*By Jomo Sanga Thomas
(“Plain Talk”, May 8, 2020)
Hillary Beckles, chairman of the Caribbean Reparations Commission, told reparations committees across the region that it is time to “raise the temperature” in the fight for reparations. Beckles argues that only a comprehensive, developmental reparations package, akin to the US Marshall plan offered to Europe after the devastation of the Second World War, will allow the Caribbean people to clean up the colonial mess left by the former slave-holding powers after more than 300 years of genocide, slavery and colonial exploitation.
Dr Beckles, who is also the vice-chancellor of the University of the West Indies, on April 28, 2020 addressed a reparations teleconference of regional reparations leaders, said COVID-19 has torn the roof off the Caribbean house and exposed the region as a hotbed of disease, inequality and increased poverty. He said now is the time to revisit the social contract put in place by regional leaders, such as Sir Arthur Lewis, in 1948. He noted that at the 1948 meeting, our leaders met to declare an end to colonialism and demand independence.
Beckles is of the view that the 1948 social contract knocked together by the leaders of that era, has been breached. “We have allowed the British to walk away from the colonial mess”, Beckles declared. “Unless we bring colonialism to answer, we will continue to wallow. If this crisis is not a wake-up call, I don’t know what is.”
Beckles pointed out that in this era of COVID-19, large sections of Caribbean societies cannot comply with the governments’ policy of social distancing because their homes are too clustered and overcrowded. He noted that COVID-19 has also exposed the class stratification in the region particularly the varying ways in which the state apparatus treats members of different classes. He noted that in some Caribbean countries, people want to obey, but simply can’t, and then they are faced with police militia and arrest.
Beckles said that the coronavirus pandemic presented the region with a unique opportunity to revisit and redefine the meaning of social justice and social equality. “We need a new social contract if we are to effectively manage COVID-19. The inequities and inequalities are too stark now. Now is the moment, now is the time. If we miss this opportunity to move forward and make real advances, we may have to wait too long for another opportunity.”
Beckles made those remarks in the context that some in the political and intellectual leadership of the region cautioned that the COVID-19 pandemic makes it an inopportune moment to press for reparatory justice.
Beckles pointed to the fact that the region was confronted with one catastrophe after the other. Older citizens suffer painfully from diabetes (sugar) and hypertension (pressure) and lose their limbs at an alarming rate, while the younger generation is increasingly plagued with obesity with resultant fatigue and organ failure.
Beckles cited what he called a four-pronged assault on the people and economy of the region. He said there is the singularity of COVID-19 and the plurality of other crises. They are as follows:
1. Ravages of climate change.
2. The extraordinary damage caused to the infrastructure and economy of the region by hurricanes in the last decade.
3. Epidemic around chronic diseases
4. Coronavirus pandemic.
Beckles said this sad state of affairs presents the region with a compelling argument as to why reparatory justice should be front and centre of the regional developmental agenda. “What we need now is a new social contract for a post- COVID-19 democracy. Currently, assistance from Europe and elsewhere comes as aid and not developmental assistance. Needed now more than ever is a developmental plan like the Marshall Plan funded by the former slaveholding states of Europe to help with the redevelopment of the Caribbean.”
Beckles, one of the region’s most renowned public intellectuals, said that the problems confronting the region were existential in nature. He summoned the national heads of the regional reparations committees to take the message of reparations to the grassroots of society. The people may need leaders to carry their fight to the various avenues and fora, but only the people can win the battles that will have to be won if the struggle for reparations is to be successful.
To properly prepare for the task ahead, Beckles spoke about the plans to open another research centre at the UWI Cave Hill Campus in Barbados. This research centre is a collaboration with the University of Glasgow which has committed to giving up to $20 million as part of a reparatory package payback to the region. Some of the financiers of Glasgow University made their fortune by owning enslaved Africans and plantations in our region.
When fully operational, the research centre will identify all the big challenges facing Caribbean people, with a view to coming up with solutions to these problems. Beckles identified the areas of health, economics and climate change as three of the most pressing issues confronting the region. On the economic front, he called on the regional professional class to return to, rediscover and reconnect with the theories and understanding of titans such as George Beckford, Norman Girvan and Lloyd Best.
Sir Arthur Lewis, he noted, was one of the first Caribbean intellectuals to raise the issue of reparations for slavery. He recommended that all those wishing to place the struggle for reparations in a historical context to revisit Lewis’ 1938 paper which addressed the issue of unpaid labour in the region.
There were broad-based understanding and agreement that the success of the regional reparations’ movement will best be realized if there is a strong and vibrant Global Reparations Commission.
Echoing the words of Dobrene O’Marde, chair of the Antigua and Barbuda Reparations Commission, those in attendance resolved that “we cannot allow this world to resettle around us in the way it was and still is. That will be to our peril. COVID-19 ironically may have cleared the way for a deeper human value to emerge”.
*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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