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February 15, 2011
Is the West Indies West Indian? Pt: III


Eleventh Sir Archibald Nedd Memorial Lecture


Grenada, 28 January 2011


There is another major respect in which the West Indies is not being West Indian in the Marryshow manner; is not being true to itself. We are failing to fulfill the promise we once held out of being a light in the darkness of the developing world. Small as we are, our regionalism, our West Indian synonymy, inspired many in the South who also aspired to strength through unity. Solidarity has been lost not only amongst ourselves, but also collectively, with the developing world.{{more}}

And, perhaps, therein lies the ‘rub’. Were we making a reality of our own regional unity, we would not be false to ourselves and we would have inspired others who, in the past, had looked to us as a beacon of a worthy future. Instead, we are losing our way both at home and abroad.

Have we forgotten the days when as West Indians we were the first to daringly bring the ‘Non-Aligned Movement’ to the Western Hemisphere; when we pioneered rejection of the ‘two China’ policy at the United Nations and recognized the People’s Republic; when, together, we broke the Western diplomatic embargo of Cuba; when we forced withdrawal of the Kissinger plan for a ‘Community of the Western Hemisphere’; when we were in the front rank (both intellectual and diplomatic) of the effort for a New International Economic Order; when from this region, bending iron wills, we gave leadership in the struggle against ‘apartheid’ in Southern Africa; when we inspired the creation of the ACP and kept the fallacy of ‘reciprocity’ in trade at bay for 25 years; when we forced grudging acceptance in the United Nations and in the Commonwealth that ‘small states’ required special and differential treatment? In all this, and more, for all our size, we stood tall; we commanded respect, if not always endearment. We were West Indians being West Indian.

For what do we stand today, united and respected as one West Indies? We break ranks among ourselves (Grenada, I acknowledge, no longer) so that some can bask in Japanese favour for helping to exterminate endangered species of the world’s whales. We eviscerate any common foreign policy in CARICOM when some of us cohabit with Taiwan. Deserting our African and Pacific partners, we yield to Europe – and take pride in being first to roll over.

What do these inglorious lapses do for our honor and standing in the world? How do they square with our earlier record of small states standing for principles that commanded respect and buttressed self-esteem? The answers are all negative. And, inevitably, what they do in due measure is require us to disown each other and display our discordance to the world. This is where ‘local control’ has led us in the 21st Century. We call it now ‘sovereignty’. In reality, it is sovereignty we deploy principally against each other; because against most others that sovereignty is a hollow vessel.

It is easy, perhaps natural, for us as West Indian people to shift blame to our Governments; and Governments, of course, are not blameless. But, in our democracies, Governments do what we allow them to do: they themselves say: ‘we are doing what our people want us to do’. It is not always true; but who can deny it, when we accept their excesses with equanimity, certainly in silence.

No! There is fault within us also. We have each been touched with the glow of ‘local control’; each moved by the siren song of ‘sovereignty’; have each allowed the stigma of otherness, even foreignness, to degrade our West Indian kinship. The fault lies not only in our political stars but also in ourselves that we are what and where we are; and what and where we will be in a global society that demands of us the very best we can be. When the West Indies is not West Indian, it is we, at least in part, who let it be so. And what irony: Marryshow and his peers demanded that we be West Indian to be free together. We were; but in our freedom we are ceasing to be West Indian and in the process are forgoing the strengths that togetherness brings.

When are we at our best? Surely, when the West Indies is West Indian; when we are as one; with one identity; acting with the strength and courage that oneness gives us. Does anyone doubt that whatever we undertake, we do it better when we do it together?

Thirty-five years ago, in 1975, on the shores of Montego Bay, as I took leave of Caribbean leaders before assuming new roles at the Commonwealth, my parting message was a plea TO CARE FOR CARICOM. Among the things I said then was this:

Each generation of West Indians has an obligation to advance the process of regional development and the evolution of an ethos of unity. Ours is endeavoring to do so; but we shall fail utterly if we ignore these fundamental attributes of our West Indian condition and, assuming without warrant the inevitability of our oneness, become casual, neglectful, indifferent or undisciplined in sustaining that process and that evolution.

The burden of my message is that we have become ‘casual, neglectful, indifferent and undisciplined’ in sustaining and advancing Caribbean integration; that we have failed to ensure that the West Indies is West Indian, and are falling into a state of disunity which by now we should have made unnatural. The process will occasion a slow and gradual descent – from which a passing wind may offer occasional respite; but, ineluctably, it will produce an ending.

In Derek Walcott’s recently published collection of poems, White Egrets – for which he has just won the prestigious T.S.Elliot Prize – there are some lines which conjure up that image of slow passing:

With the leisure of a leaf falling in the forest, Pale yellow spinning against green – my ending.

This must not be a regional epitaph. But, if CARICOM is not to end like a leaf falling in the forest, prevailing apathy and unconcern must cease; reversal from unity must end. The old cult of ‘local control’ must not extinguish hope of regional rescue through collective effort; must not allow a narcissist insularity to deny us larger vision and ennobling roles. We must escape the mental prison of narrow domestic walls and build a West Indies which is West Indian. We must cherish our local identities; but they must enrich the mosaic of regionalism, not withhold from it their separate splendors.

In some ways, it must be allowed, our integration slippage is less evident among the smallest of us. The OECS islands have set out a course for more ambitious and deeper economic integration among themselves, which would be worthy of all, if it could subsist for all. The Treaty establishing the OECS Economic Union is now in force. But, it is early days; it remains to be seen at the level of action, at the level of implementation, whether, even for them, the earlier ‘agony’ (of which Sir Arthur Lewis wrote so ruefully in 1962) lingers still. Meanwhile, however, congratulations are in order, and I extend them heartily.

In moving closer to ‘freedom of movement’ among the OECS countries, they have set a vital example to the rest of CARICOM. The OECS West Indies is being West Indian. May it translate into an ethos among them, and in time infuse the wider Community with an end to ‘foreignness’ among all West Indians. The OECS islands have taken the first steps in a long journey whose ultimate goal must be a larger union.

Collectively, we must recover our resolve to survive as one West Indies – as one people, one region, one whole region. Imbued by such resolve there is a future that can be better than the best we have ever had. Neither complacency nor resignation nor empty words will suffice. What we need is rescue – by ourselves, from ourselves and for ourselves. We cannot be careless with our oneness, which is our lifeline. As it was in St.Georges in 1915, so it is now: The West Indies must be Westindian!.