Prejudice against immigrants comes out openly in Antigua as the country holds general elections this Thursday. The largest groups of immigrants are Guyanese, Jamaicans, Dominicans (from the Dominican Republic as distinct from anglophone Dominicans from Dominica). But there are immigrants from virtually all of the islands including from wealthy Trinidad and Tobago (but not much scorn is heaped on Trinis, probably because Trinidad is the wealthiest island in the region. And I did not come across any Bajans or Bahamians, probably because they enjoy a higher standard of living than Antiguans. The nationals dislike the immigrants claiming they take away jobs and don’t make significant contributions to the island. There is overwhelming evidence to debunk that myth – immigrants take jobs that nationals refuse to perform, and many immigrants engage in farming activities, in the hotel industry, and in education. Businessmen tell me they can’t find Antiguans willing to work and as such they are forced to hire immigrants (sometimes illegally). Antiguans want very high salaries that businessmen say they cannot afford.
Several immigrants I met have their own businesses; women have their little shops and cottage businesses. Several Indo-Guyanese I met said they rented land and they engage in farming producing food for the country, while a few own bakeries. Some have even helped to popularize roti and phulourie. The kind of life I see Guyanese living in Antigua, they would be better off in Guyana. It is quite rough as compared with what life was like during the 1990s or through 2005 when the global economy was strong and Antigua attracted record tourist arrivals. Since the recession of 2007, the economy has contracted and the immigrants are scapegoated.
Antiguan men said they like immigrant women as their wives because they are hard working and industrious. They admire Guyanese and Jamaican women for their cuisine and industriousness – they cook, sew and hustle to bring in an extra income to the family. Immigrants contribute significantly to the island; they have to pay for a work permit that could easily cost about EC $1000 annually and they complain they have to pay for all kinds of permits. In addition, rent is expensive and food and transport aren’t cheap. I paid US$10 for a short ‘drop’ when I would pay less than US fifty cents in Guyana.
I have been visiting Antigua almost annually, sometimes twice yearly, over the last dozen years for ethnographic studies and for vacations, having a most wonderful time on the island (especially during my stays at Sandals, where I interact with a lot of Guyanese). Over the last year, I was in Antigua four times conducting surveys relating to the elections and expanding on my studies and writings on immigrant life. I never experienced the kind of bigotry I have over the last month as the campaign heats up and as the immigrants are demonized sotto voce. This is not, as in America or France, an attitude of whites displaying prejudice towards non-whites. This is the attitude of nationals and even government folks towards nationals of fellow Caricom nations – Caribbean integration, we call it!
But in all fairness, the bulk of Antiguans are not prejudiced. In fact, many welcome immigrants for their work ethic and investing on the island. Animosity towards me was demonstrated by only a handful of nationals. I had good exchanges with most nationals and they spoke openly about their feelings towards the immigrants. They want nationals who bring in money to invest and/or those who are professionals. Most people recognize from my accent, mannerisms and demeanour that I don’t live in Antigua and that I am from the States, even though they refer to me as Trini or Guyanese because of my Indian ethnic background.
Most Guyanese I spoke with – and in the last couple of weeks, I came across hundreds – describe the animosity and difficulties they face. “This place nah get good,” aptly describes how they view Antigua. Many said they are packing up to return to Guyana. “I gaing back home,” many told me. Some are hoping the opposition Labour Party wins the elections because they claim life was good for immigrants under ALP. Some say even if the ALP wins, they are packing up and leaving.
Nationals literally tell immigrants (mostly Caricom nationals) to go back where you come from. Antiguans are not against tourists – that is how the country earns money. I wonder how Antiguans who have settled in America and the developed nations feel about the attitude of those back in Antigua towards immigrants; a large number of them are settled in Brooklyn and Florida. Some have returned home permanently having worked overseas (Canada, England and US) and have earned a pension. Quite a number of Antiguan Americans have returned home to cast ballots in the elections and almost all of those I met told me they are voting for the incumbent UPP. They were quite friendly with me and did not display any animosity and they openly voice their views on the elections. But they know I am not an immigrant and I am not supporting any political party. I am there just to do a job for NACTA to determine the outcome of the elections. The important question though is why is there so much prejudice in Antigua towards immigrants from other relatively poor Caricom societies.