By Jomo Sanga Thomas
(“Plain Talk”, March 6, 2020)
“We can make it if we try/just a little harder/If we just give one more try/that would be much sweeter” — Black Stalin
Speaking to an appreciative audience at the University of St Martin, Jomo Sanga Thomas, the former Speaker of the House of Assembly, in an attempt to answer the question “Who will own our Caribbean Future” drew on the treasure chest of Caribbean intellectual and cultural talents. Black Stalin remains an inspiration.
Thomas, keynote speaker at the event which brought to an end the month-long celebration to mark Black History Month 2020, told the audience (that) to gain an appreciation of the topic, ‘we must first analyze from whence we came, take stock of where we are now, and then see who is in the best position to chart and dominate the future.’
Thomas reminded the audience that the history of the people of the Caribbean did not begin with the arrival of the colonial enslavers from Europe. The truth, he noted, European conquest and domination of our region interrupted our history. ‘There was a thriving civilization all across the Caribbean before the Europeans arrived. They committed genocide against the indigenous inhabitants, reducing that population from about 3,000,000 in the 1600s to about 30,000.’
“This is genocide,” Thomas told his listeners. ‘But the genocide did not stop there. Millions of Africans were brought in to fill the void following the mass killing of the indigenous people. By the time slavery was abolished, another genocide was committed.’
Thomas told the audience that the European enslavers and colonizers justified their inhumane treatment of the indigenous people and then Africans, claimed that the indigenous people committed two sins: They engaged in sodomy and were cannibals. Africans they claimed were less than human and most fundamentally, had no souls.
This tactic of demonization is a tried and tested tool that has been perfected over the centuries. In modern times, it is used to destroy the good name and efforts Fidel and the Cuba Revolution, Manley and his democratic socialist experiment in Jamaica, Maurice Bishop and the Grenadian Revolution and more recently Presidents Chavez and Maduro and Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela.
Thomas reminded the audience that the decolonization project that began in 1962 with the independence of Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica and resulted in the formation of CARICOM, a unit consisting of 14 independent countries, remains incomplete.
He pointed to the fact that currently there remain even more islands in our region that maintain a colonial status.
French: Guadeloupe, Martinique, Cayenne or French Guyana, St Martin
English: Anguilla, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands – Virgin Gordo and Tortola, Cayman Islands, Montserrat, Turks and Caicos Islands
United States: Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands – St. Croix, St. Thomas, St. JohnSt Croix
Thomas traced the efforts at decolonization beginning with the formation of the West Indies Federation in 1958, and noted that while many, particularly the former colonizers do not want to accept it, the Caribbean was ill-prepared for the burdens and responsibility of independence.
He noted that during the period of enslavement, the Caribbean was celebrated in Europe as the most prized piece of real estate in the world. This was because of the enormous riches which the free labour of our ancestors bestowed on the colonial enslavers. It is well known that the riches of Caribbean slavery funded the industrial revolution in England and other European countries.
Thomas told his audience that on any indices of life – education, health, roads, hospitals and other infrastructural projects or wealth accumulation – the Caribbean was left in an awful state. The colonizers were primarily concerned with extracting wealth. They showed little or no concern for the welfare and well-being of the population. At independence our people were mostly illiterate, unemployed and in poor health.
Thomas traced the efforts at development and unity by analysing the emergence of CARIFTA, CARICOM and the attempts at the Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME); looked at the ways the emergence of the World Trade Organization (WTO) destroyed Caribbean agriculture, particularly bananas, and the role played by the Clinton administration in the USA during the 1990s, and the multinational corporations Dole and Chiquita.
Thomas did not give Caribbean leaders a clean slate or a free ride. He told the audience much more progress could have been made towards regional unity and development, had it not been for the ego, insularity and myopia of all of the regional leaders. He likened them to feudal lords who did not want to sacrifice ownership of their estate for the betterment of the region. ‘United we stand, divide we fall’, he declared.
Looking at the regional landscape as it stood today, Thomas lamented the disunity and noted that much of what we see is stoked and sponsored from abroad – attempts to set one country against another and to break the unity of CARICOM.
He claimed that after 300 years of enslavement, 100 years of colonial rule and 6 decades of independence, the region continues to struggle with underdevelopment, massive debt, high unemployment, drugs and gun violence.
Thomas told listeners that unless there is a complete realignment of the international economic, financial and trading architecture our region will remain underdeveloped and dependent.
Pointing to the way forward, Thomas said the Americans dominate now and the Chinese are emerging. He invoked the wise words of Fidel Castro: ‘The world belongs to those who struggle for it.’
Asked to address the role of the struggle for reparatory justice in the developmental efforts of the region, Thomas reminded the audience that the struggle for reparations is essentially a struggle for power. He noted that the struggle for reparations in the Caribbean has a long history.
As early as 1934, Sir Arthur Lewis, the Caribbean’s first Nobel Prize winner remarked that: “The issue of compensations for slavery has not been adequately addressed.”
Eric Williams in Capitalism and Slavery established the contributions of Caribbean slavery to the development of Britain and America. Nationalist, left radicals and Rastafarians spoke of Repatriation and Reparations for decades.
However, issue remained on the fringes of public discourse until July 2013 when CARICOM Heads of Government meeting in Trinidad resolved to join the fight for reparations. The battle for reparations became mainstream. The issue was further ignited during the democratic presidential debate in America when several contenders supported the issue of reparations for Africans.
More next week on “Who will Own the Caribbean Future”.
*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and a former Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
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