Reflecting on his upbringing in Trinidad, V.S. Naipaul denies cultural identity to his part of the Caribbean: “Nothing bound us together except this common residence.” Indeed, the area called Caribbean is constantly redefining itself. Its tongues include English, French, Spanish, and Dutch. Its population shows large deposits of Chinese and Indians as well as African blacks. Island status, often thought of as a defining factor, is not a requisite—consider Belize, Guyana, Surinam. Countries have been known to call themselves Caribbean when politic to do so: hearing that Venezuela had done so, the late Prime Minister of Trinidad, Eric Williams, fumed, “I expect to hear Tierra del Fuego called Caribbean next.”
The French element (Martinique, Guadeloupe, though not Haiti) has remained departmentally linked to the mainland for obvious social service advantages—the fire-breathing independence movement in Guadeloupe being tiny, and Russian-led. Aruba has refused to become a Dutch-protected entity with the other ABC islands (Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao), but now seems to be reconsidering. Geoffrey Wagner is Emeritus Professor of the City University of New York, with a number of books to his credit; he lives in Grenada and writes frequently on the region. Factional interests—the penalty of insularity everywhere—prevented the ex-British West Indies from uniting. After the war there was the short-lived Federation of the West Indies; then came the inter-island trade community called CARIF- TA; then, as the larger islands went independent (Jamaica and Trinidad/Tobago in 1962, Barbados and mainland Guyana in 1966), the Windwards signed the St. Vincent Treaty, with Premiers Mitchell of St. Vincent, Compton of St. Lucia, and Gairy of Grenada endeavoring to set up a free union of goods and people.
It did not last long—trade tariffs went up, visas were required—nor did the strident St. George’s Agreement of 1979, under whose banner Grenada’s Maurice Bishop hoped to organize Caribbean Communism. This too became another forgotten scrap of paper. The Windwards were granted Associate Statehood, from which category Grenada was the first to free itself (under Gairy) in 1974. Still the inter-island bickerings continue, as in attempts by Tobago to secede from Trinidad, or Barbuda from Antigua. Grenada is presently the second smallest member of the UN, but if Barbuda obtained independence, it would vote in the UN off a population of 700. Montserrat has remained a Grown Colony, as has tiny Anguilla, but the latter is now muttering about independence, a cause no politician can oppose (just as no one can publicly support prostitution or apartheid). Most of Anguilla works for a luxury hotel complex.
With all the inter-island alliances failing one after another, England can hardly be blamed for wanting to rid itself of these embarrassing colonial remnants, running on deficits, and as difficult to defend as to define demographically. If it is true that half the present citizens of Nicaragua are under 16, then 60 percent of the ex-British Caribbean, from Jamaica to Guyana, are under 15. Into this milieu, of course, Communism plants its poison. Meanwhile, these secessions have made for some interesting sociology.
Generally speaking, the British left an authoritarian and hierarchical society with which the average agricultural West Indian felt, and still feels, comfortable—partly because of the strong religious element bequeathed by the French: An island like Grenada is 95 percent Catholic, the rest being Baptist spin-offs and fringe religions. The schools are notoriously conservative, so much so there have been cases of West Indians living in “liberal” London boroughs, sending their children back to the islands for more disciplined schooling. Children must attend in uniforms, paid for by their parents—usually mothers—and the cane is not uncommon; in fact, corporal punishments (“strokes”) are often awarded in magistrates’ courts, particularly in Trinidad, where rapes are unpleasantly routine. All the islands retained capital punishment when England abolished it in 1965.
The result has been a standard of behavior, a code of manners perhaps exemplified in cricket, which is followed with passion throughout the islands and at which West Indians excel. During his interregnum, Bishop discouraged cricket in Grenada, importing Cuban boxers. He had little effect. Cricket is a grave, complicated game that has not changed since I played it as a boy, and it is rare that umpires’ decisions are disputed—when the Jamaican fast bowler Michael Holding jostled an umpire in a match in New Zealand he was sharply rebuked in the West Indian press. The Guyanese Clive Lloyd, who captained so many West Indian teams to victory, was a model of sportsmanship and personal conduct on the field.
There is no doubt that all this seeps down into public behavior locally. Obscene language is disallowed and, outside Jamaica and Trinidad, relatively little heard— certainly compared with the streets of Manhattan—while in Grenada, beach nudity is not merely frowned on, it is also illegal (I have known old biddies guarding their goats to report cases to the police). Put three West Indians to work for you in your garden, and two will be calling the third “Sir” in five minutes.
This sort of social grading is based on an innate respect, and everyone greets everyone else (except in the cities). This recognition of the individual, a real feature of life in the islands, was exemplified for me when a market dame, standing beside her stall of vegetables, watched a Rasta, clearly high on “de weed,” twitch past, giggling. “Him don’t like himself,” she said, the translation of which was that man is created in the image of God, and such a creature had so debased that image he hated himself Playing snooker in the St. George’s Club (which has to be the most select in the world since there are only 18 members, most from the judiciary), I have more than once decided that senior West Indians are the last Englishmen around. Now, however, thanks to geographical proximity, the global village, tourism, rapid transit, and media influence, America has come into the picture. The vertical world meets the horizontal. You are no longer Sir or Madam, but a buddy.
In the previous value system in the islands, behavior was coded to a norm, or an expectancy of behavior. As a result, nearly all white residents dressed conservatively. Tourists could wear what they liked; if they dressed sloppily (or, in the case of women, suggestively), then they couldn’t think much of themselves. Them didn’t like themselves. In the past 20 years, however, tourism and settlement in these islands have shifted radically from British to American (and Canadian, which I call north North American). The EC (Eastern Caribbean) dollar has, as a consequence, linked itself with the American dollar rather than with sterling. Changes in American and, especially, Canadian immigration laws mean a warmer welcome for ex-colonials than in England, for which Windward Islanders, at any rate, needed no visa before independence. Whole unions in New York City—nurses and hospital paramedics, for example—are ex-jamaican today. Miami is heavily Caribbean-serviced. The Bahamas are a prolongation of Florida; you can pass through U.S. immigration at Nassau. A headline in The Economist of March 10, 1984, put this Caribbean turn from Albion to America in a nutshell—”Say Something If Only Goodbye.”
So a new white class has been structured into this once slow-moving society. It is not based on social caste, however indigent that may be (I am thinking of the many impoverished English retirees who used to put themselves out to grass in the islands), but on the privilege of money. Americans come and go, rapidly and with ease. They do not behave as expected of white people, often walking around braless and untidy and using drugs. It could be said that yachtsfolk, equally dirty and barefoot, offered the same spectacle, but one could add that the average West Indian didn’t quite know how to deal with them sociologically, either. Them, too, hate themselves.
Now, however, the local cane cutter or banana grower is adjured to encourage this element, since tourism is vital to these islands. During the season, Barbados will get as many as 800 tourist arrivals a day, nearly all of them American. It would be bankrupt without tourism. So would Antigua, which regularly imports water from Dominica. I would not like to think what would happen to either of those islands if cut off by a war. For though the Caribbean has been called America’s backyard, it is strategically more like its front door. Managua is closer to Washington than is California.
The alien manners system introduced by American tourism carries further pressures behind it. The first dishes have sprouted in the islands—the video-cassette finding a ready outlet in a world more or less devoid of cinemas or theaters—and U.S. TV shows the good life coming down from America. West Indians hardly had to be told this, so many of them having relatives in “the States.” Many Jamaicans are, in fact, on food stamps, and the other day I stood in line at my bank behind two locals cashing their Social Security checks (both larger than my own). TV’s pressure, by being geared to the American way, is bound to change the balance of life in the islands. Already Trinidad has complained of saturation by U.S. programming, yet can substitute nothing in its place. Beside the glossy life-style on display, the British seem a drab and impoverished lot when those few who do come step off their cheapie cruise or airline tours (moreover, they’re inferior at cricket). In fact, those English who build houses for themselves in the region tend to be very rich absentee landlords, which only exacerbates the situation (Lord Brownlow in Grenada).
Furthermore, to the emigrating West Indian middle class, England looks absurdly vulnerable to the latest American trend or fad. Even under Maurice Bishop, who roared away about women’s rights, feminism never got a foothold in Grenada. Also, the smaller islands must be the least homosexual places in the world (AIDS unknown). But no sooner have some Yale students dedicated a shanty to Winnie Mandela than some London borough, like Islington or Hackney, will leap-frog them with glorification of an even more extreme and bloodthirsty revolutionary.
Nevertheless, while evidently vulnerable to such trends, Thatcher’s England has at least tried to stop some of the nonsense; immigration laws have been tightened and the Greater London Council abolished. The latter, incidentally, had no copyright on diversion of tax funds to support radical political advocacy and sexual deviation; the American taxpayers’ pockets have been rifled, too, on the same scurvy errands.
This misled Yankee ingenuity could be summarized in the case of the feminist founder of Aplex Corp. who wants to persuade women to stand up while urinating and is even marketing a device (Le Funelle) for them to do so. One notes here the instant respectability accorded to the idiocy; the good lady has incorporated herself. A put-on? Not at all. Nothing succeeds like excess, as Wilde had it—and least of all in America, one could add. There is more than one congressman who has expressed satisfaction with the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Tim Wirth (now senator from Colorado): “In the long run, the Russian invasion of Afghanistan will turn out to be a stabilizing influence in the Middle East” (Boulder, Colorado, Daily Camera, January 18, 1980). America looks like a very permissive society, indeed, to the average West Indian native. He may not respect it, but he can get something out of it, the reverse of his attitude to England.
In Grenada, when the Communist Maurice Bishop seized power in 1979, the populace was subjected to nonstop vilification of America and/or capitalism (its Politburo code word), to say nothing of the filth hurled on Ronald Reagan (“eater of babies”). I listened to four and a half years of this at close hand. The schools and churches were attacked. But despite the introduction of Marxist educational lackeys, like the British Alan Searle, these elements remained remarkably resilient in the face of indoctrination. Children were made to chant revolutionary songs, attend the political rallies, paint slogans, so forth. It was a full-blooded attack on the vertical society.
Yet despite the lure of unpunished truancy, schoolchildren deserted the rallies, until they eventually petered out. Their parents left the island in droves, not for Africa, but America, or Babylon. For in a curious way the anti-American rhetoric rebounded on itself; it drew unusual attention to the United States—I had more requests to bring down a motorbike from the States than at any other time, and I doubt if a Russian model would have been appreciated. Later, after Bishop’s deposition and murder, the drift to America was intensified. In October 1985 the Queen paid Grenada a visit in order to open the first democratically elected parliament since the 1979 coup. Admittedly it was raining, but her visit did not, frankly, arouse much interest, certainly not as much as had her first visit in 1966, when friends put her up. On this occasion she went on to New Zealand, where eggs were thrown at her. In Grenada there was the usual smattering of Anglophile civil servants about to receive the OBE (Obey Brass Eagerly), but I saw more Stars and Stripes displayed by shopkeepers in the capital than the Union Jacks issued them. One sign read: England Forsaked Us; America Saved Us. On February 20, 1986, Reagan paid a similar visit and was met with rapturous applause by nearly half the island at the Queen’s Park cricket ground. The turn from a Europocentric way of life was clear.
Still, if these islands God made from de rainbow (as the saying goes) are today inhabited by young people looking to America as a model, we may expect the worst as well as the best of the horizontal American freedom to infect them. Grenada’s brief embrace of Maurice Bishop was, apart from fatigue with the incumbent (Gairy), less hatred of capitalism than infatuation with imported ’60ish American socialism. When this was run on to its end in dictatorship, the island reneged on its enthusiasm, and considerable satisfaction was felt in 1986, when 14 (including a woman) were sentenced to be hanged for the murder of Bishop and his Ministers.
Does, then, this sociological shift make for political volatility? It certainly does. After the Grenada intervention, “Fast Eddie” Seaga took Jamaica from the Marxist Manley by 51 votes out of 60. Were there a Jamaican election tomorrow, this count could be reversed (as it was in recent municipal elections). The Caribbean Basin Initiative was confidently predicated on the hope that local governments would remain stable, given a strong free economy. Certainly “Tom” Adams provided as much in Barbados and carried all before him during intervention; however, when he subsequently died, his successor lost to the anti-American Errol Barrow, who took 23 seats out of 25. Regionally oil-rich Trinidad went to the polls in December 1986, and incumbent George Chambers, successor to Sir Eric Williams, did not merely lose, he also went down to virtually unknown A.N.R. Robinson by 33 seats to three! All this, to say the least, makes any sort of rational interpretive diplomacy in the region very difficult.