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February 8, 2011
Is the West Indies West Indian? Pt:1


Eleventh Sir Archibald Nedd Memorial Lecture
Grenada, 28 January 2011

It was here in St.Georges ninety-five [95] years ago that T.A. Marryshow flew from the masthead of his pioneering newspaper The West Indian the banner: The West Indies Must Be Westindian. And on that banner Westindian was symbolically one joined-up word – from the very first issue on 1 January 1915. In the slogan was a double entendre. To be West Indian was both the goal of self-determination attained and the strategy of unity for reaching and sustaining it.{{more}}

Of course the goal of freedom kept changing its form as the world changed: internal self-government in the pre-war years; formal independence in the post-war years; the reality of freedom in the era of globalization; overcoming smallness in a world of giants. But the strategy of regional unity, the strategy of oneness, would not change, at least not nominally: we called it by different names and pursued it by different forms – always with variable success: federation; integration, the OECS, CARIFTA, CARICOM, the CSME, the CCJ. It is that ‘variable success’ that today begs the question: IS THE WEST INDIES WEST INDIAN? Nearly 100 years after Marryshow asserted that we must be, are we yet? Worse still, are we less so than we once were?

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. Maryshow’s slogan ‘the West Indies must be West Indian’ was evocative of it; and 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.

In the event, regional unity was no longer a pre-condition to ‘local control’. Hence, Norman Manley’s deal with McLeod and the referendum in Jamaica; and Eric Williams’ self-indulgent arithmetic that ‘1’ from ‘10’ left ‘0’; even ‘the agony of the eight’ that ended the dream. Despite the rhetorical passion that had characterized the latter years of the ‘federal movement’ the imperishable impulse for ‘local control’ had revived, and the separatist instincts of a controlling social and political elite had prevailed. Within four months of the dispersion of the Federation (on the same day in May 1962 that it was to become a single independent member state of the Commonwealth) Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago became so separately. We can act with speed when we really want to!

But objective realities are not blown away by winds of narrow ambition; 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. West Indian states – for all their new flags and anthems – 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 some privileged drawing rooms too, though less so in village markets and urban street corners.

Despite the new external compulsions, therefore, 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 pious Declarations and Affirmations and Commitments. The roll call of unfulfilled pledges and promises and unimplemented decisions is so staggering that in 2011 a cul-de-sac looms.

At Grand Anse in 1989, West Indian political leaders declared that “inspired by the spirit of co-operation and solidarity among us (we) are moved by the need to work expeditiously together to deepen the integration process and strengthen the Caribbean Community in all of its dimensions” They agreed a specific work programme ‘to be implemented over the next four years’ with primacy given “towards the establishment, in the shortest possible time of a single market and economy”. That was 22 years ago. The West Indian Commission (also established at Grand Anse) confidently charted the way, declaring it a ‘Time for Action’. West Indian technicians took their leaders to the brink with the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas. But there was no action – no political action, no political will to act. In twenty-two years, nothing decisive has happened to fulfill the dream of Grand Anse. Over those two decades the West Indies has drawn steadily away from being West Indian.

Not surprisingly, when Heads of Government meet in Grenada later this month, it will be at a moment of widespread public disbelief that the professed goal of a ‘Single Market and Economy’ will ever be attained, or even that their political leaders are any longer “inspired by the spirit of co-coperation and solidarity” or “moved by the need to work expeditiously together to deepen the integration process and strengthen the Caribbean Community in all its dimensions” – as they proclaimed at Grand Anse in 1989.

Words alone are never enough, except to deceive. As Paul Southwell used to remind us in Shakespearian allusion: “Words, words, words; promises, promises, promises; tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow”. Nothing’s changed. In the acknowledged quest for survival (including political survival) the old urge for ‘local control’ by those in control has not matured to provide real space for the ‘unity’ we say we need. Like 19th century colonists we strive 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 while we dally.

The West Indies cannot be West Indian if West Indian affairs, regional matters, are not the unwritten premise of every Government’s agenda; not occasionally, but always; not as ad hoc problems, but as the basic environment of policy. It is not so now. How many Caribbean leaders have mentioned CARICOM in their New Year messages this year?. Only the Prime Minister of Grenada in his capacity as the new Chairman of CARICOM. For most West Indian Governments, Caribbean integration is a thing apart, not a vital organ of national life.

It seems that only when it is fatally damaged or withers away will Cabinet agendas change.

But let us remember, a civilization cannot survive save on a curve that goes upward, whatever the blips in between; to go downward, whatever the occasional glimpses of glory, is to end ingloriously. Caribbean civilization is not an exception. It is now as it was ninety-five years ago with Marryshow: The West Indies must be West Indian.

As current Chairman of CARICOM Prime Minister Tillman Thomas has rightly called for the West Indian people to be better informed and more intimately engaged in the regional project.. CARICOM is essentially about people; about West Indian people; but, in truth, they have been too remote from its being..They are its heartbeat; but, in the small states that we all are, Governments tend to occupy the entire space of governance. They control the bloodstream of the integration process and when anemia threatens, as it does now, it is an infusion of people power that is needed to resuscitate CARICOM.

Continued on February 11, 2011 in Weekend Searchlight.