Africa Speaks Forums Rasta Times US Crusade Trini View Books

The Caribbean World After Eric Williams

By Franklin W. Knight
Leonard and Helen R. Stulman Professor of History
Director, Center for Africana Studies
The Johns Hopkins University
3400 North Charles Street
Baltimore, MD 21218

Twenty-Eight Dr. Eric Williams Memorial Lecture, Central Bank of Trinidad and Tobago, Port of Spain, Trinidad, Saturday, June 14th 2014.

Governor Rambarran.

Distinguished Guests.

Ladies and Gentlemen.


Thank you very much for this invitation to share this important moment with you.

Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago are commemorating the fiftieth anniversaries of their political independence. This is a good moment for reflection on where we have been, where we want to go as a people, and how we ought to get there.

And this special occasion represents the 28th Dr. Eric Williams Lecture. Eric Williams as scholar and statesman was an extraordinary Caribbean individual. He was from Trinidad but belonged to the entire Caribbean and the wider world. His scholarship and his political career is reified in that majestic poem beloved by Dr. Williams, A Psalm of Life, of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow [1807-1882]:

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
  Life is but an empty dream! ---
For the soul is dead that slumbers.
  And things are not what they seem.

Lives of great men all remind us
  We can make our lives sublime,
And departing leave behind us
  Footprints on the sands of time;

Footprints, that perhaps another,
  Sailing 'er life's solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
  Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us, then, be up and doing,
  With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
  Learn to labor and to wait.

Yes, Dr. Eric Williams truly did leave his footprints on the sands of time.

But coming to Trinidad to speak on any aspect of Eric Williams is akin to the well-known English idiomatic expression, "taking coal to Newcastle." What could I tell you that you have not heard more eloquently and more profoundly expressed by others? I looked at your list of former invitees and saw such illustrious scholars and personalities as W. Arthur Lewis, The Honorable P.J. Patterson, Professor Rex Nettleford, Professor Arnold Rampersad, Professor Nigel Harris, Professor Colin A. Palmer, and Sir Shridath Ramphal. Those are giant names to make anyone tremble with fear.

Having heard the best I figure you are now on your plan B to hear the rest.

You have probably heard and forgotten much more about Eric Williams than I ever knew. Nevertheless, I will take my departure from the extensive scholarship of Eric Williams and try to examine the present and the future of the Caribbean through the insightful historical lens that he created.

Eric Williams did much to shape our world of the last fifty years not only intellectually but also politically.

In the highly original and inspirationally insightful thesis of his major work, Capitalism and Slavery, Williams connected in a more direct and sophisticated way than previously done the dynamic relationship between imperialism, slavery and the rise of industrial capitalism. Despite the extensive controversy surrounding the original thesis, no historian has been able to demolish the basic argument set forth by Williams in 1944. The Williams thesis, as it came to be called, is far more sophisticated than most of his critics realized. Williams was talking not merely about economic changes but also fundamental changes in the social basis of political economy.

While I am confident that much more light will be offered on the essential argument relating slavery to the rise of British (and wider European and North America) capitalism, it is important to make two initial observations.

1. The first is that Williams did not couch his language narrowly in simple profit accrual and reinvestment as economic determinants like Roger Anstey and others mistakenly indicate but rather in a complex, catalytically-inducing process in which the employment of slaves represented market capital with an additional unique capacity to produce capital. On the one hand, slaves were a marketable commodity that could, like any other commercial merchandise, be bought and sold profitably. On the other hand, slaves directly produced other marketable commodities in a system that stimulated forward and backward economic linkages. African slaves were valuable property that created further value by their mechanical and manual industry.

That was the essential link between slavery and capitalism.

For centuries slavery and the modern sugar business represented a complementary pairing. The sugar business, after all, ranked among the earliest forms of industrial factory production in the modern age. Moreover, the Caribbean sugar colonies were some of the highest-yielding commercial enterprises that exported both consumable commodities and considerable capital to Europe and North America.

2. The second observation is that in the absence of a reliable international banking system the slave-run complexes facilitated the transition from bullionism (or the use of bullion to estimate national and individual wealth) to mercantilism (the attempt to restrict imperial trade to national carriers within imperial borders) to free trade (where participants need not be connected at all except by capital involvement.)

Capitalism opened the marketplace for private participants to operate with a minimum of governmental controls and regulations. Sugar production and trade stimulated the first attempts at transnational commerce.

Williams saw the imperial activities of Europeans as driven by the urge to promote capitalism via non-restricting market-driven mechanisms – an idea that goes back to the eighteenth century and to the Scottish philosopher, Adam Smith (1713-1790) and the French philosopher, Guillaume-Thomas François Raynal [1713-1796], better known as the Abbé Raynal. Capitalism and Slavery touched a metaphorical nerve because it countered the then conventional British conviction that a religiously-based humanitarianism was at the forefront of the British attempts to end the slave trade and emancipate the slaves.

Yet the economic dimension should not be the focus of Williams's thinking because it was not.

Instead, it was the reorientation of European historical thought relating to the Caribbean. As historian Barry Higman has pointed out in volume VI of the UNESCO General History of the Caribbean:

Williams...set out to unsettle and destroy the pillars of the old colonial order, not the least of all in its intellectual aspect...For him, history was a battleground on which imperialist politics struggles against nationalist politics.

One observation we should take away from reading Eric Williams then is that no one should be afraid to challenge conventional wisdom, regardless of its antiquity. Alfred Lord Tennyson declared in Mort d 'Arthur:

The old order changeth yielding place to new,
And God fulfills himself in many ways
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.

Not only must we challenge what we see and hear but we must be able to develop the confidence to resist going with the flow simply because that is the easier thing to do.

Caribbean states cannot afford the luxury to relax in the contemporary world. For them, the struggle for survival is eternal.

Eric Williams had a deep conviction shared by many others of his generation that Caribbean peoples had a history no less worthy than that of peoples from other parts of the globe, especially from Europe. His writings gave dynamic agency to the people of the Caribbean in the same way as C.L.R, James's, Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution gave agency to the rebellious slaves in that exploitative French colony at the end of the eighteenth century. It is also found in most modern histories of the Caribbean beginning with Elsa Goveia's Slave Society in the British Leeward Islands.

If there is one thing that we can take away from the historical writings of Eric Williams it is this: the teaching of Caribbean history drastically needs overhauling. Instead of mining history to substantiate complicated claims for reparations we should be re-writing Caribbean history and inculcate it among the common people to establish its singular importance in the history of the modern world.

That might initially seem an overblown claim but it is not.

It is crucially important that people in the Caribbean understand the importance of their past. The Caribbean has a past that did not begin and end with the tragic experience of African enslavement – although that was an important phase. And the Caribbean has a history that is truly global – at least since 1492.

If Caribbean people realize the important role they have played in the history of the modern world, they like the Greeks and Romans will think much better of themselves. Moreover, if they did great things in the past – and they truly did – then they may be able to recapture that spirit to do great things in the future.

And therein lays one of the ancillary benefits to the learning of history.

Re-centering Caribbean history for the Caribbean:

This is not the time and place to develop new guidelines for the teaching of Caribbean history – and many would state that I am not the one to put forward such a proposition.

But think of some of the observations that could be shared among Caribbean people regardless of linguistic and cultural background:

1. The Caribbean and Latin America constitute an extraordinarily important region for world history, at least from the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492 until the end of the Second World War in the middle of the twentieth century. No area of the world can be properly studied without reference to the Caribbean and Latin America. And why do I say this?

Just think of a few of the propositions.

  1. In the Caribbean, the Europeans created an entirely new, singularly hybridized population that was unique in the history of global demographic expansion. Immigrants from Africa, Europe and Asia procreated between themselves as well as with remnants of the rapidly decimated indigenous population. Together they established in situ colonies of settlers and colonies of exploiters along a spectrum of community formation that until today represents a sort of plural society sui generis.

    If Caribbean societies are considered more receptive to outsiders it is because they possess an inherent understanding and empathy toward diversity.

  2. Latin America and the Caribbean produced enough gold and silver to totally upset the valuation of bullion around the world. Between 1503 and 1650 Latin America and the Caribbean exported approximately 17 million kilograms of silver and more than 180,000 kilograms of gold to Spain – not all of which arrived at the intended destination. [Altogether that is some 17,000 short tons of silver and 180 short tons of gold.] This extraordinary oversupply of bullion resulted in a 400% inflation rate devaluing local European currencies and increasing dramatically the price of goods. Gold and silver became the standard form of payment around the world.

  3. All that vast American treasure passed through the Caribbean forcing the construction by the Spanish of important fortified port cities such as Havana, Vera Cruz, Cartagena, San Juan de Puerto Rico and Santo Domingo.

    In 1790 Havana was the third largest city in the Western Hemisphere -- behind Mexico City and Lima, Peru. Greater Havana had a population of approximately 90,000 in 1790. At that time, compare some of the populations of the other leading American port cities:

    Rio de Janeiro38,707
    New York City33,131
    Vera Cruz18,000
    Cap Français15,000
  4. Latin America and the Caribbean resulted in what Alfred Crosby has described as "The Columbian Exchange" – a massive transfer of people, plants and animals that fundamentally transformed the entire geographical environment of the Americas. Today, 60 percent of the world's food crops, including corn, peanuts, squash, pumpkins, beans, potatoes, cassava, cocoa and tomatoes originated in the Americas.

  5. Latin America and the Caribbean provided the Europeans with an opportunity to develop long distance administrative techniques thereby creating systadial and synchronic variations to colonialism and imperialism. From Latin America and the Caribbean, the Europeans would deploy their learned techniques around the globe.

  6. The Caribbean and Latin America became the foundation for an Atlantic Economic zone that facilitated, as Eric Williams demonstrated, the transition from bullionism in the seventeenth century to capitalism and industrialism in the nineteenth century.

  7. The Caribbean and Latin America contributed three – in Haiti, in Mexico, and in Cuba – of the seven great transformative political revolutions in the history of the world. These seven revolutions are usually considered to be:

    1. The USA American revolution of 1776 – 1783
    2. The French revolution of 1789 – 1815
    3. The Haitian revolution of 1789 – 1804
    4. The Mexican revolution of 1910 – 1917
    5. The Russian revolution of 1917 – 1924
    6. The Chinese revolution of 1949 – 1970
    7. The Cuban revolution of 1959 – 1991.

2. The importance of the Haitian Revolution:

Let me just say a few words about the much-overlooked Haitian Revolution. It is hard to overestimate the historical importance of the Haitian Revolution.

  • Just as the USA pioneered political democracy, Haiti pioneered social democracy. Indeed, the Haitian revolution has been the most thorough revolution in human history. Haitians not only extended liberty and equality to all, they transformed their political, economic, and social systems in one fell swoop. More than anywhere else, Haitians transformed the social basis of political power – and that is the best definition of a political revolution.

  • One consequence of this democratic social revolution was to spread a "terrified consciousness" throughout all slave and slaveholding societies across the hemisphere thereby setting in motion the process of eroding the labor organizational system of tropical agricultural production. The general abolition of slavery in the Americas really began with the slave revolt in Saint Domingue/Haiti in 1791.

  • By destroying the finest of Napoleon Bonaparte's French army, Haiti made possible the Louisiana Purchase, the most notorious land bargain in the history of the world. For 3 cents per acre, Thomas Jefferson doubled the size of his country and expanded the new nation-state from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. Without the Haitian Revolution, the history of the United States of America would have been entirely different.

  • Haiti inadvertently revitalized the Caribbean sugar business by stimulating expansion in, among other places, Cuba, Trinidad and British Guiana (now Guyana.) Sugar production even expanded to South Africa and to Australia after the Haitian Revolution.

  • The Haitian Revolution and the Napoleonic wars led to the development of beet sugar, breaking the monopoly of sugar cane and upsetting sugar markets until the arrival of HFCs in the middle of the twentieth century. Today, no one speaks of a sugar market anymore. It is called a sweetener market.

  • Haiti should not be called a failed state and identified with chronic poverty and political instability. Established in 1804 Haiti has had an identical number of presidents as the USA – 44. The Dominican Republic, established in 1844 has had 53 presidents so far yet is not tarred with the indelible brush of political instability.

  • Nor was Haiti always chronically poor. Despite the crippling reparations imposed by the French in 1825, Haiti managed to survive quite well until 1861, paying its onerous French-imposed war reparations and maintaining a reactively high per capita income. As Victor Bulmer-Thomas shows in The Economic History of the Caribbean since the Napoleonic Wars, Haiti held its own with its Caribbean neighbors until the 1890s, although the economic shock of the US civil war was devastating. Only after the 1890s with the precipitous fall in world coffee prices did the Haitian economy fall hopelessly behind its Caribbean rivals. It has never recovered from that catastrophe.

The Caribbean after Fifty years

Many of us in his august room are more than fifty years old. And with life expectancies reaching toward 80 years, many of us hope to be around for many more years. If we can talk about ourselves with such optimistic expectancy, then certainly we can also speak of countries in that way.

But do not expect me to come praising the past and predicting bountiful tomorrows. What is past is past. About the past we can do nothing. We cannot change it. We can only seek to draw the lessons and wisdom of our ancestors and hope that future generations will be kind to us.

Societies do not get better or worse. They just get to be different. History does not follow a linear path. Nor do different societies follow a common route. So no two societies can ever be the same – nor can any society be the same at two different periods in time. That was the significance of my earlier reference to systadial and synchronic comparisons. For many countries fifty years is like the blinking of an eye. It is an extremely short time.

And that is our first observation tonight

The countries on which we focus, Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago are still, as nation states, in their early infancies. They have time on their hands. And, as the South African proverb says: "Time is longer than rope."

What have Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago accomplished in their first fifty years; and what are the challenges for the next fifty years and more? Have they, as some would proclaim, seen their best years? Have they become, as Edward Gibbon Wakefield once described the United States in the 1830s, "a country rotten before it is ripe"?

And although both states derive from a common colonial lineage, are they destined to follow the same path in the future?

Jamaica was captured from the Spanish in 1655 and illustrates that timing and circumstances are enormously important in the genesis of a people as well as a state. Jamaica had some experience with a semi-autonomous colonial legislature until 1865. Trinidad was brought into the empire and immediately subordinated to Crown Colony Government. Jamaica was a classic example of the sugar plantation society. Trinidad was not. And those different legacies clearly demonstrate the divergent paths of the two territories.

Indeed, it can be said that Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, despite their common legacy of British colonialism, developed two different political cultures by the middle of the twentieth century when universal adult suffrage was introduced to the British Caribbean.

Fifty years of accomplishment

As curious as this might sound, Jamaica as well as T&T have accomplished much in their first fifty years. In the first place, they have survived politically and maintained a reasonably stable political situation in a turbulent world.

That is not a bad achievement for these perilous times.

Let me briefly list 5 areas in which Jamaica and T&T have made significant (though not unqualified) progress over the past fifty years. And to put that in perspective, I will look at some contrasting initial fifty-year accomplishments (if that is an acceptable term for what they did.)

1. Political stability

In its first fifty years the United States had, among other transgressions of political tranquility:

  • faced down a Whiskey rebellion,
  • witnessed the dueling death of one of its important founders of Caribbean ancestry,
  • fought a major war with its former metropolis (the war of 1812),
  • and, was on the point of tearing itself apart on the issue of slavery.

Altogether that was a quite inauspicious start for the country that pioneered political engineering in 1776 and pontificated about human rights toward the end of the eighteenth century.

Or take Ghana which got its independence just before the process started in the British Caribbean.

Ghana, the pride of African states that gained their independence at the middle of the last century, was an inspiration to many emerging states in the 1950s. But it had its founder overthrown just ten years after independence. And Ghana took a long time to recover political stability.

Of the various Latin American states during the nineteenth century, only Chile and Brazil have stability records comparable to those of Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago during the first fifty years of political independence.

Compared with many modern countries, Jamaica has been not only politically stable but also, on the surface at least, politically democratic.

Since 1962, Jamaica has had 12 national general elections – all except the 1983 elections at regular intervals. Of these 12, the PNP won 7 (including 4 in a row) and the JLP 5.

Nevertheless, the political system is fraught with a number of challenges that must be successfully overcome if fifty years from today our successors are to be optimistic about their future. Political stability, however, is relative; and as we shall discuss shortly, the Jamaica political problems are fast approaching the monumental.

Trinidad and Tobago: Despite the challenges to the Trinidad & Tobago political system in 1970 and 1990, (and something happened last year that we are still not certain about) one would also have to conclude that that state also enjoyed relative political stability during the first fifty years of its independence.

T&T has had 14 general elections since independence – all but four (1986, 1995, 2000, and 2010) won by the People's National Movement founded by Eric Williams. T&T had elections in 2000, 2001, and 2002 – the last two were short-term elections – that is elections called before the full five years.

Both Jamaica and T&T have, for better or for worse – and in many ways it does seem for worse – institutionalized the two-party system to the severe detriment of developing a wider democratic society that would enable every citizen to be the best that he or she can be. If Jamaica and T&T are concerned about the declining electoral participation then they should look about broadening the accessibility of those turned off by the present electoral system. If the US two-party system does not work well in the USA that is a strong indication that it will not work well elsewhere.

2. Civil Society.

Although the idea of civil society had its origin in Aristotle, the modern concept of civil society is mostly a monstrous American-created semantic redundancy. Societies are inherently civil. It could not be otherwise. One cannot have a community with only government, commerce and laws.

Both Jamaica and T&T have done well in the construction of civil society since independence. There have been no devastating civil conflicts. There are no institutionalized patterns of segregation or discrimination or exclusions and Jamaicans as well as Trinbagonians have a very strong sense of their national identity.

Not only is Jamaica quite diverse – in any normal connotation of the word – but it also takes diversity for granted. In an age when migration is looming as a major problem for many, Jamaica healthily continues to accept migration as normative.

The same can be said, and perhaps even more so, of Trinidad and Tobago. T&T is 35.4% South Asian; 34.2% African; 15.3% mixed; and 15.1% mixtures from all parts of the globe. This diversity extends to religious practice. T&T is 21.6 % Roman Catholic; 32.1% Protestant; 18.2% Hindu; 5.8% Muslim; and another 22.3% practicing a variety of religions or no religion at all.

Jamaica, like all the countries of the western hemisphere, is a country of immigrants. Two constants in the history of Jamaica have been migration and revolution. The basic population is predominantly of African origin but the whole world is reflected in the Jamaican population: Africans, Indians, Chinese, Lebanese, Syrian, English, Scottish, Irish, Welch, and German.

Today Jamaica receives a small but steady stream of migrants from China, Cuba, Haiti, Colombia and other countries near and far. About 20,000 Latin Americans reside in Jamaica; and about 7,000 permanent residents in Jamaica come from the USA.

Jamaica is hospitable to all foreigners.

And like most of the rest of the Caribbean, Jamaica shares a revolutionary past that permeates the structure of society and values. It endured a revolution in colonialism; a series of interrelated sugar revolutions; a demographic revolution; and the revolutionary transformation of the post-slavery societies as Michele Johnson and Brian Moore have been skillfully and insightfully examining for the past few years.

3. Education

Despite much comment about the declining quality of education in Jamaica, the system is well structured and is quite impressively calibrated. The pre-primary, primary, secondary and tertiary levels are expanding despite enormous economic challenges and a social climate that has manifested signs of breaking down. For a population of less than 3 million inhabitants, Jamaica supports five universities as well as a number of higher level technical training facilities.

Trinidad and Tobago with a population of slightly more than 1. 2 million supports 3 well-established universities – The UWI St. Augustine, The University of Trinidad and Tobago; and the University of the Southern Caribbean. It might also be possible to include in this list, the Cipriani College of Labour and Cooperative Studies.

And both territories have several higher level educational establishments. And in both countries women appear to have more years of schooling than men -- 12 years for women and 11 for men in T&T; and 15 and 13 in Jamaica.

Permit me to make one passing mention about education in the Caribbean.

There is a growing penchant to confuse education which implies developing the mind and creating good citizens with certification which is a mechanism for employment relief. So the countries have a lot of certified insensitive semi-literates who do nothing useful and really don't care much about their country or their fellow nationals. Such people might be electable but they do not make good leaders – and the Caribbean seems desperately short of leadership today.

4. Culture and sports

Since 1962, the Jamaica has distinguished itself in culture and sports. The outstanding production in creative literature, art, drama, dance, and music has been universally recognized. Jamaican reggae music and musicians like Bob Marley and Burning Spear, Jamaican cuisine like patties and jerk dishes and Jamaican products like Appleton Estate rum, Red Stripe beer, Pickapeppa Sauce and Tia Maria liqueur are readily recognized and wholesomely appreciated throughout the world.

In sports Jamaica has also distinguished itself in the past fifty years. In track and field Usain Bolt is merely the brightest star in a large sporting constellation. Presently Jamaican sprinters have run more sub-10 second 100 meter races than all the rest of the world combined. And Jamaicans have made history in cricket, bobsled, baseball, basketball, soccer and rugby.

Very much the same can be said of Trinidad and Tobago. The musical and literary culture of Trinidad probably exceeds that of Jamaica. The steel orchestra is a Trinidadian invention. Pichakaree, Parang, Soca, and Calypso provide a rich musical repertoire and a history that is as rich as any in the Americas.

5. Public health

Finally, the Caribbean islands have a fairly good public health system. The Jamaica life expectancy rates are 75.3 for females and 71.8 for males – a slight decline recently but quite an improvement over the 1950s. The infant mortality rate of 14.6 per 1000 gives the island a world ranking of 103. That does not appear too striking until some comparisons are made.

The Jamaica rate is better than many of its Caribbean neighbors such as Trinidad and Tobago, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Colombia, Mexico and most of the Central American States, as well as Brazil, China, and Saudi Arabia.

Trinidad has a life expectancy rate of 74.6 years for females and 68.8 years for men. Life expectancy is a clear reflection that the society is doing something right in public health and public education.

Now for the Challenges:

The challenges to political independence and national sovereignty are not identical for Jamaica and for Trinidad and Tobago.

In the first decade or so after political independence, Jamaica was enjoying the same favorable economic winds as most of the rest of the world. Throughout the Americas, the 1960s were considered the decade of rising expectations. Prices for exports were good. Domestic food supplies were ample. Wage increases generally exceeded price increases; and the middle sectors expanded significantly.

Everyone thought those times would last forever.

But since about the 1970s, the economic winds have been generally unfavorable to Jamaica as well as much of the rest of the world. Some of the economic maladies of Jamaica, if less so for Trinidad and Tobago, have been self-inflicted.

And the economic problems have exacerbated greatly the institutional inadequacies with which Jamaica began its independent political existence.

The challenges to politics, the economy, and civil society in general have been severe, multiple, interrelated, sometimes unexpected, and occasionally disastrous.

Trinidad and Tobago have been more fortunate in their natural resources and have been better served in their developmental policies since independence. The petroleum industry permitted T&T to weather the severe economic downturns of the 1970s, 1980s and post-2000 eras a bit better. In T&T, oil and natural gas account for about 40% of GDP, 80% of exports and 5% of employment. T&T is a major manufacturing center in the Caribbean as well as a major investment center. With half the land area and about half the population, T&T has roughly the same GDP as Jamaica – equivalent to twice the per capita GDP of Jamaica: US$20,000 vs US$10,000.

But even a per capita GDP of US$20,000 is significantly less than that enjoyed in the Bahamas or Bermuda. So that is not much to shout about.

What are the challenges to political independence and a democratic and meritocratic society in both Jamaica and T&T?

I see 4 major challenges although I am certain that these do not exhaust the list:

  1. The problem of economic sustainability in a rapidly globalizing world where production and productivity can be trumped by malicious, uncontrolled market manipulation.

  2. The problem of equality or meritocracy in a civil society that is fast approaching the Hobbesian state of nature where life is "nasty, brutish and short."

  3. The problem of political succession and institution building where the basic political parties seem to have prematurely ossified and politics is guided less by consistent principles than by maximizing greed; and,

  4. The global problem of narco-trafficking and civil violence that constitutes an unavoidable hazard to institutions and communities.

Let me expand a little on these four points.

1. Economic sustainability.

As elsewhere in this increasingly globalized world, political stability is closely affiliated with economic sustainability. So everywhere across the Caribbean, given the relatively limited natural resources, each Caribbean state will need to be untiring and increasingly creative in the pursuit of economic sustainability.

Across the Caribbean, with the possible exception of Cuba which has learned the lesson the hard way, there is too great a dependence on a type of cargo-cult mentality that some shining knight from abroad will arrive to solve all their problems. Or they think that there is a single magic permanent solution for all their problems that, once discovered, creates the perpetual Eden.

Unfortunately, reality is not like that. History is process. And we are reminded in the old ditty:

The flower that blooms today
Tomorrow dies.
All that we wish to stay
Tempts and then flies.

Resolving Caribbean problems requires consistent and seriously applied new ways of thinking, of anticipating problems and applying flexible solutions. That sort of mentality is rare anywhere in the Caribbean.

Perhaps each Caribbean state will, after all the fits and starts, find efficacy in cooperativeness, not necessarily as a confederated or unified system like the European Community but rather in selected avenues of applied pragmatic economic activity. As John Donne said so long ago: "No man is an island unto itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main."

Jamaicans do not respond well to John Donne's exhortation. Although they are not distinguished as international swimmers, they have demonstrated since way back with the West Indies Federation, a propensity to jump ship prematurely and spontaneously.

But before Jamaica pushes for regional cooperation it must first put its economic house in order. Since independence, Jamaica has not done a good job of planning for anything.

There is a pervasive confidence that things will just work out by themselves. Jamaican politicians pride themselves in ineptitude and there are no formal structures as one finds in many successful small countries like Singapore, Mauritius, Madeira or Costa Rica for advising the government on short-term and long-term options or the costs versus benefits of public policy implementations.

In Jamaica today, the most popular form of public economic policy appears to be a sort of perpetual international mendicancy – a policy that already seems patently insupportable with a debt to GDP ratio of 127% -- seventh in the world behind Zimbabwe (202), Japan (214), St. Kitts/Nevis (144), Greece (161), Lebanon (137), and Portugal (129). In any case, borrowing does not appear to be an efficacious self-sustaining economic strategy.

For Trinidad, the future also looks grey. While oil and oil products are presently important and valuable, that market could turn topsy-turvy if the United States achieves oil self-sufficiency and Brazil and China become major oil exporters. Trinidad, as so often in Caribbean history, will find a disadvantage in economies of scale. But no one knows what will happen in the future.

2. Establishing equality and a viable meritocracy.

Not only will Jamaica and T&T have to construct a sustainable economy insulated somewhat from the world economy, but they will have to struggle to establish and maintain economic equity and democratic equality as appears to be the case in some small regional states like Bermuda, the Bahamas and Barbados.

Nevertheless in some states like Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago and Guyana, inequality persists stubbornly. Without ameliorating the conditions of the majority who are poor, there is not much hope for the minority who are rich. In this respect, T&T with its superior resources and regular budget surpluses, seems to be doing better at establishing social equality than Jamaica.

Civil society in Jamaica is threatened by manifest cases of social injustice, or perceived social injustice. The failure of successive governments to bridge the awful gap between the "haves" and the "haves not" partially contributed to the proliferation of political "dons" and garrison communities largely outside the law.

Establishing a just civil society is not accomplished by wishful thinking. It is difficult and requires unrelenting attention. Civility must be taught in the schools. It must be practiced in the communities; and it must be the basic principle of political operations.

3. Political succession is a major regional problem.

Neither in the stable democracies of the former English colonies nor in Cuba has the problem of political succession been properly institutionalized. The political parties in Jamaica, Trinidad/Tobago, and Guyana seem to have problems attracting new, young members who could vitalize their systems. This is what in their day then youngsters such as Edward Seaga, Ken Jones and David Tavares did for the Jamaica Labour Party in the late 1950s; and what, despite their legacies, Michael Manley and P.J. Patterson did for the People's National Party in the early 1970s. They revitalized their parties. Nothing like that has happened since in these two parties in Jamaica.

Apart from the problem of political succession, Jamaica and T&T have a number of other political problems: accountability; transparency; empowerment of the masses; the lack of an independent, responsible, competent media; and effective political representation. Time does not allow me to develop all these points.

Trinidad has had a major constitutional reform since its independence and established a Republic within the British Commonwealth in 1976. But much of the British political veneer remains – the first past the post in elections; the Privy Council; and a fawning unjustifiable respect for British legal traditions.

But at least T&T have shown some propensity to think outside the box.

Clearly, Jamaica has not done much structured political thinking since 1962; so now may be the time to think seriously about the nature of political representation.

  • Does the island really need a Governor General? And how do Jamaicans reconcile the present Seventh Day Adventist GG with the Queen's position as titular head of the British Church of England?
  • Is Parliament too big?
  • Should proportional representation be tried?
  • Are the two major parties beyond their prime?
  • Should devolution to local authorities at the county or parish levels be examined?
  • How can active political participation be revived?
  • Is the imitation British Parliamentary model the most useful for the island fifty years after independence?
  • Given the overwhelming problems, should Jamaica call time out from regular competitive elections and try something new? For example, governments of national unity for ten years in which the candidates with the highest number of votes, irrespective of their party form the government.

4. International Narcotic trafficking presents a major challenge for all Caribbean states.

The financial resources of the major international drug dealers dwarf those of most Caribbean states – maybe even all the Caribbean states combined. Over the past few years then, there has been a noticeable deterioration in law and order with a corresponding frightful increase in civil disorder, homicidal violence and domestic drug addiction in both Jamaica and T&T – but truthfully all across the Americas.

The inordinately high cost of resisting the constant undermining of the national independence and sovereignty of Caribbean states weakens their individual and collective ability to improve the general conditions of daily living for their populations.

Of that there can be no doubt.

Moreover, the soaring costs of law and order drain scarce resources that could be more meaningfully deployed in other needy areas such as education, public health, and physical infrastructure.

The major challenges to political independence lie in conditions of the present and the future. None of these go far back in the experience of these countries. The political leaders since 1962 have not lived up to the challenges. They have not served their states well. They have not innovated. Where they have led it is without vision; and without respect for the basic condition of the masses. Often the models they have followed have been inadequate for the expanding needs of their states.

The constant laments about the enduring legacies of slavery, or of imperialism, or of colonialism or of globalization do not feature prominently in my diagnosis of challenges to the construction of a better Caribbean. As William Shakespeare once expressed it through the words of Cassius in Julius Caesar, "The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars but in ourselves that we are underlings." Subordination is nothing new to the human condition and others have overcome that handicap. So can the people of the Caribbean.

The various independent Caribbean states cannot, and must not, depend on outsiders to chart their futures. They must take control of their destiny. And this is a matter of the utmost urgency. To do so they must be tough, and creative and resilient. Salvation and defense will come not from wishful thinking, or from outsiders – in other words, not from their stars, but from within, from themselves.

That is largely what Caribbean history patently manifests.

But there is one more observation.

The Caribbean states cannot hope to do well and defend their independence if they fail to find virtue in pragmatic regional cooperation. These are not the times when every unit can chart a successful course solely by itself. It is imperative to come together for the greater regional good and for the greater benefit of all the people of the Caribbean. As the famous saying, attributed to many as diverse as the English Parliament of 1642, and Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine in 1776, goes, "If we do not hang together we will certainly hang separately."

But coming together does not necessarily require large, unwieldy formal organizations. Simply take the common problems one by one and try to solve them one by one. Remember that "Rome was not built in a single day;" and that mighty oaks from modest acorns grow."

I said at the beginning we are still in the political youth of Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and indeed of the modern Caribbean so I remain extremely confident that the best days are yet to come for these two valiant countries. We may stumble. We may falter. But we cannot afford to fail. Too much is at stake for all of us.

Thank you all very much.

Homepage | News and Views | Trinidad and Tobago News | News Blog