THE Caribbean area has never been famous for its political stability, and recently, with Cuba taking a prominent initiative, it seems to be more eruptive than ever. Yet it still remains the hope of the British West Indies to provide a positive, truly democratic alternative to the traditional concept of Caribbean sovereignty, which has fluctuated between instability and tyranny. Despite all the difficulties of communications and the different historic origins and developments of the separate island units currently administered by Britain in the area, the plan has been to weld all these into a single federal whole.
Without some such framework, it has long been accepted —if not always admitted — by even the most ambitious and least realistic of West Indian politicians that so-called national independence has little or no meaning, because it could not contain a minimum economic and administrative viability. For the string of tiny islands comprising the Leeward Isles and the Windward Isles, and the grossly underpopulated mainland territories of British Honduras and British Guiana are individually incapable of attaining, let alone maintaining, sovereignty in any real sense of the word. Jamaica perhaps, Trinidad also, could provide the basic requirements of a Lilliputian state on the Central American pattern, but, even so, each would be more of a façade than a reality.
The obstacles to federation
Successive British governments since the last war, while ready to hand over local responsibility for self-government, have insisted on doing so to legislative and executive bodies of a size and capacity which bear some relationship to the basic needs of the area, and are willing to pool some, if not all, of the area’s sparse resources, economic, political, and administrative. The experiment of federation between states so differently conceived and developed has obviously been a difficult one to launch.
First, there are vast geographical distances between the component parts. Second, past isolation of each island or island group unit has not yet been transformed into any sense of basic West Indian nationhood. Third, as independence draws nearer, the sweets of potential office grow dearer and more attractive, and so do the incentives to fill the positions of power in the new proposed federation.
Fourth, although West Indians generally have a proud reputation for interracial tolerance, one cannot ignore the consequences of history that have left a heavy majority of Negroes in most of the islands. The only exceptions to this racial predominance are British Guiana, where people of Asian East Indian origin possess a narrow numerical majority, and Trinidad, where, although not numerically predominant, the Asians are strong enough to sway an election.
Thus, it is not altogether coincidence that in British Guiana the ruling political forces, largely of Asian origin, are openly hostile to the whole idea of federation. To keep this matter in its proper perspective, however, it must be remembered that the government of British Guiana has pronounced Marxist leanings. This is particularly so of Dr. Jagan, Guiana’s chief minister, and his avowedly Communist, Chicago born and bred wife. In contrast, the governments and the opposition parties of the various British West Indian islands, although they almost all use the title “Labor” in their names (largely owing to their trade union origin), are mostly conservative in their approach to domestic and social issues.
Under these circumstances, while a short time ago the only questions on people’s lips were how soon and in what form federation would be established, the question must now be whether it is going to succeed at all.
Oddly enough, it is not conflicting political issues that are holding back the project. All the political parties, whether they support or oppose the various island governments and the federal government, are generally in agreement on major political and economic policies. What divides them, often very bitterly, is a kaleidoscope of feuding personalities, either alone or bound in ever-changing, uneasy alliances of expediency.
Probably this is inevitable for some time to come. For, as in many other ex-colonial territories on the road to independence, the political parties that have arisen perforce have no ideological or particular social background. All are nationalistic, and nearly all of them have climbed the ladder to political power by way of trade unionism.
Down in Port of Spain, romantically named capital of Trinidad, southernmost island tip of the proposed federation, able Dr. Eric Williams holds, undisputed, the local reins of power. Port of Spain is also the capital of the federation, and so there are two governments and parliaments situated in one city. The federal one is led by Sir Grantley Adams, a shrewd but aging statesman, and although nominally supported by Dr. Williams, he is in fact constantly under fire from him for what Dr. Williams considers unnecessary moderation.
Dr. Williams and his party, comparatively new stars on the political horizon, have as their principal platform the rapid territorial independence of Trinidad inside — or, if it must be, outside — the West Indian Federation, and the drastic curtailment, if not the removal, of the American military base at Chaguaramas. This is one of the bases, like those in Bermuda and the Bahamas, which were leased to the United States by Hitler-besieged Britain during the darkest days of the last war in exchange for fifty American destroyers.
Understandably enough, Dr. Williams asserts that he sees no reason why, because Britain had to make a shotgun arrangement of this sort, Trinidad, now verging on independence, should continue, virtually indefinitely, to pay the unrequited price of handing over to a foreign power some of its best land and port facilities. Nationalism in Trinidad takes no account of the indirect economic benefits that the presence of the Americans ensures. Sir Grantley Adams — although Chaguaramas is the popular choice as the site of the federal capital to be — adopts a more temperate line, and hence another source of friction arises between these two premiers.
Dr. Williams, too, has his worries. Almost alone among the West Indian islands of the new federation, Trinidad possesses abundant resources of not yet fully tapped wealth. In addition to its far-famed bottomless asphalt lake, there seems to be plentiful oil, and, potentially, various other geological riches in marketable quantities.
As a result, Trinidad has attracted a surplus of labor from its overpopulated poorer neighbors of the West Indian isles to the north. This has led to quite a boom in Trinidad, but unfortunately the most obvious outlet for its exports is Jamaica, the leading partner of the proposed federation. Jamaica, too, has its own difficulties and its own ideas for resolving them. These do not include an influx of cheap competitive goods from its neighbors.
Instead, Jamaica, itself bursting with an ever-increasing population, looks first to its own Highly protected secondary industries to provide it with a wide range of goods before countenancing imports from the outside world. It is primarily for this reason that Trinidad is always pressing for a type of federation with a strong central government and an early complete customs union, while Jamaica favors a looser, slower association which will not prejudice the hard-won economic gains of its own people as the price of federation.
Jamaica has as its leader one of the few truly big men of the West Indies, Dr. Norman Manley, shrewd, ascetic cousin of the former premier, his relentless rival, colorful Sir Alexander Bustamente. Dr. Manley is an unusual statesman who is capable of translating West Indian federation from a dream into a reality. But he dares not yet forsake the position he holds in Jamaica for the theoretically greater but practically less important role that awaits him as the Prime Minister of the weak federal government in Trinidad. The substance of territorial power in Kingston, Jamaica’s capital, looks more attractive to him than the shadow of a federal leadership whose functions are, up to now, limited to administering a university and allocating Britain’s grants-in-aid to the various West Indian territories.
This is one of the tragedies — each island leader is so anxious not to lose or even put in jeopardy his parochial rule that he declines federal responsibility. Since there is in any case a paucity of trained, responsible political leaders, in an area which has for so long been under foreign administrative rule, it can now be seen as a mistake that the first probationary West Indian Constitution did not allow an individual, duly chosen and elected, to be both a territorial and a federal representative.
Jamaica is one of the few parts of the world where racial prejudice has disappeared to such an extent that colored people sometimes elect white members of Parliament if they think them better than their Negro opponents. This sense of racial maturity was startlingly revealed at the last election, when one European candidate would, from his record, have stood little chance of success at the polls if his colored opponent had not so misjudged his colored electorate as to appeal to them to vote for him as opposed to “a white man.” The result was a victorious majority for the white candidate.
It is paradox, indeed, that in moderate, non-race-conscious Jamaica a crazy movement based on race hatred should suddenly become a serious social irritant. The Rastafari represents a brotherhood, probably no more than five thousand strong, possessed of a fanatical religious belief that only the white man stands in the way of their proclaimed longing to return to their African homeland, which their ancestors left as slaves several hundreds of years ago. With a splendid disregard for historic accuracy, they ignore the active role Ethiopians used to play in the slave traffic and look to the Emperor, Haile Selassie, as their god and his kingdom as their promised land.
More recently, at least some of them have become disillusioned with the cold reception their approaches to their human deity received and have transferred their worship to President Tubman of Liberia, who, however, seems no more anxious to welcome them home than his royal African counterpart on the other side of the continent.
Meanwhile, these thwarted Rastafarians, aided by a few Negro cranks from the United States, are doing their best to cause unrest and insecurity in Jamaica by threats of discriminatory racial violence. Fortunately for Jamaica, and for Dr. Manley in particular, the overwhelming majority of the island’s 1,250,000 population regards these eccentrics with angry contempt.
While Jamaica and Trinidad have been vigorously seeking to build up their own economies and carrying on a war of words, the smaller island units, too, including especially Barbados, have been attempting in a variety of ways to diversify their means of livelihood. If, as seems to be the case, there is never going to be a big enough market for sugar, or lor the citrus fruits and other products that the lush fields of the West Indian plantations grow so plentifully, then something else has to be found to support the fastgrowing populations. The answer seems to lie in tourists, chiefly from the United States and Canada. Land, especially beach land, which until recently cost only a few shillings an acre, can now be reckoned in hundreds or even thousands of pounds for a small house plot.
Even if a greater sense of West Indian political unity than is now apparent were to emerge, if the battle of the personalities were to die down, and if increasing air travel facilities were to bring the scattered islands closer together, one fundamental problem, the real underlying cause of much of the average West Indian politician’s sense of frustration, would still remain. How will these tiny islands feed their increasing populations? In many other underdeveloped areas of the world a raised standard of living has brought a higher birth rate; and effective health measures, a lower mortality rate. In the West indies the consequences are accentuated, because there are not many natural resources available that can be developed, even if enough capital from the outside world were forthcoming.
Emigration seems a ready answer, but where? Thousands have gone to Britain, so many thousands that voices are growing louder in England demanding, contrary to its traditional policy, some drastic curtailment of this “return exodus” from across the Atlantic. The United States and Canada, for their part, have rigorous quotas on West Indian immigration.
It has been suggested that surplus peoples from the islands could overflow into Britain’s two mainland South American colonies, British Guiana and British Honduras. Admittedly these are grossly underpopulated — half a million people in the former, a country the size of the United Kingdom, and only fifty thousand in Honduras. But both places are poor, with little possible economic development in the foreseeable future. Even the limited number of inhabitants already there are fed and kept at work only through annual welfare grants from Britain. Furthermore, Guiana’s East Indian majority has no intention of letting its present favorable racial balance be altered by a large inflow of more people of Negroid origin.
Faced with a conundrum that seems to have no answer, West Indians, although as anxious as people anywhere else to attain their freedom and run their own affairs, still demand as a right that Britain and Canada, and America too, must continue thereafter to underwrite them financially. This may seem illogical, but the only alternative is an almost certain collapse of even the scant degree of unity that has already been achieved among these “islands in the sun.”