The Caribbean’s Last Opportunity for Redemption?

Editor's Note:

Creating new pathways for sustainable development for any country, far less a region, poses many challenges. These challenges are further compounded when one confine’s one’s effort to the Caribbean region- a region shaped by slavery, colonialism, asymmetric trade and development.

The insular island states of the Caribbean have been confronted by many phenomena through the stream of time. Rediscovery was the first item on the agenda for the Caribbean when Columbus stumbled upon these scattered islands. Then the region was thrown into the vicious grips of slavery for approximately three hundred years and then into indentureship which saw the transplanting of different peoples and their cultures.

Exploitation, contingent development in metropole states, and underdevelopment have been in the mêlée of the Caribbean development path. The region has transitioned to the period of independence and self-governance away from their former colonial masters (whether this dependence on colonial has vanished over time is another matter entirely). As time advanced, the region morphed- whether consciously or subconsciously, to ‘modernised’ plantation states whose very existence is contingent and dependent on the very former colonial masters whom they sought independence from.

Enter the twenty first century and some advocate that the Caribbean finds itself in a governance crisis, while grappling with the concept of sustainable development: a path that seems to be their lone course of action. All the while, the region is faced with the looming threat of falling and being stuck in the mire of the middle income trap as predicted by economists, analysts and other theorists.

Ahead of the upcoming National Budget, and a push by Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley for greater Caricom relations, guest columnist T'Vaughn Lewis- an Economics graduate of the University of the West Indies, begins the first of a three-part series in which he outlines the prevalence (or lack thereof) of good governance in the development and history of the Caribbean, and why tighter regional integration is our key to development. He asks: How has our history shaped our behaviours, cultures and mind sets? Have we truly developed from our colonial masters? Would we have been better off as dependents of a metropole as opposed to going it alone through independence?

In part one, T'Vaughn outlines the history that set the stage for the Caribbean as we know it.



Good Governance to Sustainable Development: The Caribbean’s Last Opportunity for Redemption?

It is said that Columbus "discovered" the Caribbean in 1492. At that time, he came ashore at the Bahamas (he, with the Pinzón brothers, named it San Salvador, meaning Jesus the Saviour). However it is well documented and publicly known that this was not really the truth. Developed pre-Columbus societies like those of the Arawaks and the Kalinagoes had already settled and made lives for themselves there. So what did this encounter mean to Columbus and the native peoples? Well for one, Columbus sought to extend the territorial domain and power of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain and nothing would get in their way. Not even native settlers who lived there first. For the Arawaks and the Kalinagoes, this meant many things: possible assimilation into the Spanish dominion, resistance or co-habitation. As we all know, the Spanish obliterated majority of the native population through disease, war and mixing their European heritage with natives’.

As time passed and various European powers changed, so too did the Caribbean landscape. This is one reason why we have many "Caribbeans" to date: the Dutch, Spanish, English, French and the Greater Caribbean. All of these were physical demonstrations of the power struggle for governance in this geo-strategic, geo-political region. One common problem existed though for all European hegemons who wanted to rule this area- Where do we get a fresh, cheap and constant supply of labour to maintain our lifestyles? After all, most if not all of the Arawaks and Tainos were decimated.

Enter slavery.

For some 300 years this region has seen an influx of transplanted labour, culture, and people that have resulted in what we know as the Caribbean of today. It is estimated that from the time the first slave was brought to the Caribbean (1600), to the day slavery was abolished (circa late 1800) some 500,000 slaves were brought to the Caribbean. This figure varies because no serious records were kept for slaves; in addition, the figure most likely is crudely underestimated since it does not account for slaves thrown abroad while at sea, those that died in transit and unborn children.

As the slave trade died, paid servitude in the form of indentureship, was introduced into the Caribbean. This saw the injection of Chinese, Portuguese and East Indian labourers onto our shores. Like slavery, indentureship came with its own maladies: Labourers were grossly mistreated, treated like chattel, denied their culture at times, relegated to abysmal living conditions and the list goes on indefinitely…Some have debated that that slavery and indentureship were quite different and as such can’t be compared. It is argued that indentured workers were better documented, paid labour, given housing, allowed to retain their speech and even allowed to practice their religion freely.

Though some of these arguments may hold promise, it is my view that any system of laws- whether they be under the banner of slavery or indentureship, "that allow us to diminish the humanity of anybody are not laws. They are frameworks for crime” (Belle 2013). Whether that "anybody" is of African, Chinese, Portuguese, Mestizo, European or East Indian descent, these "laws" are responsible for some of the most heinous and inhumane historical accounts that the world has known. Think of apartheid, the black segregation in the US, the caste system and even policies today that bar people of certain ethnicities, sexual orientation, gender, age or belief from holding office. Are they not instances of reducing one’s humanity?

In spite of all this, the Caribbean has persevered. This mêlée of peoples, cultures and space presented a strange yet unique opportunity for the Caribbean: How would all these people co-exist harmoniously in such a new and foreign place so far from their homeland? With the death of slavery and indentureship, what chance remained for European powers to really control the Caribbean?

In part two of this three-part series, T'Vaughn addresses colonialism, independence, contingent development and the plantation legacy.


(Photo courtesy: Jason Khan)

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