Wilberne Persaud, Financial Gleaner Columnist
Going up to Mona to read for the degree in economics, one confronted a compulsory introductory course: West Indian History. To my abiding good fortune, my lecturer was Professor Elsa Goveia. Earlier, high-school reading material was almost exclusively the work of non-Caribbean authors. We heard of Marcus Garvey peripherally; Gandhi was the Indian pacifist revolutionary whom Churchill described as "a seditious half-naked fakir". Apart from C.L.R. James, novelists V.S. Naipaul, George Lamming and a few others, intellectual fare from printed word was, like so much else, an import.
Don't get me wrong: in and of itself, this couldn't necessarily be a bad thing. Exposure to medieval history, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Chaucer, Milton, Marcus Aurelius, and other Greek and Latin literature is fine - excellent fodder for the developing mind. But it was and remains a unique privilege having Goveia, whom I considered an icon of West Indian history, building for us a narrative we ourselves would render without attitudes of empire and colonial triangulation. I had listened to Eric Williams live, once. He gave the feature address at a prize-giving assembly at my school: the Queens College of British Guiana. His delivery, the meticulously researched and wholly pertinent evidence infusing his address, coupled with his unique, almost contagious enthusiasm were extraordinary. Unforgettable actually. Williams was short, small in stature but huge, a commanding presence in the greenheart all-wooden air-cooled QC auditorium.
Ironic language use
Apart from Capitalism and Slavery, we didn't know at that time what constitutes his anti-colonial political manifesto: My relations with the Anglo-Ameri-can Caribbean Commission. Nationalist independence sentiment was uniformly growing among Britain's Caribbean 'dependen-cies'. How ironic the use of language? Formerly jewels in the British Crown, the West Indies had become dependencies - children to be tutored rather than enslaved bodies devoid of freedom and education, the better to be exploited!
While I knew little of Sir Grantley Adams, the Barbadian first minister who became premier of the Federation, I had been exposed to Forbes Burnham, orator par excellence, both personally and from his numerous deliveries on the political hustings. Burnham's offices, chambers of his law firm Clarke and Martin, stood next to my father's chambers on Manget Place in Brickdam, Georgetown. Given cold-war political intrigue and Guyana's racial composition exploited by British and CIA interventions during the push for self-governance, Burnham courted my father - Guyanese national of East Indian heritage - to join him in the predominantly Afro-Guyanese People's National Congress.
My father never did go into national politics, but as a youngster - not being seen but hearing, listening - I do recall conversa-tions overheard between them exploring relations among the Caribbean territories and the imperative of independence. Mind you, this was the Burnham before robust US support encouraged or supported him in the 'antics' - election rigging and worse - my late friend Herman McKenzie always claimed would've been impossible but for the ever-present threat of 'communist' Cheddi Jagan and his wife Janet. Janet was the 'leftist' of the Rosenberg family, stripped of her US citizenship for Marxist leanings and affiliations. According to McKenzie, absent Jagan, Burnham would've invented him.
With federation formally abandoned in 1962, independence prospects came alive for the territories that met the standard of "financial viability", which the British maintained was its pre-condition. As teenagers, our knowledge of regional cooperation or any semblance of Caribbean unity was confined to cricket and The University of the West Indies. It was a big thing at Queens College that boasted winning most of the Open Scholarships UWI offered. If it wasn't the late Walter Rodney or Charles Denbow taking the Guyana Scholarship, there were four, five or six others who took UWI Open Scholarships. In my sixth-form years, we actually had a few recent UWI graduates on staff in literature and history.
So in tutorials with Elsa Goveia, I was truly enthusiastic in pursuit of an understanding of the causes - analysis of failure really - of the federal experiment. She was a tough taskmaster. Forgive me. I find it awkward to use the term mistress even though context here is clear. To achieve an unequivocal straight 'A' from her was a mountain to climb. Essays would often be returned with the grade 'B+/A-', good effort and so on. Her neat red-inked handwriting elaborated fine, penetrating comments alongside suggestions for further reading - clear encouragement to her charges.
The question went something like this: "What do you consider to be the causes of the failure of the West Indies Federation?" Well, Eric Williams invented a new arithmetic: "One from ten leaves zero!" Sparrow took it further, opining that once Jamaica don't want it, "Federation boil down to simply this: is dog eat dog an' survival of the fittest." So the uninitiated might simply say: "Is Bustamante do it!" Seeking political power, unwinding Norman Manley's efforts at federation was the smart move. This would, however, be flying in the face of complexity.
Insufficient reflection and scant analysis
Neglect of complexity, historical context, and the true promise of the existing and feasible form of integration CARICOM and CSME represent, renders current debate on their usefulness primarily emotional. There's insufficient reflection and scant analysis of 'what if' scenarios. So the first point to note is motivation - why federate? Federation was the only path to political independence in the post-World War II era as Britain tried to rid itself of gems morphed into burdensome 'dependencies'. British administra-tion in its West Indian colonies always stressed economy and efficiency in governance institutions and structures - do it on the cheap, you might say.
Second, the labour movement was uniquely seized of the opportunities and promise embodied in Caribbean integration. Labour concerned itself with the welfare of the populations represented in the territories. This fact takes on a singular importance in light of the 'Caribbean Spring': widespread and occasionally violent protests against grinding poverty known as the riots of 1937-38. The 'Conference on the Closer Association of the British West Indian Colonies, Montego Bay, Jamaica, September 1947' offers much context.
So, too, does Jamaica's Sir John Mordecai, who was secretary general of the pre-federal Regional Economic Committee, as well as a high official in the federation for the period he termed the "four fractious years" - 1958 to 1962 - of its existence. Elsa Goveia, commenting on his chronicle of the period, The West Indies: The Federal Negotiations, notes: "In discussing the unfortunate fate of the Federation, Sir John lays great stress on the failures of its leaders, especially upon their habit of negotiating from fixed and public positions which left no room for compromise. As Sir John noted, 'at all points, the rough handling of the problems of this Federation is more extraordinary than the problems themselves'".
Mordecai holds its leaders, N.W. Manley, Sir Alexander Bustamante, Dr Eric Williams and Sir Grantley Adams largely responsible for its implosion. To him, "poor statesmanship" rather than "inherently insoluble" problems was a major element of failure. Sir Arthur Lewis shared his view: "The Federation was destroyed by poor leadership rather than by the intractability of its own internal problems." Perceptively, he laments "… it does not follow that wise leadership could put it together again".
Conditions change, the river having meandered, created lasting separations in the delta. Subsequently, Guyana's Forbes Burnham and Barbados' Errol Barrow sought to create a free-trade area between their two countries. The two lawyers contemplated an extension to the agreement later. Vere Bird of Antigua and Barbuda quickly joined the party, and shortly thereafter Eric Williams boarded ship. CARIFTA was born.
Next week: The prize and negotiating soluble problems
Wilberne Persaud, an economist, currently works on impacts of technology change on business and society including capital solutions for innovative Caribbean SMEs. Email firstname.lastname@example.org