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Friday, April 07, 2006

Caribbean community and consciousness

Franklin W Knight
Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The Caribbean may be defined in many ways. No one knows what exactly the indigenous inhabitants called the area where they lived. Christopher Columbus could not communicate with them and arrogantly called the region the Indies because he thought he was off the coast of India.

The Spanish would later call the area Las Indias, or Las Antillas, which the English translated as the West Indies. By the 17th century the French called their islands Les Caraibes after the natives who fiercely resisted their early colonial intrusions, or Outre Mer, the land beyond the seas.

Definitions of the Caribbean were strictly for convenience, largely imposed by those from the outside for purposes that often bear little relevance to Caribbean realities. Some view the Caribbean as the islands plus the enclaves on the mainland such as Belize, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana whose historical trajectory and societal experience were roughly similar. That is, perhaps, the most widely accepted definition of the Caribbean.

Others such as the Ronald Reagan administration in the United States created a Caribbean Basin in the 1980s that included much of Central America but excluded Cuba, the largest of the Caribbean islands. Still others see the Caribbean in terms of cultural uniformity, thereby creating a community from the Carolinas to Brazil. This definition conflates the Caribbean with tropical America.

For those living within the Caribbean, more specific locational references are not only more desirable but also more useful. The village within a parish, the city within a territory, or a specific island was certainly preferable to the larger designation of Caribbean, although that designation had some relevance and significance. Usually the resort to the larger term indicated the wish for collective or cooperative action.

In other words, Caribbean connoted integration. Yet it was integration in the pragmatic sense of the historian Fernando Picó when he states: "Unity does not mean uniformity but rather community of purpose."

The idea of a federation of the Caribbean or parts of the Caribbean goes back to the 19th century. The associative federal political model had a short life in the 19th century among certain Eastern Caribbean territories of the Anglophone Caribbean. It had an even shorter life among a more ambitiously constructed group in the middle of the 20th century.

In the 1950s the economic development model of Luis Muñoz Marín in Puerto Rico attracted many influential leaders across the region. "Operation Bootstrap" revolutionised Puerto Rican society, economy, and culture but failed to find fertile ground elsewhere.

In the 1960s the Cuban revolutionary model magnetised leftists especially in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, and Grenada. By the beginning of the 21st century Cuba became, as it had been before the revolution, more important for its successful sports, irresistible music and varied tourist attractions than for its unifying model of political economy.

Then came CARICOM in the 1970s, with its lofty rhetoric and feeble action - fortiter in modo suaviter in re (loud and furious signifying nothing) as the Romans would say. To say that Caricom has been ineffective might be a trifle unkind. To admit that, like so many Caribbean politicians, the achievements pale against the pronouncements lies closer to the mark.

From its inception in the late 15th century, Caribbean integration has always confronted two contradictory patterns. One has been a centripetal force that envisions the Caribbean as a region of opportunity resulting in immigrant streams from all around the globe, thereby creating the most diverse societies of the Americas. The other was a powerful simultaneous centrifugal force that, for whatever reason, drove people away, though not necessarily permanently, through the past centuries.

In any case, the Caribbean has been a zone of equal immigration and emigration. Both tendencies have fed the consciousness of a wider Caribbean identity. Increasingly these new notions of the Caribbean have come to include diaspora communities around the globe.

Caribbean peoples disperse readily across the region and around the world. Large Cuban communities are found in the USA, Europe, and Australia. Jamaicans are at home in Canada, the USA and Europe. Dominicans - not only from the Dominican Republic but also from Dominica - are everywhere. And the same goes for all the rest of the Caribbean.

If community has been elusive, collective consciousness is prevalent. A regionalised Caribbean consciousness is not the exclusive result of diaspora communities, however. Within the Caribbean, folk have always found their regional soulmates attractive. Many think of themselves as part of a broad association that is loosely linked but which has much in common.

That is reflected in the rapid transfer of music, or even jokes that find equivalencies across the major language frontiers. It even drives the discussion of the origin of salsa, which like the bones of Columbus is distributed among three places - New York, Cuba, and Puerto Rico.
Acceptance of the regional commonalities has moved ahead of politicians' ability to forge meaningful community.

Professional organisations such as academics in the Association of Caribbean History, the Caribbean Studies Association, the Association of Caribbean Publishers and the Caribbean Meteorological Association have all demonstrated that language and insularity are inconveniences but not necessarily obstacles to collective action.

More and more scholars are breaking out from their insular base. Jacques Adelaide and Alain Buffon of Guadeloupe, or Fernando Picó, Francisco Scarano, Jorge Giovannetti, Teresita Martinez Vergne, Pedro San Miguel, and Lillian Guerra of Puerto Rico, have become true experts on the wider Caribbean.

So too have Anthony Maingot of Trinidad, and Leslie Manigat of Haiti. These people, and many more, are multilingual as well as multicultural and feel completely at ease in Spanish, French, English or Dutch Caribbean areas.

Caribbean peoples have no difficulty accepting plural identities, and that is why the relatively late appeal of regional writing is mildly surprising. Caribbean peoples have always been mobile, revolutionary, creative, and highly adaptive throughout their existence.

They have reified the Creole and they live it devoid of the schizophrenic manifestations that outsiders believe to be germane to the condition. Within the Caribbean notions of class, race, gender, poverty, inequality and occupation all get attention. They are never, however, considered in isolation. That is the inescapable reality of the plural society - and the Caribbean is an area of plural societies par excellence.

Posted by jebratt :: Friday, April 07, 2006 :: 0 comments

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