After last week’s column on empty cricket stands at the Queen’s Park Oval, I ended up, as I often do with these writings, in an interesting exchange, in this instance with John Aaron, a Guyanese who lives in New York, and with voices ranging from the man on Irving Street selling coconuts, to the widely dispersed views of Ron Sanders, Ambassador from Antigua to the USA and the OAS. While it is not a topic on the front burner, like the looming oil industry here, this notion of regional unity has been around “from Noah was a bwoy”, as the Jamaicans say, and it certainly remains in a pot on stove to be reheated and once again offered for consumption. John is related by marriage to the late Pat Cameron, of Radio Demerara fame – a lady for whom I have great respect – and our conversation was amiable throughout. Indeed, an insightful person on his own, he brought a number of interesting views to our gaff, and snippets of our exchange are folded into what I’m saying here.
At the outset, while I recognize the value of the regional unity theory for Caribbean nations in this era of struggling economies, I declare that I am dubious at the notion taking hold since so many previous attempts in this direction have either fizzled out completely or are hanging by a thread. Without going into the ins and outs of the various efforts, going back to the journalist Albert Marryshow in Grenada even before Federation, my position is that there is ample evidence that the regional unity idea, while popular with political figures and various economists, is not one that has been embraced by the mass of Caribbean people, and while I may be biased in my cultural approach, I believe the flaw in the notion, now being bandied about for over 60 years, is the fundamental plank in the platform which argues that we are, in effect, one people from St Kitts to Guyana. I have spent time – in some instances considerable time – in virtually every country in the archipelago and through my lens I see far more difference than commonality.
Even among the so-called ‘small islands’ of the Eastern Caribbean, there are places and people with a variety of problems, each dealing with situations peculiar to them, and with distinct differences in cuisine, dialect, attitudes and customs. Those who contend that the differences leave the region very well placed to attract visitors in a tourism economy are not assessing the diversity fairly, because what has been found, in practice, is that the diversity also brings with it different priorities – so that whereas in Jamaica, abundant local labour is readily available, in the Cayman Islands, only 40 minutes away by air, the country is forced to import half of its work force from abroad, much of it in fact from Jamaica, but many from as far away as the Phillipines. That one small example shows the totally different picture of one country struggling with an issue (it places significant strains on the Caymanian culture) that is totally absent in its closest neighbour, ie differences.
To a lesser degree, local labour shortage is also a factor in Barbados with, as we know, the resulting social strains in that society as workers from Guyana (where there is a job shortage) arriving in the island, some of them illegally, which results in animosity on both sides from this issue and even creating the infamous “Guyanese Bench” at the airport dealing with arriving Guyanese. There is a similar strain in the island of Antigua, with a thriving tourism industry, where workers have to be imported from nearby islands; again, differences.
The ambit of this column is not to list the range of these various conflicts – it could, in fact, be the subject of a revealing book – but merely to point out that there are fundamental differences in the region, employment opportunities is but one, with many of them arising from day one and remaining entrenched over the years.
To be fair to the governments in our various countries, they create a range of traumas, many of them specific to only one country, that remain a dilemma for those places, year after year. I remember in past years the serious nature of the potable water shortage in Antigua, in periods of scant rainfall.
It was a unique difference; so much so that I could sing about it in a song (‘Wong Ping’) and Caribbean people laughed – they knew the situation; major differences.
Still on this point, I cite the attempt several years ago when a regional tourism association came up with the ‘One Caribbean’ booking approach, where various island governments were asked to combine tourism packages. Persons in the cultural field in Jamaica, Barbados, et al, scoffed at the idea, but the Caribbean Hotel Association pressed on with the project which soon faded away – governments had become partners with tourism competitors who not only had differing problems but differing attributes. Yes, each Caribbean island can offer beaches, but as any traveller will tell you, the standards can vary widely; differences.
The subject is indeed worthy of a book – perhaps several books, each dealing with a particular sector. In response to the frequent references to our commonalities in the region, I would argue such books would show that we are more different than alike. Our cuisines, our music, our diversions, our social mores, are diverse. St Vincent is not like Antigua. Guyana is not like Trinidad – forget Lara and Shiv; even our curries are different, and, furthermore, the curry in Jamaica is a different creature again. Delicious, yes, especially the goat, but different.
A factor in the ‘one region’ theory is that over the years it has been adopted by some distinguished protagonists. Even before Albert Marryshow’s time, we have had copious examples of our prominent citizens, in various fields, in support of this view. Learie Constantine, Rex Nettleford, Sonny Ramphal, Rohan Kanhai, George Lamming, Bob Marley, Forbes Burnham, Andre Tanker, Owen Arthur, Peter Minshall, are some of the names, but it is really a relatively short list and it tells us that the regional unity position as of now remains only a collection of individual visions and did not morph into a movement. Those instances of fiercely-held opinion have originated from persons standing with individual focus but not being able to propel others to move to create a region where we sit together instead of standing apart. In fact, the efforts to unify – Federation, Carifesta, Caricom, Common Market, Economic Partnership Agreements, etc – have only served to illuminate the differences rather than to ameliorate them. Perhaps we have to give it time, much more time, for that sweep to take place where we move from the current ‘I’ to the gathering power of the ‘We’.
Incidentally, I have repeatedly heard the remark that “cricket is the one thing that unites the Caribbean”; it’s a lovely thought, if you’re a cricket fan as I am, but it’s not true. I laughed at it the first time I heard it, and I laughed again recently when John Aaron mentioned it to me. If one listens to persons who have served on the various regional cricket regimes, or to persons such as Michael Holding relating team incidents of insularity, cricket is simply one more area debunking the myth that the Caribbean is one region.
Economists and business people are pushing the idea for its market-size potential, but we who live it know the truth: the Caribbean is a diverse creature with diverse priorities, diverse styles, and diverse approaches. We are not one people, which is why the cricket establishment cannot run things in a manner that pleases all; the Board members sit in a meeting and go home knowing which project will be accepted at home, and which will not. That’s what the regionalists, albeit well intentioned, have to get used to.
Instead of pushing everybody to live in one house, accept that you’ve been trying to do that for decades and getting nowhere. Change course, brethren. There is a reality here: that our diversity is our strength in the tourism marketplace in which we compete.
What we should be doing, as Reds Perreira has pointed out elsewhere, is to accept those differences between ourselves as dynamic instead of making them a reason for resistance or friction.
Certainly, it may have an economic drawback in that we can’t have one regional business, but those differences are the nuts and bolts of who we are. The culture changes when it sees value in the change, and since independence, on every stage, each nation in the Caribbean has chosen to retain its insularity.
The idea of regional unity is ultimately an approach being proposed mainly for economic reasons, and the evidence from the 1960s to now is that the nations are saying “no thanks”. It may be worded differently, but in every case, including cricket, that’s the answer.