Checking out Martinique’s and Guadeloupe’s Neighborhood Caribbean Politics in the 21st Century

This article is an adaptation of a public lecture delivered at the:
Université des Antilles et de la Guyane (Guadeloupe)


By Holger Henke
Metropolitan College of New York
Senior Research Fellow, Council on Hemispheric Affairs

There are at least two large themes underpinning a number of the contemporary developments in Martinique and Guadeloupe, and by extension in other Caribbean countries: one is the question of autonomy or independence, the other is a matter of identity. Much has been said about these issues – and one can think of the contribution of such Caribbean intellectuals as Césaire, Glissant, Chamoiseau, and others – and it is indeed difficult at this point to hope to add much of substance to this debate. One may argue, however, that preoccupation with these issues, and the relative neglect of the immediately adjacent Caribbean neighborhood, has much to do with the special status Guadeloupe and Martinique enjoy as French overseas departments. In any case, it also appears that these issues have, to a large extent, become the provenance of limited political or intellectual elite, and are no longer part of a band of thinkers sharing a deeply felt political credo. In Martinique, polls clearly show that such theoretical issues are considered to be of much less concern than more mundane and immediate matters such as unemployment, economic development, housing, education, drugs, or social security. Presumably, this is also true for Guadeloupe.

With this in mind, the following broadly mapped and loosely arranged article is aimed at exploring some issues concerning this region. In particular, it intends to consider the implications of globalization on it, the evolving role of the United States and other major actors in the region, and the germane impending transformation changes in Cuba.

Globalization and political culture in the Caribbean

Let us be clear from the beginning. There is very good reason to argue that what is currently going on in the Caribbean region ultimately could amount to its re-colonization. It is no longer a colonialism that is being transmitted to the Caribbean via religion or explicit ideas involving of a mission civilatrice. Rather it is a sort of “silent re-colonization,” which happens via economic mechanisms and the transmission and local acceptance of changing cultural notions and ideas. This is probably no longer the colonialism Cesaire spoke of – the degrading, violent, openly racist, morally relativist colonialism with punitive missions and all of the rest. Or is it? The Cuban philosopher Roberto Fernandez Retamar observed many years ago that the introduction of new animals, plants, instruments and methods of production had not brought “any progress for the peoples of Latin America.” Today’s re-colonization of the region is not driven by cannons and the bible, but by the demands of globalization, the rationale of the almighty dollar or Euro, and an overriding concept of human beings as little better than economic units. Even in the United States, the richest nation on earth, this dynamic has resulted in the commercialization of human relations, growing income disparities, and a significant loss of a sense of community, which scholars such as Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam have documented meticulously.

Cultural McDonaldization

In a country like Jamaica one may see this symbolized in the fact that, the University of the West Indies – in the 1970s and into the 1980s a notable seat of critical thought – has become host to several fast-food chains such as Kentucky Fried Chicken. More importantly, perhaps, the weight of the eminent Social Science faculty is now being rivaled by Faculty for Business and Management Studies. A similar perspective began to be encountered in Barbados. Upon seeing the many European expatriates and vacationers occupying prime real estate on that island, one began to develop linkages between growing crime rates and the concomitant expansion of the security service industry in the region. In places like Jamaica and Trinidad one would be hard pressed to find a typical middle-class home that does not have its windows completely grilled. Barbados, at that time, did not as of yet resemble these islands in that respect, but one can surmise that a few years down the road the expatriates will be gone blurred by some trendy new paradise, or will be sitting on heavily protected verandas in their own homes. .

In the case of Martinique, another scholar recently spoke of McDonaldization. When Antilles-TV introduced a news segment entitled Colonie, it had nothing to do with the political status of the island, but instead covered life in the island’s summer tourist camps. While Pizza Huts’ and McDonalds’ are increasingly dominating the city-scape of many Caribbean islands, local culture increasingly finds itself reduced to so trivial surface decoration— entertainment for both locals and foreigners—neatly packaged for ready observation, purchase, consumption or storage.

This drain of local content and culture inevitably will prove to be extremely detrimental to an islands ethos, and not just for sentimental reasons. In a global economy, whose constituent parts are constantly in search of authenticity, cultural creativity, and indigenousness, the loss of a sizeable chunk of local culture represents the molting of one of the major competitive advantages Caribbean societies are likely to have – i.e., the creativity and culture of its often unique human resources. In other words, losing your competitive advantage by allowing a McDonaldization of one’s local culture ultimately amounts for handling off the basis of your ability to sustain your political and social culture as a free-standing entity – that is, without outside help – in the global economy. This is not simply an argument based on treacle; rather, this point can provide a solid basis in favor of economic rationality. Let us not forget that Chris Blackwell sold records from the trunk of his car before he recognized the potential of Bob Marley and the Wailers, and by promoting his music, became a mogul in field of the international music entertainment.

Interdependency to Self determination

Now, there is much to be said in favor of more competitiveness and accountability. However, it often seems that the socio-economic elites throughout the Caribbean have not yet fully caught up with these new maxims. Also, it appears doubtful that outside representatives of globalization are necessarily not all that interested in local venues in order to take a stand.

There is a lot of talk about democratization, management practices, and profitability. But when it comes to the counterpoints of these aspects of globalization – the rights to free speech, protection of labor and the environment, the promotion of human capital and community development, as well as social services for the needy, the field is too often left to fledgling non-state actors, NGOs and usually modest private foundations. There is a need to pose Retamar’s question again, and ask what is in it for our Caribbean; what are the consequences for our societies as a result of a series of fixed involvements with the metropolitan countries – be they the United States, France, Britain, or Spain. Answers to these questions require expertise, economic, social, and diplomatic know-how, with the region challenged to create such home-grown talents, at least in the shorter term.

New Developments

There are some unheard dynamics sometimes driving new politics in the region in the direction of a new political culture. In a chapter of a book by Professor Reno and this author, a former professor of the UAG (Martinique), Dr. Fred Constant, distinguishes four new elements of this political culture just now being seen; they are:
1) The dominance of the so-called “Washington Consensus” with its emphases on privatization, deregulation, fiscal discipline, a lean public sector.
2) New-style leaders, former or present, such as P.J. Patterson in Jamaica, Owen Arthur in Barbados, or Patrick Manning in Trinidad, who tended to disavow the nationalist politics of the past and are much more firmly rooted in the maxims prescribed by the Washington Consensus. More technocratic than populist, in the long run these leaders found it difficult to maintain a reputation for independence because of their out of sync defense to the Bush White House.
3) Effectiveness is becoming the new criterion for political success and survival. Leaders and parties that are perceived as dealing effectively with social and economic problems are more likely to succeed than the charismatic and nationalist leaders. As a flip-side of this, one may add that natural disasters or social disturbances that ultimately influenced Caribbean thinking. Think Hurricane Katrina or the violent uprisings in Paris’ Moslem suburbs two years ago, which can break the neck of a government faster than any wrong-hearted politics or unresponsive political platforms were able to achieve in the past.
4) Class politics and clientelism have lost at least some of the impact they used to have. New rules of the political game are emerging.


What does Society Want?

To expand on this last point – the fact that new rules are emerging – one may claim that this is a moment which not only carries some of the formidable pressures described above, but which potentially also harbors opportunities for groups to shape their own new ground rules. In a recent book, the Jamaican anthropologist Charles Carnegie pointed out that even in this secular age “social community ultimately requires and may need … to be guaranteed by and anchored in a sacred tradition.” If, for a moment, we may consider this as a possibility, the question arises what human values or social principles do we consider sacred? Indeed, are there any sacred principles to be found in this? Is it the Euro, the dollar, the social security systems, the right to be a citizen, civil and human rights, freedom of movement? What does it mean to be aligned with a country that until very recently referred to French Creole dialects as “petit negre”? These are of course questions which every society has to answer for itself. But it would seem fair to suggest that if the region wants to be successful in using the opportunities provided by globalization, these are questions that need to be posed and then answered in a process that involves the entire societies of the Caribbean, not just the elites.

Some Aspects of Guadeloupe and Martinique’s Sense of Self

An allegation has repeatedly been here against the French overseas departments’ traditional habit of neglecting their own neighborhoods. Perhaps that was not entirely correct, if the subject is viewed historically. There is evidence, for example, that between Martinique and St. Lucia an extensive network of smuggling existed in the mid-19th century. Apart from coffee, timber, slaves, and ground provisions, this illicit trade also included fashions brought in from Paris via Martinique from Paris, and which apparently posed stiff competition for St. Lucian tailors. Guadeloupe once traded fruit and vegetables with Dominica. The challenge is to recognize these trans-border connections and to recreate them where necessary, and to build them into larger scale enterprises where possible. It is important to remember that one of the basic elements of the success of the Asian tiger nations was the establishment of thriving domestic markets.

The United States and other extra regional powers in the Caribbean

And now the role of some of the major world powers in the region – the United States and China, as well as other contenders, such as Venezuela. Why China? Despite all the media attention on the war on terror, the role of Islam and the Middle East, as well what dangers North Korea may pose, the real global dynamic that is currently unfolding is the latent rivalry between the United States and China.

The only country that will in this century most likely will be able to rival the United States as a superpower is China. Since the 1980s, China rapidly has become an economic giant, not just in traditional fields of low end technology, but even more importantly, in many fields of high-tech engineering. For example, the only research capacity coming from a developing country participating in the recent successful decoding of the human genome, was from China.

China is no longer a sleeping giant. China has awoken, has had a bucket of breakfast tea, and is now looking for opportunities to expand its global reach. Thus, the Caribbean, in fact all of Latin America, should pay close attention to the growing influence of China. In recent times, China has become increasingly proactive in terms of its global strategy than formerly. In late 2006, Chinese President Hu hosted leaders from 48 African countries in Beijing and promised to double aid to the continent by 2009, as well as train 15,000 professionals, provide scholarships to 4,000 students, and help Africa’s health-care and farming sectors. He then went to Vietnam for the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, while there; he went over to Laos for a day and then embarked on a six-day tour of India and Pakistan. Clearly, in search for raw materials for its growing, newly consumer-oriented economy, as revenues China exhibits an ambition to be a global player. And in doing so, it asks much less demanding questions about creditworthiness, human rights, labor conditions or environmental standards. In many respects, China’s current situation and behavior is reminiscent of the United States in the first decades of the 20th century.

It is noteworthy that China’s relationship with the Caribbean continues to intensify. The specific nature of the relationship depends on Beijing’s assessment in each case of a given nation’s strategic importance to it, its capacity to provide raw materials, its ability to facilitate investment, or a nation’s willingness to support a one-China policy at the UN. On his two week trip to Latin America in 2004, President Hu pledged severe billions of dollars in investments in Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Cuba. It has been China that has built stadiums for this year’s cricket world cup. In the case of the Dominican Republic – one of the few nations in the region that maintains formal relations with Taiwan – it has continued to increase its China trade; now up to US$490 million in 2006 as compared with just US$180 million with Taiwan.

But note that China’s new assertiveness is not without its local critics. There are, for example, already voices in Africa are warning China that it is acting just like white imperialists used to. In the Zambian city of Kabwe, where the Chinese own a smelting plant, local shops are stocked with Chinese-made clothes rather than local ones. In the oil-rich delta region of Nigeria, where Chinese rigs have a reputation for poor safety record and employment practices, a militant group recently warned a Chinese audience that they would be targeted for attack unless they changed their ways.

India’s Brazil’s and Russia’s Influence

However, it is not only China which is flexing its economic and political muscles. India is also becoming an increasingly influential player in regional politics. The Confederation of Indian Industry recently held a Latin America and Caribbean meeting in New Delhi. The country’s Essar Group, is building a $1.2 billion steel plant in Trinidad and Tobago. And Manipaul University in India has just announced that it is establishing a campus in Antigua that will offer education and programs in a number of disciplines including communication studies, nursing, pharmacy, and tourism.

Finally, other powers such as Brazil and Russia are also expanding their area web. In the case of Brazil significant development is expected from the new road that will be connecting Guyana’s capital Georgetown to Brazil’s underdeveloped Northeast. Brazil is also undertaking significant investments in the Jamaican sugar industry. Guyana’s Prime Minister Jagdeo recently visited Moscow to discuss a large possible investment by the Russian aluminum giant RusAl, the second largest primary producer in the world of aluminum. As recent high-level visits by Russian envoys to Nicaragua, Cuba, Mexico, and Brazil indicate, Russia is very much increasingly interested in reviving and expanding its relationship with the Caribbean and Latin America.

Shift Away from Traditional Partners

What these handfuls of examples demonstrate is that there are both significant new opportunities for the Caribbean, as well as new fields of foreign policy making, which require expertise and consideration. It means that there is a shift underway away from the region’s historically tight-knit partners. For example, the Caribbean island of Dominica took a very venturesome stop in affiliating with the Venezuela-led ALBA economic development and foreign policy initiative.

The European Union already has made it clear that its trade and aid priorities lie with regions other than just the Caribbean particularly after World War II. In the case of France, we can even see a shift away from its commitments in Africa. As for the U.S., there are three basic interests it is pursuing vis-à-vis the Caribbean: one, the role of drugs; secondly, the role of immigration; and thirdly, the specter of terrorism. All three are variations of the same basic theme that the United States has been playing in the region ever since it became heavily involved in its affairs. The most recent of these issues is security – more specifically, border security. Apart from bilateral initiatives with Haiti, Cuba, and Venezuela, the most active and best-funded programs the U.S. is pursuing with regard to the region concerns this issue. It is in this area together with the aforementioned other figured projects, that the United States is most willing to pursue cooperation with its Caribbean partners. For example, the US Joint Inter Agency Task Force South, geared towards countering drug trafficking, is supported by 7,600 French troops in the Caribbean and Cayenne. Nevertheless, the role of the United States in the region remains important, but it has been waning in recent years.

U.S. Role in the Region

The United States increasingly has become concerned about the growing arms trade in Latin America. According to various reports being collected, recent arms deals with Russia add up to around $3 billion. With regard to Venezuela’s recent arms dealing with Moscow, the former commander of U.S. Southern Command, General Craddock, recently said: “I think there’s an exporting of instability coming out of Venezuela.” This is particularly interesting since the director of the Russian Strategies and Technologies Analysis Center, Ruslan Pukhov, explained that: “[Russia supports] all countries that pursue in their regions independent foreign and defense policies without looking at Washington, obviously in hope to counterbalance the huge pressure the US and its regional allies are exerting on other countries.”

It is therefore obvious that while the United States is losing both influence and respect in various parts of the world, there are foreign powers such as China and Russia which are seeking aggressively to fill the Latin American power vacuum. The question is whether, or to what extent, Washington will revive its old Monroe Doctrine instincts to repel these efforts.

The Cuban Factor

Cuba’s role in the Caribbean and Latin America is important and likely to grow. Some Caribbean islands, such as Guadeloupe and Martinique are not all that proximate to Cuba. But when one starts to think in terms of tourism and the possible drain from traditional Caribbean holiday destinations to Cuba—if and when the situation there stabilizes—Cuba may all of a sudden be much more in the minds of the Franco-phone islanders than now. Already, Cuba’s tourist industry provides hospitality to over 2 million tourists per year. As with the case of China, the Caribbean neighborhood also needs to watch closely the implications of political and economic change in Cuba. At the moment, there are no indications that policy differences between Fidel Castro, now in retirement due to his personal ailment, and President Raul Castro will have any relevance to the question of change in Cuba. While a plenty amount of power was centralized in the person of Fidel Castro throughout his reign, there are now definitive signs that the power of the Communist party is itself being strengthened. To the extent that we can see any behind-the –scene signs of transitioning stress, what is currently unfolding in Cuba does not, as of yet, reflect a conflict between reformers and hardliners. It appears to be a contest between a group of young orthodox leaders close to Fidel – sometimes referred to as the “Taliban” – and charged by him to renew their commitment to communist ideals, and a succession group interested in promoting a form of institutionalized and bureaucratic socialism, with a tilt toward reform. It is this last group, of which Fidel’s brother Raul is the first among equals, which appears to be currently in the ascending. To that extent, Cuba would seem to be following a broader trend of downgrading charismatic leadership, while liberalizing its institutions and processes.

Following Fidel’s resignation and Raúl Castro’s recent election to the presidency in February, much depends on how exactly the succession scenario will continue to unfold. It is hard to predict, but in the end, any reform will probably depend on the extent to which Cuba’s leadership becomes willing to accept the loss of some of its political control and the further opening of society.

Raúl’s cell phone, rental car, computer etc, along with his anti-bureaucratic society reveals a Cuba that is about to become markedly different from the Cuba that the world was used to under Fidel’s rule. Additional strategic decisions will, in turn, be affected by the degree to which the United States’ attempts to interfere with Cuba’s evolution, development and the political choices it makes regarding its control over the island’s otherwise fast moving events. The fact that Raul picked as his second in command a long time confidante was for many observers a bit of a surprise, given the rise in recent years of a new generation of leaders in the Communist party.

At the moment, we see a relatively growing cohesion of the Cuban elite. This cohesion is unlikely to break up as long as the United States and the Cuban exile community pursue an aggressive policy of Miami’s calling the shots on regime change on the island. Only a Cuban leadership which is reasonably secure in its present position and its ability to steer the economy and preside over society in a productive and creative direction, is likely to willingly open Havana to a greater degree of democratic participation. Importantly, however, improvement of the economic situation is of paramount importance to the new leadership, as many complaints on the part of ordinary Cubans are focused on everyday economics and ubiquitous shortages. If a sense of security and economic stabilization permeates the region, the future relationship between the current government in Cuba and the new U.S. Administration that will take office in January 2009, we may witness even more far-reaching changes. Already, Raul’s Cuba has released a number of imprisoned dissidents and signed two UN Treaties on human rights, which it had warded off for years. The question is whether Washington will allow Havana to do it Castro’s way rather than continue its hectoring tactics)

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