By Dr Ian Bethell-Bennett.
Dominica, The British Virgin Islands, Barbuda, Puerto Rico, The Bahamas, in particular, Ragged Island and some other southern places, are beautiful and far-flung, exotic and form parts of people’s dreams of paradise. They are paradises on earth and they have been devastated. They have, like many parts of the Commonwealth world, experienced unprecedented natural disasters and suffering in the short space of a few weeks. They are stunning spaces of natural beauty and amazing depth of feeling and life.
How do islands like Dominica bring this feeling or share this wealth? Dominica has an incredible gift and it is not just its lush green islandness, there is something that is unique to that space. Dominica is one of those places that somehow winds its way into the soul of the visitor. After taking one trip there in the mid-1990s, it was simply imperative that I return as often as I could; there is nothing obvious that can explain the allure that it has. However, if we want to talk about ecotourism, Dominica has it on lock. The Boiling Lake and all the other natural attractions are heavenly. Indigenous culture, held steady by the Kalinago and other transplanted cultures, all come together to form a rich, deeply textured and incredibly vibrant culture of Dominica, that I hope survives the radical refashioning Hurricane Maria has dealt it. The language, the national dress, the pride all form such a wealth and strength of identity that gives pause because of its prominence. It is like going into the market and realising that traders can speak French- and English-based creole or patois, or whatever we wish to call it, and then switch to standard English just as fluidly. Dominica seems to have maintained its culture and its rootedness so well that it put so many of us other incredibly globalised and deculturated Caribbean spaces to shame.
This is almost in complete contrast to Puerto Rico. Having lived there for more years than is polite to say, and having had a relationship with the space for almost as long as I have been on the planet, it seems almost unreal that such rezoning could take place. It is also devastating that the colonial attitude established after Puerto Rico became a US space in 1898 has simply remained unwavering. This incredibly rich and diverse—from north to south, east to west—island that has probably sent more Boricuas to the mainland US than it has on the island has been utterly reshaped by US imperialism and by the passage of time ... and now by the passage of Maria. Various parts of the island have experienced different types of frustrations but on the whole, Puerto Rico, though larger and more robust, is a great deal like New Providence: a first world tourist development in crumbling third world infrastructure, where government has done little to render the systems that provide daily services with any real assistance or improvement. In fact, in some instances such as public education, for example, government administrations have aggressively sought to undermine the strength of the system. Rio Piedras, the town that the University of Puerto Rico stands in, where there was a thriving market and regular trade, was pretty much wiped out by government intention to destroy the old to create new for their benefit. Puerto Rico remains blighted by corruption and the more recent disregard by the metropolitan centre with its need for assistance in bailing the territory out has run a new roughshod over their misfortune, devastation and despair.
As Amy Davidson Sorkin writes ([Where? Reference] in “The Distance Between Donald Trump and Puerto Rico,” The New Yorker, 27th September, 2017:
Trump announced that he would visit Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, which were also hard hit, next Tuesday, which he said was the soonest date. Meanwhile, the majority of people in Puerto Rico remain without clean water, the electricity grid is inoperable, cell towers are down, roads are impassable, food is rotting, and many of the elderly and the sick have been left without care. All of this is happening in America, rather than someplace distant from this country. But instead of emphasising that closeness, or a sense of mutual obligation, Trump has, so far, focused on how different Puerto Rico is, and what its people owe him, which is, above all, their gratitude.
To date, the president has said little about Puerto Rico, as reported by Davidson Sorkin in the abovementioned piece:
“Texas & Florida are doing great but Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt, is in deep trouble…” the tweets began. “It’s [sic] old electrical grid, which was in terrible shape, was devastated. Much of the Island was destroyed, with billions of dollars....”—he continued the thought in a third tweet—“owed to Wall Street and the banks which, sadly, must be dealt with. Food, water and medical are top priorities—and doing well. #FEMA.”
As American citizens, where does this leave Puerto Ricans?
Colonial history in context
2017’s Irma and Maria have brought this reality well and truly to the fore in very unkind and apparent callous ways or has shown very dismissive reactions to these overseas territories or departments, whatever the nomenclature may be. Perhaps, though, the best ‘local’ as in a regional example of this was the debacle over Montserrat in the mid-1990s that stemmed from Chances Peak, a dormant volcano that erupted multiple times and left many people dead and others evacuated.
The downside of the debacle was that this overseas territory was yet another offshore banking-finance centre and it was owned by the United Kingdom. However, the UK refused initially to welcome Montserratians, as they were not deemed to be British. Of course, all of this played out as the European Union was opening up and Hong Kong was being repossessed by China. A similar yet different atrocity had occurred when Britain refused to allow those individuals who were being persecuted in Uganda by the then brutal post-colonial dictator Idi Amin (1971-1979), who would have had British Overseas passports from seeking refuge in the UK, a policy which was later changed through international pressure.
Ethnic tensions and ‘cleansing’ are not new to this postcolonial world built on the rubble of colonialism, which is even more seen in the genocide in Rwanda that resulted from tensions cultivated by colonialism’s fickle favouritism, pitted one ethnic group directly against the other.
So, what developed was a geopolitical nightmare “. . . The violence that shocked the world in 1994 did not come from nowhere. While the CIA looked on, its allies in the Ugandan government helped to spread terror and fuel ethnic hatred” (Helen Epstein, The Guardian, Tuesday, 12 September, 2017). Nothing was done until the genocide, thought to be the fastest ever recorded, was done.
Why discuss this? As a people, a region and a global village, we appear to have become heartless or hard-hearted, to the misfortune around us. Colonialism and imperialism are constructed around the power to disempower, to extract wealth while creating deep and long-lasting inequalities. Some may say that we should simply step up and get over it. How do we do that when so much of our daily relations, our political structures and our geopolitical alliances and misalliances still go back to colonialism’s bitterness?
The colonial legacy of Bahamian-Haitian relations date back to the Governor’s Dispatches that refuse to allow black Haitians to land in the islands but would allow French to do so, as they fled the uprising that led to the Haitian Revolution.
Moving forward as a nation displaced
Meanwhile, in Nassau, people are ready to de-settle Ragged Island, decry the Prime Minister’s offer to provide humanitarian assistance to Dominicans from The Commonwealth of Dominica (not to be confused with the Dominican Republic), who are sister commonwealth citizens and speak English, unlike the reports from many “well-informed” folks on social media. This brings up a deeply troubling dehumanized side to the entire discussion. Again, what if this were to happen to us?
The racially charged, class-centred, crass economic discussion shows a cultural schism that has widened the distance between us. Poor education, poor historical and geographical understanding of geopolitics and social-history means that regional citizens are less well informed than they think, even with all the smart technology at our fingertips. Our impoverished thinking and ghettoised individuality seem to have taken deep root in the post-colonial psyche. Notwithstanding the generations of migrants and immigrants who have moved to and through The Bahamas, we have become deeply xenophobic and somehow deeply mean-spirited, but the colonial relationship seems to have been successful at balkanising all of us.
If we are depopulating Ragged Island, what will happen to us in the longer term? Reports from Antigua and Barbuda already indicate that there is action to dispossess citizens of land that they inhabited up until they were evacuated. In Puerto Rico and Dominica, what will happen? Are these different discussions? In the case of Puerto Rico, these are serious conversations because there are already precedents to dispossession. Two government administrations ago, there was a great move to get rid of unsightly and, of course, poor dwellings in the area of San Juan called Martin Peña, that had been protected by a fideicomiso, but the government had attempted to undermine it by dividing residents. Today, however, we are all under attack. The president of the United States has obviated that Puerto Rico is not on his radar as a place to which he must provide urgent support, and, that poverty and debt, presumed self-imposed, though obviously historically created, warrant less ‘good’ treatment.
Davidson Sorkin points out:
Governor Rosselló observed that if Puerto Rico is not livable, its residents could always move en masse to the mainland. And why shouldn’t they move from one part of America to another, if they want to? This is their home. (para.7)
However, what happens if they leave? If we are all forced to leave, given the new reality, are we all still nations? Or do the rabid forces of neoliberal, anti-poverty mongers, promoters of xenophobia and the depopulation and rebuilding of stronger paradise win the battle against humanity? Dominica is a magical and beautiful island that has weathered serious hardship. Barbuda faces enormous challenges that are emanating from within, the same is so for Ragged Island. We give time and credence to the sour revolt led by some intolerant Trinidadian and indeed some Bahamians who seem to forget that we are only human, of skin and bone and shall all suffer the same hardships in time. When the historical context is reexamined, do we want to live the legacy of colonially imposed, late-capitalist materialist ‘sociopathy’? We seem happy to uproot everyone but ourselves while allowing the island to be re-mapped under our very noses. The mountains and rivers of Dominica, much like the lovely blues, aqua, greens deep and shallow waters of the Bahamian archipelago are our selling points and our downfall if we let them be.
The initial underwhelming response to the British Overseas Territories seems somehow almost forgivable in the face of the US response to Puerto Rico. Our histories are being remapped and we seem to be happy to let ourselves be wiped out without resistance. Lest we forget that we are all pawns in someone else’s game and should we not look out, the treatment of others we discriminate against will be visited on us.
If an entire nation were to move, would it still be a nation or would it be reduced to a bunch of disregarded ‘poor people’ thrown to ravenous anti-equal-rights protestors who seem to see that their day has returned. They can speak and act as they wish without fear of contradiction because all sides are wrong?