Aaron Kamugisha is a Caribbean citizen and a lecturer in Cultural Studies at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus. He can be reached at aaron.kamugisha@cavehill. uwi.edu“
Physically burdened as I am, I feel impelled to overcome my difficulties to the extent that that is possible and tell you what are my political views in the present crisis. It is the most desperate that the WI (West Indies) have faced since the emancipation from slavery. The idea of a West Indian nation cannot dissolve… For me this is not a question of governments but of people, of what world the young people will grow up into, what spirit they will have…But what I fear is that the whole conception and organization of a WI nation is on the way to being destroyed or corrupted… This is a matter of the life and death of a nation…
C.L.R. James, 1961
C.L.R. James, the Trinidadian Marxist Pan-Africanist intellectual wrote the above words when convalescing in Barbados – probably illegally – from a car accident that almost took his life in Jamaica. James’s anguish at the slow demise at the federation, which he foresaw in a letter to George Padmore on his departure for Trinidad in 1958, is as difficult a read as any document of its time in its slow realisation of the crushing forces preventing a progressive alternative to the colonial status-quo, its resignation at the vacuity of the new middle classes who were to lead the Caribbean nations into independence, and doubts of the future. He wrote it in Barbados, a country which fascinated him throughout his life for reasons both idiosyncratic to him, and shared by a wider Caribbean community.
For James, Barbadians had to negotiate such a predatory colonial order that he would not condemn, though not ignore, the conservative turn of a Grantley Adams, who James couldn’t help admire despite his anti-socialist politics and support for British colonialism in the 1950s. Yet far from reproducing the standard stereotype of the conservative Bajan, James’ admiration of the island’s legendary cricket culture, sutured as this was to a disciplinary coloniality, meant he never thought of them as less than quintessentially West Indian.
One cannot walk within the first half of 2010 without being haunted by the ongoing catastrophe in Haiti, the greatest tragedy a Caribbean people have had to bear in many generations, or the culmination of a predatory political culture in Jamaica. James, author of the classic history of the Haitian revolution, The Black Jacobins, knew only too well that it was in that revolution that Caribbean people announced themselves to the world as a people. He also was aware that every historical-cultural movement and political conundrum in the wider region since – neo-colonialism, black consciousness, the debt burden, American imperialism – first announced itself there.
However, it is another seemingly less compelling tragedy in the making that I wish to discuss. This is the current moment in Barbados, often considered the most “successful” Anglophone Caribbean independent state, on the January 1st expiration of the six month amnesty given to undocumented Caribbean workers.
There is a particular tale often mouthed by state managers in Barbados that I wish to retell here, in order to dispute it. In it, the previous administration which demitted office in January 2008 turned a blind eye to the presence of large numbers of undocumented workers in the country, a situation which is now causing considerable problems for the Barbadian state.
While these workers have contributed immensely to the country, the burden on state services, particularly health, education and transport is simply too great, and unmanaged, poses serious questions about the state’s ability to deliver these services. Yet also of worry is the exploitation of members of these immigrant populations by employers and the public who know of their uncertain status, and which the government abhors as it will not allow the creation of a pool of persons with second class status in Barbados.
There is also a real security risk attached to the inability of the country to adequately secure its borders, determine who enters and for what purpose, increasingly relevant due to the incredible explosion in violent crime and the smuggling of weapons and narcotics in the region in the last two decades. None of these is an inconsiderable consideration, though one of the ironies is that many of these services, in heavily managed and policed Barbados, are inaccessible without government issued identification anyway.
It also conveniently forgets the tremendous contribution that many workers, undocumented and documented, are making to the economy of the country and, through national insurance contributions, to the social services they are actively being denied.
However, one of the greatest indictments of the current administration and civil society is the inability to adequately critique the sturdy ethnic chauvinism that underlies the most pervasive anti-immigrant sentiments in Barbados, and lingers not far behind public discussions of the immigrant question. We are thus bombarded with crass comments which compare an illegal immigrant to an unregistered weapon that similarly needs to be turned over to the police, or the usual erroneous claims that much of the crime in the country is committed by those who have recently arrived.
These more vulgar comments are often dismissed by public figures. The subtler claims mouthed by government ministers though, revolve around the idea that Barbados cannot solve the social problems of other Caribbean countries.
The state tells us that other Caricom countries have been unwilling to extend certain contingent rights which Barbados allows, hence our seemingly strict positions, as according to the prime minister at a town hall meeting on 25 March, there is no reason for us to be more generous than anyone else.
Other Caribbean citizens are seemingly aliens in our country, who must be protected from exploitation, but also from the temptation of believing that they should have the rights of full citizens in a foreign land.
I wonder, are we committed to finding Caribbean solutions for Caribbean problems?
Are the concerns of the region our concerns? Do we wish to continue to be micro-states with independence but no sovereignty? Or do we long, as Lloyd Best once said, to be part of a massive Caribbean sou-sou?
One of the greatest indictments of this story by Barbadian state managers is the fact that their amnesty period targets only Caricom citizens – who by virtue of their membership in the Caribbean Community should have greater access to any country in the region than North American or European citizens.
British and American nationals have through their real estate purchases in the last 15 years in collusion with local white elites and the government made arguably the greatest changes in the living standards of Barbadians, with land and building costs priced out of the reach of many families, and with no clear end to this in sight. Yet their right to enter and exist within the country is assured. I am reminded of Frantz Fanon’s statement in The Wretched of the Earth that European minorities in the post-colonial state would demand a twofold citizenship, and it is clear how easily this is accommodated without question by post-colonial elites.
Barbadians, in large, do not wish to imagine their country as one that denies the rights of free citizenship to its neighbours, or stymies progress towards greater Caribbean integration. But their public utterances too often belie a regional sentiment.
The idea that Caribbean people’s movements can be reduced to questions of labour, an arithmetic of jobs available, sought, protected or denied is simply false. We don’t only move in the Caribbean for work, we do so to have a life – because they are different experiences we crave, people we love in another location, a world of experience we desire.
The splitting of Caribbean bodies by the dry calculus of immigration figures, of how many bodies can this country support, predictably ignores this.
The surrender that we see in Barbados to realpolitik and affairs of the state is more than a flawed and anti-regional immigration strategy. It represents a growing abandonment of what so many of us ultimately yearn for – a Caribbeanness unrestrained by micro-colonial nationalisms. This quest, as James was not afraid to know, is not felt by governments, but by people, who want their children to grow up into a different Caribbean and world.
This version of Caribbeanness is long on the way to being destroyed and corrupted. And if it continues, it will end the possibility of a Caribbean nation.