Political leadership in the Caribbean

(The writer is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States and the OAS.  He is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London and Massey College in the University of Toronto.   The views expressed are his own)

 The remarks in this Commentary were spoken in a television interview in Grenada on the day that Fidel Ruz Castro, the former President of Cuba, died.   The discussion centred on whether contemporary Caribbean leaders lacked the courage that previous leaders, such as Castro, displayed.

Fidel Castro is a controversial man of history.  But he was a great Caribbean warrior and we in the region should never forget that.  If as small countries, we have a voice today in the world, and we can resist the bullying of larger countries to some extent, it is because Fidel Castro showed us the way. Castro is not a man the Caribbean should denigrate; the people of the region should not join the West in making him into a demagogue of no consequence; he is an important figure in the Caribbean and we should honour and revere him.  

Our leaders today, as much as Castro in 1959 when he led the revolution, understand that if we are going to have a place in the world we have to fight for it. Castro’s circumstances were different. At the time of his revolution, Cuba was a place of widespread poverty; the country’s economy was captive to an American mafia who owned the casinos and hotels, and who formed an alliance with the Cuban elite that exploited the majority.  There was a sense of outrage in the people of Cuba at the grassroots level.  So, Castro had the capacity to resist because the people wanted resistance.  That was the chemistry that worked for him at that time.  He was helped, of course, by the Cold War between the US and the then Union of Soviet Socialist Republics with Russia at its centre.  The Soviet Union helped significantly to support the Cuban economy.

The aspirations of today’s Caribbean leaders are no different to Castro’s; their circumstances are different.  Caribbean economies are small and, when there is an economic downturn or some major calamity in the countries with which we trade or from which our foreign investment comes, our economies become constrained. It’s not that the leaders would not like to do better, they are operating in restricted circumstances, and they do the best they can.  They have no champion as Castro had with the Soviet Union.

But, they miss opportunities by not doing more together. I remind that, when the embargo was placed on Cuba by the United States and other western governments, four Caribbean countries, acting in unison, broke it in 1972.  In other aspects of advancing their interests in the international community, Caribbean countries have been most successful when they act together.

CARICOM is a valuable tool for the advancement of the Caribbean people and for Caribbean countries individually and collectively. Unfortunately, since independence, a kind of false nationalism has crept into our psyche; one which, in some cases, cannot admit to being as much a citizen of the Caribbean region as a national of a country within it.  

Part of the reason is that leaders don’t give effective leadership on this issue.  In a recent commentary, I wrote on the departure of the Obamas from the White House, I made the point that Obama left some remarkable legacies to America; one of them is what he did with the word “immigrant”. “Immigrant” to many people is a dirty word; it denotes somebody coming into your country to take something away from the existing population.  Unfortunately, that is how immigrants are presented by ultra-right wing nationalist groups around the world.  Obama showed that “immigrant” is a phenomenon that has been a part of American history from its beginning. People have always gone to America because they believed it was a land of opportunity where they could fulfil dreams. The vast majority work hard, they help build the economy. Together, over many generations, they  all made America the richest and most powerful nation on the earth., despite the fact that they were white, black and brown; Catholics, Anglicans, Jews, Hindus and Muslims.  They still do, notwithstanding current railings against immigration.  

In almost every Caribbean country, there exists an anathema to migrants from other Caribbean countries, displayed particularly at Airports where Caribbean people face discrimination.  Why does it happen? Lack of education and information about the benefits of integration contribute in part, but so too does manipulation by politicians who thrive on creating an enemy to mobilise followers.  Identifying the person who is different as a threat is always easy.

There has not been sufficient advocacy of Caribbean integration by the leadership of the region to help people to understand that, whether or not we came in the same ship, we are now in the same boat and that boat is in turbulent waters.  All of us in that boat have to row it together, if not we will sink together.  Therefore the attitude of antipathy toward our own has to stop.

In the Caribbean, we give more work permits to people from outside our region that we do to the people in our region.  We have Caribbean nationals in the tourism industry, for instance, who have been trained as hotel managers, with master’s degrees in hotel management; yet we bring less qualified people from Europe and the United States, denying top jobs to our own.

We have to break down this barrier, which has developed since independence. Remember that prior to the independence of Jamaica and Trinidad that started the process of fragmentation, the West Indian countries were one administrative region where people were free to travel as they wished with the same currency; the same passport.  They could go into any West Indian territory to work and live.  They were “West Indians” – one people; differences yes, but none that could overwhelm the similarities. Independence made us feel that we have somehow become different; yet nothing really had changed except we have a flag, an anthem and economies that are difficult to manage and grow by themselves.

The point is that our circumstances are such that we need each other; no single country in the Caribbean – none, not Trinidad and Tobago, with its oil and gas resources, not Guyana with its vast land and natural resources, not Jamaica with its large population can survive on its own. The world is tough, and it is only by the marrying and integrating of our resources at all levels that we can hope to do better.  If we continue to let integration languish, I am afraid we are writing our own suicide drama and we are acting it out. We have to overcome it. And, political leadership matters – from governing and opposition parties alike.

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