from Guyana and Suriname on the South American mainland to The Bahamas as well as Belize in Central America. This is the first time that a Belizean will be the regional secretariat head and also the first time that she is female. LaRocque is from Dominica. He had had the widespread backing of the nine-nation Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) when he was picked by heads of governments back in 2011. Previous secretaries generals had come from Jamaica, Trinidad, Grenada and Barbados. Barbadian Lolita Applewhaite had also acted as secretary general back in 2011.

The 2011 effort to select a replacement for LaRocque was also the first time that the appointments process was made to be fully transparent with candidates being publicly invited to apply, being interviewed and approved by the tier system that includes the Community Council and later the heads of governments.

In this case as well, the council which had met about two weeks ago, examined both candidates and later recommended that Barnett be the chief executive. Both candidates hold academic PHD’s and have enormous experience in things CARICOM. Barnett had been deputy secretary general for five years from 1997 and had also served at as a vice president at the Barbados-based Caribbean development Bank (CDB) allowing her to maintain a high profile in the 15-nation bloc and to interface with governments and officials at high levels.

In its announcement statement, the leaders said” heads of government in congratulating Dr. Barnett on her selection, recognized the historic moment for the community,” noting that she “ is the first woman and the first Belizean to be selected for the post.”

For her part, Soeknandan will have to continue her role as the deputy for the next five years. She had strongly lobbied the administration of President Chan Santokhi for the country to support her nomination. Locals there had contended that it was time she had been promoted given her vast experience in serving both as ambassador to Guyana and Caricom and for the past seven years as the regional number two. It is not clear whether she will remain in the position during the period.

LaRocque will preside over his final leaders summit in July. It is not clear whether secretary general designate Barnett will be included in the proceedings to allow for a smooth transition and hand over.