Building Caribbean consciousness

Building Caribbean consciousness

Franklin W Knight
Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The latest reports indicate that Caricom is fading fast. Regional institutions constructed by Caribbean politicians have a strikingly poor track record. Caricom was more thoughtfully constructed than most, so it should have had better prospects.

That it is probably going the way of the ill-fated confederation of the 10 British Caribbean units of the late 1950s is a pity. Its failure should not discourage further attempts at regional cooperation. Now more than ever the Caribbean needs strong and effective regional institutions. Cooperation sometimes trumps competition and in the contemporary hostile world of avaricious and selfish short-term calculations, the advantage clearly lies with those who plan carefully for the long haul.

Building successful, enduring regional cooperative Caribbean institutions depends upon a common understanding of what it means to be Caribbean. Unfortunately, that understanding, although often taken for granted, remains frustratingly elusive. By and large, too many leading politicians remain mired in an obfuscating parochialism that undermines efforts at serving the wider region. Such politicians continue to place the interests of their particular territory above all others, although development and progress need not be a zero-sum game.

Successful regional organisations require accepting certain basic premises. The Caribbean, just like each entity, is extremely complex and is likely to remain so. Constructing regional cooperative ventures ought not to be premised on the eventual political integration and cultural uniformity of the region. Because a region shares a common meteorological service, or uses common currency, or coordinates its transportation network does not mean that it should have a common parliament. Although the European model of cooperation does have attractive aspects, the Caribbean should not slavishly copy from the outside but should build models compatible with its reality.

There is no inherent incompatibility between the importance of local issues and the importance of regional ones. Conflicts will inevitably arise, but all differences can be negotiated without resort to force. Mechanisms for resolving conflicts must be built into every organisation from the start. Moreover, not all issues are of equal importance requiring the attention of a regional body. Local issues that do not impact deleteriously on regional goals should be left to local institutions.

One of the major failings of Caricom was its inability to create a practical blueprint that carefully prioritised certain regional necessities and carefully set out ways of achieving them. Instead, it wanted to resolve a broad range of problems all at once, despite the fact that not all participants shared a common sense of urgency about moving toward their specified goals. So maybe the time has come to terminate Caricom and replace it with a better regional structure designed to confront the problems of the 21st century, rather than rehash the tired and intellectually bankrupt positions of more than 50 years ago.

As always, it is necessary to agree on exactly what one means by the Caribbean. Any definition must reflect the rich variety of the Caribbean as well as undermine the notion that the regional entity is merely an expansion of any of its selected conventionally defined components.

That will not be easy since it flies in the face of some enduring traditions. For too long the Anglophone Caribbean has accepted the terms British West Indies and Caribbean as synonymous. And similarly, French, Spanish and Dutch Antilleans have considered their segments to be interchangeable with the wider region. This is akin to the way the United States of America often monopolistically appropriates the terms United States or America. Yet some federalist states such as Mexico officially incorporate the terms in their title, and the entire land mass between Alaska and Argentina comprises the Americas.

If building a new Caribbean consciousness is far from easy, it is worth remembering that nothing in the Caribbean experience has ever been easy. The history of the Caribbean has been one of perpetual revolutions. Revolutions, like volcanic eruptions, have unpredictable consequences. For more than 500 years the Caribbean has been undergoing a series of revolutions, and building a common Caribbean consciousness requires an understanding of that ongoing process of revolution. But where do we start?

We should start with the indigenous inhabitants. They were not a common group, although they did many things the same way and held many similar basic beliefs. Their lives and their world were irrevocably shattered by the arrival of Christopher Columbus and the Spanish adventurers after 1492. Spanish and Portuguese colonisation and expansion revolutionised the Americas. Those Iberians introduced new concepts of religious beliefs, new forms of political administration and new economic structures. They also repopulated the hemisphere with hybrid peoples in complex plural societies, a process continued by the other Europeans who joined them in the Americas at the beginning of the 17th century.

But that was not all. By introducing new varieties of plants and animals, the Spanish began to transform the ecology of the Americas. Europeans introduced to the Caribbean varieties of plants and animals with which they were familiar, or which attracted their interest for economic or aesthetic reasons. From Europe they brought citrus, sugar cane, cotton, wheat, horses, cattle, sheep, pigs, and dogs. From Africa they brought bananas, coffee, ackee, and yams. From Asia came rice, breadfruit, mangoes and the mongoose. In return Europeans took from the Americas tobacco, maize, manioc, cocoa, potato, tomato, pineapple, peanut, the turkey and the buffalo.

By the 18th century there existed a flourishing Atlantic trading system. That transatlantic trade involved gold, silver, salt, sugar, indigo, cotton, tobacco, cochineal, logwood, (and later bananas and coconuts). These trades went arm in arm with the trade in European servants and African slaves. The slave trade exacerbated the series of revolutions that dramatically altered the Caribbean and the Americas. From 1492 the Caribbean has shared a common history. If all people in the Caribbean know the contours of that common history, they can begin to construct efficacious institutions that serve them well. Knowledge of the past can most definitely be useful for the future.

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