This August will mark the 50th anniversary of independence of Jamaica and Trinidad, but will also signal the 50th anniversary of the demise of the West Indian Federation. To mark the occasion, on June 2nd, 2012, The Economist published an unforgiving appraisal of the failure of the West Indian Federation and the region in general in an article titled Centrifugal Force: Half a Century of Small Islands with Big Egos. While the article contained some particles of truth, as to be expected from the staunchly neoliberal publication, it also lacked any serious context as to why the Caribbean finds itself in its current situation.
From January 1958 to May 1962, the Federation of the West Indies was a political union which included the islands of Jamaica, Trinidad, Antigua, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, St. Kitts, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, and Montserrat. However in September 1961, Jamaica voted on a referendum which effectively killed the Federation. As the largest and most populous island in the Federation, Jamaica was concerned that it would be bankrolling the other islands, as it would contribute 40 percent of the Federation's revenue.
Once Jamaica backed out of the Federation, Trinidad refused to carry on in the leadership position, and instead offered the smaller islands a place in a unitary state. The proposal was rejected by the smaller islands, who considered the proposal as the creation of a highly unequal relationship, refusing to become other "Tobagos." Thus, the potential Federation of 3 million people was shattered, with the larger islands of Jamaica, Trinidad, and the smaller Caribbean islands—most of them with populations less than 100,000 at the time.
While the West Indian Federation was a political failure, there are few such political unions which have had a smooth history of success, especially in such a short period of time. The creation of the European Union took place over nearly 40 years, with many significant obstacles to integration. Forgetting the United Kingdom’s own hostility to and its ability to “opt out” of elements of the European Union project – not to mention its significant international power, the article hypocritically maintains echoes of an inherent banana republic mentality in the region, stating that “Caribbean politics is centrifugal: it is more fun being prime minister of, say, Dominica or Grenada than an island representative in a federal parliament.”
Nowhere in the article does it take into account that under colonialism, the strategy of divide and rule was the order of the day and in significant ways has permeated many essential elements of today’s Caribbean society and the failure of the Federation. The cultivation of insular national identities (as Jamaicans instead of West Indians for example) through colonialism helped to fuel the division. Racial divides in Jamaica, Guyana, and Trinidad were established to maintain the order of colonialism and class, not to challenge it. In many ways, these legacies play a massive role in the post-independence infighting between the islands.
However, the article simply goes beyond the failure of the West Indian Federation and takes a jab at the region as a whole. While the global positioning of the Caribbean is less than ideal, and many mistakes have been made—the article leaves out historical context which crippled the region’s brightest leaders.
An example of the lack of context in the article has to deal with a comparison between Jamaica and the Cayman Islands which states that “Fortunes among the islands have changed. The Cayman Islands were a mosquito-ridden dependency of Jamaica in 1962; now, thanks to tourism and offshore banking, they suck in migrants from their larger but less successful neighbour.” Forgetting about Michael Manley, with his introduction of social policies which included equal pay for women, and instituting higher levies on bauxite to finance programs of free education and basic healthcare to the Jamaican people—these “unreasonable demands” were treated as a threat and were met with a barrage of political destabilization and economic sabotage from the United States.
When the dust settled, the Jamaican economy had crashed and Manley had to seek assistance from the International Monetary Fund to gut the public sector and any progressive policies. While Jamaica sought to reverse the stranglehold of the imperial powers in the region, the Cayman Islands on the other hand sought to accommodate the march of global capitalism, providing tax havens and daiquiris to many of the same people who had bankrupted Jamaica.
The entire idea of Caribbean integration, like any alignment of previously colonized countries (see Kwame Nkrumah’s United States of Africa or the New International Economic Order)was a dangerous proposal, as it sought to increase the autonomy of Caribbean people at the expense of colonial British political and economic interests. What happened in the case of the Caribbean is that it gained political independence, and little else.
While The Economist might view the Caribbean as a region which “finds doing anything a challenge,” it also lacks any understanding of its history. Existing on the periphery of the global economy, the undeveloped post colonial states of the Caribbean today have little to no control over many of their policies, as neoliberal globalization, economic crisis, the international drug trade and climate change all pose enormous challenges that even global hegemons themselves cannot control.
When leaders in the region made bold decisions to “do something”, they were met with military intervention and economic blackmail—as witnessed by Manley, but also Fidel Castro, Cheddi Jagan, Maurice Bishop, Jean Bertrand Aristide—and programs like the Caribbean Basin Initiative and the War on Drugs.
Perhaps the biggest misunderstanding of the article is that it ultimately but mistakenly equates political independence with freedom. To conclude, the words of CLR James seems fitting, as he was a brilliant figure who knew a thing or two about independence—the kind the Caribbean currently has, and the kind it currently needs. In a lecture called Federation, James remarked that “Freedom from colonialism is not merely a legal independence, the right to run up a national flag and to compose and sing a national anthem. It is necessary also to break down the economic colonial systems under which the colonial areas have been compelled to live for centuries as hinterlands, sources of raw material, backyards to the industries of the advanced countries. Independence is independence, but when you continue to live in territories which still bear the shape of the old colonial territories, it is extremely difficult to free yourself from the colonial mentality.”