Robert Buddan, Contributor
Cuba has said that 16 hurricanes have struck the island between 1997 and 2009 at a cost of $20 billion. Over the same time, the country lost $10 billion due to lower world prices for its sugar, tobacco and nickel, and rising import costs for oil and basic foods.
Haiti suffered the worst earthquake damage in the Western Hemisphere. It was struck by a hurricane too. There is a now a cholera epidemic there. The country cannot help itself. The people are frustrated and angry. Violent protests have erupted in cities and towns across the country.
In Jamaica, a mere tropical storm has cost the country $20 billion. This is almost the same as the onerous $23 billion pre-International Monetary Fund (IMF) tax package imposed by the Government last December, which has helped to depress the economy. Jamaica's debt is three times what is considered sustainable. That debt is at least one and a half times above sustainable levels for many other Caribbean countries.
The number of named storms in 2010 has already almost doubled the average for 1966 to 2009. The number of hurricanes this year has exceeded the average over that time. The same is true for major hurricanes. The Caribbean has suffered badly.
Professor Norman Girvan recently wrote:
"On Saturday, 30 October, the entire banana crop of St Vincent, the main export industry, was wiped out in the space of one afternoon. St Lucia and Barbados also suffered major economic damage. Tobago and Dominica were also affected. At the time of writing, the weather system responsible is expected eventually to veer northwards and deal what will be another lethal blow to Haiti, where more than a million people are living with only tented shelters to protect them as a result of the January earthquake. Another major human catastrophe may be unfolding before our very eyes, which we seem impotent to prevent. On the other hand, if the weather system stays on a westward course, it will deal further blows to Jamaica, which has not yet recovered from Tropical Storm Nicole (J$20 billion damage), and probably Belize, which is still recovering from Hurricane Richard."
A large part of the region held its breath for days because of storms Nicole and Tomas. The livelihoods of millions depended on which way they turned.
We haven't added up the billions-of-dollars cost of the American trade embargo to the Cuban economy, the looting of Haiti by dictators, sweat-shop industries and neo-liberal trade policies that have made the country more externally dependent on food, the cost of crime and the 'Dudus' fiasco to Jamaica, and the cost of crime for the rest of the Caribbean.
Sir Ronald Sanders has said that the English-speaking Caribbean is worse off at the end of the first decade of the 21st century than it was at the beginning. The first decade of this century has been a decade of decline. The region is worse off in crime rates, growth rates, indebtedness and unemployment. Jamaica's poverty rate has shot up from under 10 per cent to 16.5 per cent in the two years up to 2009.
There is a Caribbean-wide crisis that our political systems were never constructed or designed to address. Professor Girvan puts the problem well. He calls it 'existential threats'. He means 'systemic challenges to the viability of our states as functioning socioeconomic-ecological-political systems due to the intersection of climatic, economic, social and political developments'. These threats are not occasional and irregular, as they were at Independence. They are permanent, recurring phenomena. They are serious threats to Caribbean development.
Crisis leads to denial. Denial is a form of powerlessness. Those who are powerless will bury their heads and find many reasons to think that a crisis will go away or be taken care of somehow.
We put our faith in men in government, not systems of governance. But men in power come and go while systems, if they are built for sustainability, will serve many generations. We put our faith in aid and loans from other countries, ignoring the conditions for their use, and the luxuries we use them for. We put our faith in elections when elections don't change oil prices and stop natural disasters. We put faith in the chance that the disasters of today will go away, despite the scientific data that show them getting worse. We put our faith in escape through migration, without seeing that these existential threats are global and, at any rate, however far away we are, our families, properties and friends are still here.
Political systems and leadership
None of these attitudes substitute for the kinds of political systems and national leadership we need. Political systems are systems of power management - how power is managed and in whose interest is critical. Power must be managed, not for parties and elections, but to protect lives and livelihoods.
One of the few countries that actually has a crisis-governance system is Cuba. It has no choice. It had to evolve a set of institutions and practices designed for crisis. It has lived under the extreme and sometimes violent existential threats posed by United States hostility, the Cold War, global economic crises and natural disasters.
Many people see Cuba as a communist system only. They do not see it as a crisis-management system, which it also is. Similarly, many people see English-speaking Caribbean systems as Westminster-Whitehall systems or 'tribal' systems. They do not see them as ill-designed for crisis, which they are. They are designed for representation. Crisis management is an afterthought and an adjunct.
The constitution makes provisions for states of emergency, but only for limited purposes and durations. We don't trust ourselves with power to address emergencies without serious limits on that power. We create institutions for disaster preparedness and emergency management. But these are largely restricted to natural disasters, ignoring economic and social emergencies, and only kick into action briefly from time to time.
Cuba has a system geared entirely for crisis governance. It has just launched a national consultation that will lead to a major party congress in April 2011. Widespread consultation is part of crisis governance. It lets people know what the problems are and asks them what to do about them. The government has circulated a paper with issues for debate.
Debate is also important. It sets out options and limits on possible action. That government has already embarked on reforms that we in Jamaica can only dream of. It will substantially increase the size of its small and medium-sized sector. It has leased hundreds of thousands of acres of land to farmers. It is relocating many in its oversized state sector to the new private sector. In Jamaica, these would run into long-delaying bureaucracy and political, ideological and class opposition of all kinds.
Cuba achieves these through a system of mobilisation, education, information, sacrifice, self-reliance, discipline and nationalism. That system is permanently active. It extends right down through the provinces into the neighbourhoods. We don't have to adopt the Cuban political system, but we would do well with crisis modes of governance that save lives, livelihoods and the economy.
Robert Buddan lectures in the Department of Government, UWI, Mona. Email: Robert.Buddan@uwimona.edu.jm.