Aarón Gamaliel Ramos
The Caribbean was shaped by a logic of both unity and diversity. On the one hand, the region has been historically divided as a result of colonialism by various European powers; on the other hand, the slave trade and the entry of the Caribbean into the global market by way of agricultural production, created a common cultural base which has persisted to this day. The following article sketches elements of today's Caribbean reality that foster or hinder development work in the region.
In different eras many efforts have been made towards Caribbean unity, for instance, the proposed West Indian confederation in the 19th century. But Caribbean unity as a real and urgent challenge has arisen only today. In Caribbean countries a new consciousness has emerged, reflecting the growth of a new regional order that goes beyond the nation-state. That is to say, Caribbean nations face challenges that began outside national borders and which must therefore be resolved at a regional level.
If some elements display the region's heterogeneity (such as different political traditions and linguistic diversity), the common factors that define the region outweigh the differences. In reality there are few development problems that are not related in some way to similar problems in other societies, or to the region as a whole. For example, Caribbean countries were economically shaped by agricultural systems geared to requirements abroad; and their industrialisation has been based on the facility of cheap labour to attract foreign capital. As a result there are common economic and labour issues.
On the other hand, Caribbean societies face similar social processes as a result of urban transformation, itself the result of a huge migration of people from different countries and with different languages, as well as tourism, drug trafficking, and environmental deterioration. Moreover, all Caribbean countries have in common the existence of a diaspora scattered around the world, which interacts intensely with societies within the Caribbean region.
These new challenges require joint action by Caribbean actors. There are important state initiatives such as the West Indian Commission, the Association of Caribbean States, and other regional political initiatives. In addition, civil society has mobilised in a significant way precisely because of the difficulties facing state and private enterprise to tackle the enormous number of national and regional problems.
Unity and diversity in the Caribbean
The Caribbean is a very diverse region Although the extent of its territory is relatively small, it has many distinguishing characteristics. Firstly, it is made up of countries with different historical traditions. The Spanish-speaking Caribbean islands (Cuba, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico) and the countries of the Greater Caribbean that share that tradition (Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela and Central America) followed paths where national borders weighed heavily. The English-speaking Caribbean, in contrast, existed in its own right as a sub-region, following the British colonial system. In the French and Dutch systems the interest of the mother countries in creating a region existed alongside a strong local tradition that gave the small islands their own strong identities. Haiti was a special case. It constituted itself into a country, breaking with the dominant economic system of the epoch (slavery) and created an independent peasant culture that still has strong roots today.
As a result, the region is politically diverse. There are, in islands with similar traditions (in terms of the same cultural formation established in distinct places such as Cuba, Puerto Rico and Dominica), widely diverging political systems and ideologies. The non-independent Caribbean countries (territories of the USA UK, France and the Netherlands) are also very diverse, although they are all economically dependent, with a high standard of living. However, they are all experiencing serious government incapacity to deal successfully with the population's welfare needs.
While there is a common cultural substratum resulting from similar economic and social processes, the region possesses many different languages. In the Hispanic Caribbean, Spanish is the dominant language - that is, Spanish does not coexist with other languages confined to specific classes and social groups. Haiti's official languages are French and Creole, although its seven million inhabitants use Creole as a common language. In the French Caribbean, French and Creole exist in a state of mutual hostility, defining two distinct areas of meaning - the language of state and the language of social exchange. In the same way, the Dutch Caribbean possesses several languages, but the popular language Papamiento has a certain prestige and is used in politics. The English West Indies use standard English, but people also use Jamaica Talk and Creole.
The Caribbean has different religious traditions, with different levels of conflict. The region inherited the religious ideologies of the colonisers, but these were transformed by the advent of new religious traditions. There are in many countries both official and popular religions, while in others such as Puerto Rico two dominant religious systems (Catholicism and Protestantism) have fought for some measure of power since the beginning of this century. In Trinidad and other countries, variants of Christianity coexist (sometimes in a state of antagonism) with Hinduism and Islam.
Racism is an important ideology throughout the Caribbean, although it manifests itself differently according to the type of society created by colonialism, racial demography and so on. However, since slavery predominated in almost all countries, colour is decisive in determining income, social status, living conditions and other social aspects. Nonetheless, race and colour mean different things in different Caribbean societies. Those with a Spanish tradition do not allow the issue to be talked of socially, while in Jamaica and other English-speaking countries the theme of racism constitutes a basic part of social discourse. In the Dominican Republic, racial problems have arisen as a result of historical tensions with Haiti. Given the importance of this problem as the crux of social order, the capacity to challenge it is a determining factor.
An interesting fact is that despite the historical importance of the Caribbean for the superpowers, today they show less and less interest in the region. For example, in the 1980s the United States showed a marked interest that became the Caribbean Basin Initiative, which meant a flow of funds into an area in crisis. Once the Central American crisis was over, the US shifted its gaze towards Europe and Asia. Today, the importance of the Caribbean has noticeably decreased.
Two factors increased the Caribbean's isolation. The first of these was the establishment of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), between Canada, Mexico and the United States. The adverse impact of NAFTA on the Caribbean has been very great, particularly because Mexico has increased its export capacity to Canadian and US markets and has gained a large influx of capital. The Caribbean, historically on the US periphery, remains outside this process. The second factor was the establishment of the European Community.
Although many Caribbean countries recognise the importance of regional co-operation in key areas which were left to national or territorial resources, such co-operation has not been easy because of political limitations or conflicting national interests. For instance, as a US territory Puerto Rico is part of NAFTA, yet it has a series of political limitations which restrict its regional participation and leadership. Haiti and the Dominican Republic share a small island, with the result that the problems of one country spill over into the other. However, these two countries are also paralysed by a deep-rooted ideology that prevents concerted action.
Among the diverse levels of development in the region some countries are deeply underdeveloped (such as Haiti and Guyana) and need special attention. Here co-operation and regional action are limited by two types of problem: The absence of a good communications infrastructure; and an ideology of survival that forces inhabitants to prioritise daily problems over long-term matters.
All this suggests that we are dealing with a region too diverse for work at the regional level. However, it is a fact that no Caribbean country can face the challenges of today's world alone. And if the problems of one country seem remote to the citizens of another, they are nonetheless closely related. Communication about these problems is vital.
Dismantling and rebuilding
Among the factors in the current Caribbean context that hinder regional co-operation in facing up to the challenges of development, two are key. On the one hand, action is isolated and occurs at a national level. Caribbean countries reproduce national structures
that could also work regionally, such as universities, research institutes, environmental agencies, and so on. On the other hand, there is a tradition of dependency that works against autonomous endeavours that require regional action.
We must create a 'culture of exchange and co-operation' that coexists with patterns of diversity and the competitive drive that is needed in order to confront the social and economic challenges of the future. Up to now co-operation has not moved beyond an expression of the superpowers' geopolitical interests or a form of ideology sustained by state welfare.
The Caribbean's education systems must be radically transformed in order to create Caribbean men and women with greater regional awareness. This process must minimise the dislocating weight of differences and see heterogeneity as a strength. This change also supposes concerted development that prioritises the most urgent issues on the agenda of dismantling all that has broken the region apart. For example, racism will have to be a main item on the education agenda of a Caribbean that acts in solidarity.
Aarón Gamaliel Ramos (PhD) is Director of the Institute for Caribbean Studies and Professor of Social Sciences of the University of Puerto Rico. He is the author of several papers and articles about Puerto Rican and Caribbean politics. He is also co-ordinator of the Liaison Group of the University of Puerto Rico and the State University of Haiti, and co-ordinator of the Working Group of International Relations in the Caribbean of the Latin American Council of Social Sciences (CLACSO).