Sir Shridath Ramphal:
As ‘West Indians’, as ‘Caribbean people’, we face a basic contradiction of oneness and otherness, a basic paradox of kinship and alienation. Much of our history is the interplay of these contrarieties. But they are not of equal weight. The very notion of being West Indian speaks of identity, of oneness. That identity is the product of centuries of living together and is itself a triumph over the divisive geography of an archipelago which speaks to otherness. Today, CARICOM and all it connotes, is the hallmark of that triumph, and it is well to remember the processes which forged it – lest we forget, and lose it.
Throughout history our geo-political region has known that it is a kinship in and around an enclosing Sea. But, through most of that time it suited local elites – from white planters, through successor merchant groups, to establishment colonials - to keep the Sea as a convenient boundary against encroachment on their ‘local control’. Political aspirants in our region jostled for their Governor’s ear, not each other’s arm.
Times changed in the nineteen twenties and thirties – between the ‘world wars’. The external economic and political environments changed; and the internal environments changed – social, political and most of all demographic. Local control began to pass to the hands of local creoles, mainly professionals, later trade unionists, and for a while the new political class saw value in a strategy of regional unity. Maryshaw’s slogan ‘the West Indies must be West Indian’ carried at the masthead of his crusading newspaper was evocative. For two generations, West Indian ‘unity’ was a progressive political credo.
It was a strategy that was to reach its apogee in the Federation of The West Indies: due to become Independent in mid-1962. It is often forgotten that the ‘the’ in the name of the new nation was consciously spelt with a capital ‘T’ – The West Indies - an insistence on the oneness of the federated region. But, by then, that was verbal insistence against a contrary reality, already re-emerging. The new political elites for whom ‘unity’ offered a pathway to political power through ‘independence’ had found by the 1960s that that pathway was opening up regardless.
Regional unity was no longer a pre-condition to ‘local control’. Hence, the referendum in Jamaica; and Trinidad’s arithmetic that ‘1’ from ‘10’ left ‘0’; even ‘the agony of the eight’. The century old impulse for ‘local control’ had prevailed, and the separatist instincts of a dividing sea had resumed ascendancy.
But, as in the nineteen twenties and thirties, so in the sixties and seventies – the environment changed against separatism. Independence on a separate basis had secured ‘local control’; but the old nemesis of colonialism was replaced by the new suzerainty of globalization. Independence, particularly for Caribbean micro states, was not enough to deliver Elysium. ‘Unity’ no sooner discarded was back in vogue; but less a matter of the heart than of the head.
In an interdependent world which in the name of liberalization made no distinctions between rich and poor, big and small, regional unity was compulsive. Caribbean states needed each other for survival; ‘unity’ was the only protective kit they could afford. Only three years after the rending ‘referendum’ came the first tentative steps to ‘unity’ in 1965 with CARIFTA; ‘tentative’, because the old obsession with ‘local control’ continued to trump oneness – certainly in Cabinet Rooms; but in drawing rooms too; though less so at street corners.
Despite the new external compulsions the pursuit of even economic unity, which publics largely accepted, has been a passage of attrition. It has taken us from 1965 to 2010 - 45 years – to crawl through CARIFTA and CARICOM, through the fractured promises of Chaguaramas and Grand Anse, and through innumerable Declarations and Affirmations and Commitments Not surprisingly, we have reached a moment of widespread public disbelief that our professed goal of a ‘Single Market and Economy’ will ever be attained.
In the acknowledged quest for survival, the old urge for ‘local control’ has not matured to provide real space for the ‘unity’ we say we need. Like 19th century colonists we still struggle to keep our rocks in our pockets – despite the enhanced logic of pooling our resources and the enlarged danger of ‘state capture’ by unelected groups and external forces if we do not.
In the 21st century, despite all we know in our minds of the brutality of the global environment and the need for collective action to survive it, the isolationist claims of ‘local control’ still smother the demands of unity of purpose and action. It is puzzling that it should be so; for we have assuredly made large gains in what ‘unity’ most demands – ‘identity’.
There may be exceptions; but does not every citizen of every CARICOM country regard himself or herself as a Caribbean person – not first and foremost, of course, but after his or her national ’ identity - a member of the society we call ‘West Indian’. There may be grouses, even anger, at not being treated ‘properly’ – especially at immigration counters – but that is because as ‘West Indians’ we expect to be treated better. Our anger hinges not on the absence of identity but on its assumed reality; on the conviction that our common identity is not a garb we wear outside but shed when we come home.
Just recently, we lost one of the Caribbean’s most illustrious sons – an ‘incandescent eagle’ I called him. The whole Caribbean mourned him. And West Indian diasporas – not just Jamaican – mourned Rex Nettleford as a Caribbean person. We groan together when West Indian cricket grovels; and jump together when it triumphs. What is all this but identity?
It is not an identity crisis that we face. We know we are a family. But our family values are less sturdy than they should be – those values that should move regional unity from rhetoric to reality; should make integration an intuitive process and the CSME a natural bonding. Until we live by these values so that all the family prospers, we degrade that identity.
We are also failing to fulfill the promise we once held out of being a light in the darkness of the developing world. Our regionalism inspired many in the South who also aspired to strength through unity. We have all but withdrawn from these roles, and in some areas like the EPA with Europe we have forsaken our brothers in the South.
Recently, the former President of Tanzania, Ben Mkapa, who was our brother in arms in the North-South arena, was warning Africa against the same EPA of which we have made Europe such a gift. We have lost solidarity not only with ourselves, but collectively with our brothers in the developing world.
And, perhaps, therein lies the ‘rub’. Were we making a reality of our own regional unity we would not be false to ourselves and to others who look to us for a vision of the future. Instead, we are losing our way both at home and abroad.
(Part 2 to follow)
(Sir Shridath has held the positions of Commonwealth Secretary-General, Chancellor of the University of the West Indies, Chairman of the West Indian Commission and Chief Negotiator in the Caribbean Regional Negotiating Machinery)
May 4, 2010
Careless with CARICOM - Part 2