By Kevin Edmonds
Kevin Edmonds is a graduate student at the University of Toronto, and a member of the Caribbean Solidarity Network.
The Caribbean is being killed.
A while back, people might have argued that this was a statement of journalistic exaggeration, a way to grab the reader’s attention by fear mongering, but today it is an unfortunate statement of fact when one looks around the region.
While the intensity and unrelenting nature of this year’s hurricane season has captured a great deal of media attention, the way these storms have intersected with the region’s indebtedness, vulnerable, dependent economies and correspondingly weakened state capacity has not.
The Caribbean is on the frontlines of climate change and facing what the late Norman Girvan correctly termed “existential threats”. Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda Gaston Browne has stated that he estimates it will take $200 million USD to rebuild after Hurricane Irma. Dominica’s Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit and the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency have stated that the damage in Dominica will be close to the billion dollar mark. Correspondingly the international response with regard to the provision of relief and reconstruction funds has been underwhelming. For example, Canada has promised $160,000 USD for reconstruction in Antigua and Barbuda – but pales in comparison to the $3.3 billion Canada gave in taxpayer subsidies to oil and gas companies in 2016. What this means is that many highly indebted countries in the Caribbean will have to go back to the International Monetary Fund in order to finance the rebuilding efforts.
What this really means is that when it comes to climate change, repeated reconstruction and indebtedness, the Caribbean is caught in a racket – and is losing on all sides. The very same countries that are the largest carbon emitters (overall or per capita) are also the countries which have the most power within the International Monetary Fund (via voting share). These loans from the International Monetary Fund provide high interest rates that are tied to conditions which in turn demand domestic economic reforms, rendering them subservient to the demands of foreign investors, an example of disaster capitalism at its finest. Puerto Rico is a case in point – as numerous hedge funds have been jockeying since the island was devastated by hurricanes Irma and Maria, to profit off of the issuance of new loans to finance the reconstruction.
Given the scope of the damage across the Caribbean, a dramatic shift in both domestic and international priorities needs to occur. None of this is an accident or act of God, it is the direct result of human activity. Climate change is not a debate, despite the ongoing presence of skeptics paid by the oil and gas industry. There is a saying that has been popularized on social media, attributed to Utah Phillips, stating that “The planet is not dying, it is being killed, and those who are killing it have names and addresses.”
The people of the Caribbean and their elected leaders must take this statement into account when looking to rebuild – both in the short and long term. There needs to be an immediate shift in the tone of the debate and the language that is being used when discussing the very real threat of climate change. Paramount to this shift in the discussion is the immediate need for action on both the domestic and international fronts – the time of polite diplomacy must come to an end, as the status quo is killing the Caribbean.
While the region has been fractured politically as a result of colonialism, they are also tragically united due to their vulnerability to climate change. This shared vulnerability must be harnessed into a strength based on the need for creativity, expediency and survival. Individual responses and pleas to international bodies will not be enough to make a dent in the day-to-day workings of global capitalism – and the corresponding harm caused. The launch of a pan-Caribbean tribunal to initiate legal action against the world’s largest carbon emitters – both countries and corporate entities – needs to occur, as soon as possible.
If the Caribbean can be taken to court for selling bananas at an agreed upon above market price to
England – and have their economic backbone shattered in return thanks to the rulings of the World Trade Organization – the idea of the Caribbean suing the oil companies for the war like devastation caused due to climate change seems tame in response. While the Caribbean can never out spend their adversaries –some of the richest countries and multinational corporations, they can be a leading voice on the global stage for wider political action and economic transformation away from the free market and fossil fuels.
A second important point in this shift would be the call for immediate cancellation of debt repayments, and no issuing of further loans – only grants and assistance in kind. Furthermore, there must be a policy shift that demands that the vast majority of aid be channeled through respective state apparatuses, with NGOs acting as a secondary partner – filling in where needed. The botched reconstruction of Haiti serves as a haunting and ongoing example of why the state must be a central actor, as the lack of coordination, accountability and transparency provides an opportunity for the generosity of the many to be siphoned into the pockets of a few.
That said, these emergencies also highlight the very real limitations of Caribbean sovereignty in its current form – as respective “independent” states, French departments and U.S. territories alike are all unable to respond due to a myriad of archaic rules that limit their ability to act and even seek help. Outdated and unresponsive institutions must be part of this change in the independent Caribbean, as the flexibility and creativity needed to address these existential threats are stifled by the Westminster system, which prioritizes procedure over results. In instances like this, Girvan’s idea of “shared sovereignty” – calling for a meaningful regionalism/federalism – makes a lot of sense.
The third part has to do with the limited future of fossil fuels. For the most part, the Caribbean has been a tiny contributor in terms of its carbon emissions (aside from Trinidad), however recent discoveries in Guyana has the potential to change this. The discovery of significant offshore oil and natural reserves in Guyana, has been hailed by the government and multinational corporations like Hess and Exxon Mobil as a game changer for the country’s struggling economy. While politicians may be busy hyping up the promises of turning Guyana’s natural resource riches into an economic windfall for the average person to consolidate their electoral fortunes, one only has to look to how the country has not benefitted from having some of the world’s largest gold deposits – in addition to bauxite and diamonds.
The natural resource sector across the Caribbean has been dominated by high levels of foreign ownership – and the “rip and ship” model of extraction has not contributed much in terms of meaningful economic development either. In the case of Guyana’s oil discovery it might be a case of too little, too late. The reality is that 2017 became the year when solar and wind power became cheaper than fossil fuels for the first time. What this means is that the Caribbean already has the potential to become clean energy superpowers in their own right – but only if they take the needed steps to break away from their dependency on fossil fuels through regional and economic transformation.
The growing inequity between the super wealthy who use the Caribbean as a way to avoid paying taxes, like Richard Branson – contrasted with the suffocating debt that hangs around the neck of everyday people of the Caribbean is intolerable – it is time to change course and centre the demands of the Caribbean going forward. Being polite and following the rules will not work – we have decades of evidence going back to independence showing that the deck is stacked against the possibility of genuine people-centred development in the Caribbean under capitalism. The banana wars, corresponding trade liberalization and foreign intervention against Grenada, Jamaica, Haiti and Guyana’s political experiments, have showed us that what is morally right will not prevail against those who seek profit above all else – to the powerful, the Caribbean is an acceptable site of collateral damage.
If leaders remain committed to the status quo in which the state is marginalized, where foreign direct investment, tax havens, all inclusive resorts, and citizenship by investment programmes are prioritized over everything else, the question is not whether the future will be bleak, but whether they have a future at all. While many would describe the aforementioned points as being politically dangerous, I would agree, but also argue that since you have been forced into a fight for your very survival, the least you can do is go down swinging.