Caribbean Integration: Can Cultural Production Succeed
where politics and economics have failed?
By Norman Girvan1
One of the beautiful things about events like this Festival del Caribe is the continual discovery that the things that unite us, as Caribbean people, are far more powerful than those that divide us. The barriers of language and political status virtually evaporate in the heat of music, dance and shared rituals.
At yesterday’s desfile,for instance, a Jamaicanwould have recognised JonCannu and Rastafari among the Cuban groups; a Trinidadian would have recognised familiar Carnival characters like Moko Jumbies and Dame Lorraines. At last year’s Festival I had several such Epiphany moments. Allow me to share so me of these with you by quoting from a commentary I made at the time:
“As scholars pondered Pan-Africanism in Cuba and Jamaica and the development of Black consciousness in Martinique and Trinidad and Tobago; Vudú and Yoruba religious ceremonies were being performed in communities adjacent to Santiago. Attending several of the cultural events, I came away with a strong sense of the power of music, dance and spiritualism as the common language of Caribbean people. Santiago’s Steelband del Cobre and Trinidad’s Valley Harps steel orchestra had half their audiences at Teatro Heredia jumping on the stage at the end of their respective performances.
The cultural procession held in the city centre before the culture ministers of Cuba and Trinidad and Tobago and a crowd of several thousand ended with a street jump-up which to all intents and purposes was a j’ouvert—except that it was Santiagueran Conga. The homage to the Cimmaron(Maroon) held on a hilltop in the community of Cobre was a ceremony with powerful spiritual impact—complete with possession—which reminded me of Jamaican Kumina and, I am told, shared many elements with Trinidadian Shango. And of course the great Bob (Marley) was everywhere.”2
The sense of the Caribbean as a ‘community of culture’ that one experiences on these occasions, stands in curious contrast with the difficulties that have been encountered in configuring the Caribbean as an economic and political community. Seen through a political - economic optic, the image of the Caribbean is one of extreme political fragmentation, linguistic diversity and disconnected economies. The last time I counted, there were some 38 different political jurisdictions in the Caribbean region; consisting of 16 independent states and 22 non-independent territories.
We speak Spanish, French, English and Dutch and several creole languages. We trade far more with the metropolitan countries—the present and former colonial powers—than with one another. The ‘view from the top’ seems be out of synch with the ‘view from below’, so to speak.
Another example of this is the way in which Caribbean people from one place to another, according to where the opportunities are, to work, to trade, to make a living. When they move, the matter of language, of passport, of visa, of work permits and so on are simply obstacles to be circumvented by one means or another. They have shown, and show, incredible ingenuity in doing this.
In the island of St Martin, which is half Dutch and French, a journalist once told me that his mother, which was a commercial trader, spoke at least four languages. She spoke English, because her parents were from St Kitts; Spanish, because she was born in the Dominican Republic; French, because she lived in French St Martin; and Papiamentu because she marketed her merchandise in Dutch St Marten. This lady, who had a primary school education, spoke more languages than most PhDs.
A great Caribbean thinker named George Beckford used to say, “Caribbean people are already integrated. The only people who don’t know it are the governments.” The Trinidadian calypsonian, The Black Stalin, has a calypso called “Caribbean Man” ; in which he declaresthat the people of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) have discovered the secrets of integration, while the governments continue to make a mess of it. The governments should learn from the ordinary people, he says, especially from the Rastafarians, for there are Rastas in every island.
In fact, our history shows us that integration from above in the Caribbean has had a very mixed record. There have been some successes, but also many failures. In colonial times, territories were often grouped together because it was cheaper for the colonial power to administer several colonies as a single unit. I n the British territories at one time or another there were federations of the Leeward Islands and the Windward Islands. The Dutch organised a federation of the Netherlands Antilles.For the most part, none of these colonial federations lasted.
The most notable example was the West Indies Federation, of 1958 to 1962. This was a hybrid—a colonial federation on a path to decolonisation. It broke up because of disagreements among the West Indian leaders over issues like how much seats each island should have in the Federal Parliament, how much power the central government should haveover the island units, especially in taxation; and haw far people should be free to move from one island to another (freedom of movement).
More recently, in 2010, there was the break-up of the five-island federation of the Netherlands Antilles. Yet it is significant that since the break-up of the West Indies Federation, the very same territories have been engaged in schemes of economic integration and cooperation. So we have had the Caribbean Free Trade As sociation (CARIFTA), 1965-1973; the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM),formed in 1973; and the project to establish a CARICOM Single Market and Economy5 (CSME), initiated in 1989.
There have also been Pan-Caribbean initiatives: the Caribbean Development and Cooperation Committee (CDCC) of the U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean; and the Association of Caribbean States (ACS), which was formed in 1994. The political elites of the English-speaking Caribbean countries which have secured ‘independence’ have come to . the realisation understand that, in today’s world, small countries like ours simply have no choice but to integrate, or at least cooperate.
But these initiatives at regional integration have a very uneven record of success. Let us take the case of the Caribbean Community—CARICOM—which is generally recognised as the most advanced scheme of regional integration in the Caribbean. I quote from a recent report prepared by a high-level team of consultants: “’CARICOM is in crisis. This is so for three reasons:
1. Long-standing frustrations with the slow progress have continued to mount.
2. A serious weakening in its structure and operations over the years.
3. Continuing economic retrenchment since the financial crisis of 2008 and
the risk of further deterioration.
The crisis is sufficiently serious as to put the very existence of CARICOM in question.”3
The fact is that CARICOM has a long history of shortfalls in the implementation of decisions on economic integration that have been taken by the political leaders in the formal organs of the Community. The problem of lack of implementation is known as ‘the implementation deficit’. The root of the problem is that governments are not willing to surrender any of their sovereign authority to the organs of the Community, where their sovereignty may be exercised collectively.
As a result, CARICOM’S economic integration project is virtually at a standstill. And without going into detail, I can say that the existence of Caricom has not made a significant difference to the economic development of its members. Trade within the Caricom is just about 15 per cent of the total foreign trade of its members. The amount of investment that takes place from one country to another is small, and mostly comes from the most industrially advanced member state, Trinidad and Tobago. On the other hand, CARICOM has registered many successes in functional cooperation.
This covers 12 areas, including education, health, the environment and climate change, Caribbean Sea, disaster preparedness, labour, culture, youth, sport, gender, drugs, and ICTs, tourism, and fisheries. CARICOM also plays a useful role as an interlocutor with extra-regional powers. But the re is an important lesson, it seems to me, in the fact that top-down integration initiatives have a mixed record, while our people are busy ‘doing their own thing’.
I firmly believe that true integration can never be purely or even primarily a matter of economics; one that is driven by the calculus of costs and benefits. (That is why the subtitle of this presentation is “Confessions of a wayward economist”. ) Economics must play its part , of course. But the bedrock of integration must be a sense, not so much of common identity—because we do not have identical identities—but what could be called a ‘community of identities’; identities fashioned in response to a very special historical experience; an experience that we all share in one way or another.
The establishment of a community of identities, it seems to me, is the result of a process of mutual self-discovery of ourselves as a Caribbean people; the discovery of our historical commonalities; discovering, and learning to appreciate, the diversity of creative responses. The late, great Rex Nettleford invented a word that he called “smaddification”4.
This is derived from the Jamaican word for “somebody” (Jamaican: “smaddy”). So “smaddification” might be loosely translated as “to become somebody”; if you like, the affirmation of personhood. Aimé Césaire also invented a word: ‘thingification’; which for him defines ‘colonization’5.
Thus, colonized peoples became ‘things’—chattels to be bought and sold, natives to be exploited or eliminated . It occurs to me that Nettleford’s ‘smaddification’ is the dialectical opposite of Césaire’s ‘thingification’. In the one, personhood is denied; in the other, it is realized; the object becomes the subject, the agent of its own liberation.
If thingification is thesis, smaddification is antithesis. Further, smaddification is not only about resistance, it is about creation. And it is not only individual, but collective—movements of the people. Caribbean peoples have created languages, have created music, have created great works of art, of literature, of poetry, of drama; have accomplished great feats in the world of sport ; they have made great revolutions; each one responding to the specificities of local experience; each enriching the collective Caribbean experience.
But our people, by and large, are deprived of this knowledge, of this consciousness, of his sense of who we are, of where we are coming from, of what we have accomplished; separately and collectively. A nd so they are being deprived of that most precious resource of all —the self-knowledge that instills self-respect, respect for one other, a sense of certainty, of the necessity and the capacity to chart our own future. It is a resource that the ordinary American, or European, or Chinese or Indian—simply takes for granted. It is something that he or she begins to acquire from infancy; becoming part of their deeply embedded consciousness of self.
This sense of Caribbean self is a work in progress; in constant struggle with the legacy of our respective colonial inheritances and with the seductive distractions of so-called globalization. Our writers, artists, musicians—those who labour in the world of cultural production—have been the torchbearers in this wonderful endeavour. And my own personal debt to them, in my self-discovery as a Caribbean person, is beyond measure. And that, for me, is the real value of events such as the Festival de Caribe; and of the many other cultural events and processes that are taking place across the Caribbean space.
I get the feeling that something is stirring in the Caribbean. Cultural festivals of diverse expressions seem to be bursting out all over the place—literary, film, music, dance, art, food. And what seems to me significant is that, even when they are initiated as ‘national’ festivals, they end up acquiring a Caribbean dimension. It is almost as if organisers come to the realisation that the national melds seamlessly into the Caribbean. The one complements, and extends, the other.
Last month I was at the St Martin Book Fair. This book fair is the work of two organisations, the Conscious Lyrics Foundation and the House of Nehesi Publishers. The Founder of Nehesi, whose name is Lasana Sekou, is a rather extraordinary individual: he is a poet, a writer of fiction, a historian, a newspaper editor, an essayist, a cultural activist, a former political activist, an entrepreneur.
Actually, this is not necessarily extraordinary in the Caribbean; the small size of our societies and the absence of a critical mass of individuals representing a wide range of interests and capabilities, often require people like Sekou to play multiple roles. In other ways he is also very Caribbean. Sekou was born in Aruba of St Martin parentage, and, after studying in the United States, made St Martin his home. As Editor of House of Nehesi Publishers, he has eschewed an insular nationalistic policy.
Nehesi publishes texts from the Pan-Caribbean; it has indeed dared to publish bilingual editions of creative writing and literary criticism; like the recently released Haiti and the Trans-Caribbean Literary Identity/Haití y la transcaribeñidad literaria by Emilio Jorge Rodriguez6, the Cuban literary critic. A review of this extraordinary little book, by Dr Myriam Chancy, who is herself a writer and of Haitian descent, shows us that:
“...Rodriguez traces with detailed attention the movements between Haiti and specifically the Latin Caribbean, especially since the 1940s, underscoring the importance of visits to Haiti by Nicolás Guillén and Alejo Carpentier and exchanges in person between Guillén and Jacques Stephen Alexis, between Alejo Carpentier and the Kreyol poet Felix Morisseau-Leroy. In this context, Jorge Rodriguez's bilingual collection of essays is of strategic importance because it uncovers key exchanges, some textual, some actual between Haitian and Cuban writers primarily and shows how the writers came to know, interpret, and, in ways, translate their works through linguistic and cultural divides, to find common ground.”7
The reciprocal influences between the Cuban and the Haitian writers so revealingly brought to light by Emilio Jorge Rodriguez and Myriam Chancy appear to me be a kind of trans-Caribbean work in progress; or if you prefer, of organic Caribbean integration at a cultural level, and one that has no equivalent so far in the formal structures of economics and politics. Once I began to think about it in this way, I began to see expressions of ‘’trans-Caribbeanity’ almost everywhere. For example, in the introduction to Corazon de Pelicano/Pelican Heart, a book of Lasana Sekou’s own poetry; I read here Emilio Jorge Rodriguez says:
“In Poems like Nativity [...] we find an aesthetic, ethic and ideological construction, which transmits the desire to encompass the dissimilar roots that integrate and merge with Caribbean culture. More than a national chat, as some may be tempted to catalogue it, the poem becomes a deep reflection that transcends the ambit of the islands and becomes an extensive text with regional roots, drawing together historical and cultural experiences that have had an impact on the formation and development of Caribbean peoples and their intelligentsia, thirsty for definitions of identity. Therefore, it is also a proposal which salvages the honour of Caribbean beings in their ancestral diversity, as well as the various elements that converge in their culture and history.”8
So that in spite of (or because of?) political fragmentation, economic crisis and social problems of various kinds; we see many signs of cultural intercourse and cultural creativity, in several expressions, and across the barriers of language and polity, in the regional space. Is there a way to bring this process into the mainstream of official intercourse, into the world and the work of governments ; where the discourse on integration seem s to be dominated by matters of trade and investment and administrative structures?
I question why is Jamaica not here at the Festival del Caribe? Why is Guyana not here? We have over 100 cultural representatives from Argentina; we have probably less than one-tenth of that number from the whole of the English speaking Caribbean. And this is not the fault of the Casa del Caribe; not for want of invitation. Is it just because our governments don’t have the money to send cultural delegations? Or does it speak to a failure of imagination; of appreciation, of what culture is, of what it can be as a force for integration?
I believe that a documentary film is being made of this experience. I expect that people from different part of the region will be interviewed to talk about its personal impact on them. It is the kind of film that should be shown, not only to ministers of culture; but even more importantly to prime ministers, presidents, ministers of trade and investment, educators, students. Would this not help to motivate them, to give new life and dynamism to the formal processes of integration? Can cultural production succeed in driving integration, where economics and politics have failed? Let me leave with you a reflection by George Lamming:
“I do not think there has been anything in human history quite like the meeting of Africa, Asia, and Europe in this American archipelago we call the Caribbean. But it is so recent since we assumed responsibility for our own destiny, that the antagonistic weight of the past is felt as an inhibiting menace. And that is the most urgent task and the greatest intellectual challenge: How to control the burden of this history and incorporate it into our collective sense of the future...”9
1. Presentation at The Colloquium, “The Caribbean That Unites Us”, Festival del Caribe, Santiago de Cuba, 5 July 2012. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the St Martin Book Fair on 31 May 2012
2. “Santiago’s Festival of Fire: Cubans hug up their Caribbean culture”, http://www.normangirvan.info/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/girvan-santiago-festival1.pdf
3. Landell Mills Report,
4. For an appreciation, see Honor Ford-Smith, “A Tribute to Rex Nettleford”, http://www.bahamasuncensored.com/NettlefordTribute.html
Accessed 14 July 2012.
5. Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism. Trans. Joan Pinkham. New York: Monthly Review. 1972. P. 42
6. Trans. Maria Teresa Ortega. Published by House of Nehesi, 2011.
7. Myriam J.A. Chancy, Meditation for a Forgotten Past: Translating and Remembering Haiti’s Intellectual Legacy.
rodriguez-intro.pdf . pp. 2-3
8. Emilio Jorge Rodriguez, “Introduction and Notes”, in Corazon de Pelicano/Pelican Heart: An Anthology of Poems by Lasana M. Sekou. Trans. Maria Teresa Ortega.St Martin: House of Nehesi Publishers, 2010; p. 222