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Caribbean Independence: Past, present and future: A reckoning (Pt I)

Published:Friday | September 7, 2012 | 12:00 AM
Dr Peter Phillips, minister of finance - file

Below is the first part of a presentation delivered by Dr Peter Phillips, minister of finance and planning, at the recently concluded Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies 50/50 conference, held at The Jamaica Pegasus hotel, New...

IN AUGUST 1962, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago became the first two British colonies in the English-speaking Caribbean to gain Independence. Since then, another 13 former British colonies in the anglophone Caribbean, culminating with St Kitts and Nevis in 1983, have joined the ranks of independent states.

The 50th anniversary of Independence for Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago provides an important landmark for an assessment. Told from the 'official' perspective, we celebrate the successful claim for independent statehood, which was rooted in the labour rebellions which swept the Caribbean between 1935 and 1938.

While these protests were focused primarily on a demand for better wages and working conditions, they were also to unleash a claim for political rights; specifically for expanded suffrage and 'responsible' government. At the outset, the consensus was that Independence would be achieved within a federal framework, and it was to create this Federation of the West Indies that a new era of political struggle was launched, which was to lead ineluctably to independence.

The outlines of the march of the anglophone Caribbean (formerly known as the British West Indies) to independence is well documented. Predictably, this march began with the labour leaders who met in Trinidad and Tobago in October 1938 to agree on a joint representation to the Moyne Commission appointed by the British Parliament to enquire into the causes of the labour unrest, which had brought the colonial administration to its knees.

In 1945, the labour leaders again met in Barbados, where they formed the Caribbean Labour Congress "to coordinate the efforts of popular organisations in the politically independent territories to achieve political independence and the work of the trade unions in these countries to improve the workers' standard of living."

Two years later, the Congress staged its largest and most successful conference in Jamaica, where they formally declared their commitment to the West Indies Federation, which was described as a cause vital to the progress of the region. The idea of a federation quickly gathered momentum as political parties in the territories made it a fundamental plank of their manifestos. The march to political independence within the framework of the West Indies Federation led by trade unionists and political leaders was joined by an emerging regional intelligentsia from the University College of the West Indies, which enrolled its first students in October, 1949.

The year before, the internationally celebrated economist, Arthur Lewis, born in St Lucia, in a report to the Caribbean Commission, elaborated a framework for the industrialisation of the West Indies based on the success of the Puerto Rican model. The Lewis model proposed a set of industrial policy measures including concessions to attract foreign capital for the establishment of a manufacturing sector. The perceived wisdom was that, until such time as national income increased to the levels required for investment from domestic savings, the region would be dependent on foreign capital and would benefit from the opportunity to learn international marketing.

average annual GDP growth

Within the decade - 1949-59, Jamaica experienced average annual GDP growth rates of over six per cent to become a leader among developing countries, driven mainly by foreign investment in bauxite and alumina, and tourism. Simultaneously, deep divisions developed as to whether Jamaica's interest would be best served by federating with "the pauperised islands", as Alexander Bustamante referred to the islands of the Eastern Caribbean. In September 1961, Jamaica voted in a referendum to leave the federation and seek independence on its own. Trinidad followed and, over time, the rest of the English-speaking Caribbean.

In the first decade of Independence, the policy of industrialisation, largely based on import substitution, continued to achieve positive GDP growth. In 1970, the United Nations Development Programme capitalised Human Development Indicators (HDI) combining per capita income, life expectancy and educational attainment for 79 industrial and developing countries. Jamaica was ranked at 19 - first among all developing countries; Barbados (20); and Trinidad and Tobago (22). All three ranked above Chile (24), Costa Rica (25) and Singapore (26).

However, in the two decades between 1950 and 1970, as impressive as the economic growth was, it became increasingly clear the society was becoming increasingly polarised by race, class-based inequity. As early as 1960, Arthur Lewis, in studying Jamaica's development over the previous decade, had posed the question: How does a country double its output, lose 11 per cent of its labour force by migration and still have 12 per cent unemployment? By 1970, the social situation had deteriorated even further. Unemployment had increased to over 20 per cent, and popular disaffection took the form of racial strife, industrial unrest and the constant mushrooming of political organisations.

social dislocation

Significantly, it was in Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago; the two countries with the highest rates of economic growth, that social dislocation were most widespread. The Walter Rodney Rebellion of 1968 in Jamaica destroyed property and paralysed the capital city, while in Trinidad a political coup nearly succeeded.

For the non-oil producing Caribbean countries, the economic growth cycle came to an end in 1973, when in one day the price of oil went up by close to 400 per cent.

In Jamaica, the manufacturing sector was wiped out overnight as local producers found it increasingly difficult to compete against imports in their own domestic market, and exports became even more uncompetitive in the global market. Since then, most of these countries have experienced anaemic growth, and, over the last two decades, tourism has become the single largest earner of foreign exchange for most of the British Caribbean.

Independence had always been perceived as the means for securing steady progress for the interests of the people: for their unfettered cultural expression and the improvement of social and economic conditions in which the majority of the people existed.

However, the experience of the last four decades in countries like Jamaica has contributed to the view that there is little to celebrate, and that the experience of independence has been a failure with little or no progress. Each of these views is essentially a caricature of reality. Without doubt 'independence' has involved both gains and deficits for the Caribbean people. Further, any effort to improve our performance for the future will need a more careful accounting to identify more specifically the areas of success and failure and to offer some possible explanations as to the reasons why we have not met all our expectations.

One point increasingly ignored in the current discourse is that independence in the form that it emerged, as sovereignty for the separate island states, was, for many at the time, a bitter-sweet consolation prize, since it meant the end of the federal dream. Almost from its very inception, the idea of sovereignty for the English-speaking Caribbean had been twinned with the idea of regionalism and federation.

Ultimately, as it turned out, Jamaica's withdrawal from the short-lived West Indies Federation in 1961 was to deal a death blow to the federal idea, despite the revival and unstable survival of Caribbean regional economic and functional cooperations in CARICOM and in the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States.