Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Friday, July 10, 2009

Life Is No Tea Party

When I think of Boston, I imagine struggles for independence, a city swelling with academic heads, and jerk food, though not in that order, mind you. So, as I landed at Logan Airport yesterday afternoon, I had to make sure that I was ready to deal with the right Boston. But, jerk food was off the menu, because I was not arriving in Boston, Jamaica, where jerk food was invented. Instead, I was about to set foot for just the third time in Boston, Massachusetts--home of the other Cambridge and seats of learning, such as Harvard, MIT, and Tufts. My disposition was bright, however, because we were told that the balmy sunshine must have come with us from the Caribbean: people mentioned that the previous 40 days had been rain filled.

The first time I visited Boston, it was on a driving tour from my then home in Virginia, and took in many of the sights of the American War of Independence. In particular, I went to Lexington, where I visited friends in a typical American family--the second generation of German immigrants. I got to see many of the landmarks connected with their 'fight for freedom', monuments to Paul Revere, The Minutemen, The Boston Tea Party and "No taxation without representation". The second time I visited Boston, my current wife was attending an executive training course at Harvard, and I went for the weekend. It was the fall, and the temperatures had fallen, not too low, but low enough. I got the chance to visit many of the hallowed seats of learning in the other Cambridge. At that time, my first daughter was just nearing middle school, and naturally my mind flitted to where she would attend university. Note that I said "would": I am now of the generation, having been the first in my family to attend university, that thinks its children will get tertiary education. I loved the campus and its flavours of history. It was not really like those unquestioned seats of English learning, Oxford or the real Cambridge. But, Harvard was my first visit to an American university and I was impressed, with the buildings, the campus, and the sense of calm.

Here I was in Boston, Mass., again. This time to watch my wife's family set sail, when her parents celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary with a cruise. I do not do long boat rides, and I have plans to socialize while they set off onto the sea. As luck would have it, I get the chance to reconnect with colleagues from my African sojourn. My local economist in Guinea (a Fulani and Muslim), whom I sponsored to take a masters degree at Williams College, has been asked to stay on as a research assistant. The leader of the IMF missions to Guinea (a Peruvian Jew), who was posted to Ghana at one time and was just finishing a posting in Burundi, has just started Hebrew Studies in Boston. I also hope to reconnect with a white American friend from my church in Washington, whose black adopted daughter I had taught in Sunday school, and had found me on face book. The girl, now well grown up, had told me that she and her mother would be heading to Boston, her mother's home town, for the summer, and they arrived a few days ago.

But, my thoughts. America fought hard to get its independence and its nationhood, a set of struggles that pitted the colonialists against some of those in their native lands, and for me that means mainly the British. America also had its internal struggle for nationhood, with its Civil War, that long set the line between those who were for or against slavery. Those two things are in my mind as I look onto the debates about Caribbean regional integration on the one hand, and the related matter of illegal immigration to Barbados.

I have long wondered if people from the English-speaking Caribbean know what they have gained without much struggle. Haiti fought hard for its independence from France. Many Latin American countries also had to fight mainly Spanish and Portuguese colonial rulers for their independence. We got our independence by administrative fiat; we did not spill much blood. Many Caribbean islands still do not have independence from the colonial rulers, though they have a greater degree of autonomy now than before. Our ancestors, in some cases, did fight, to different degrees, to get freedom from slavery, but in the end it was handed to us again by administrative fiat, rather than as the result of our struggles against our captors and masters.

We are clearly nations made up of relatively recent migrants. Our populations are not made up only of the African slaves' offspring. Countries such as Trinidad and Guyana had their numbers swollen by the introduction of indentured labour/servants. Like slaves, such servants were shipped; could be bought and sold; could not marry without the permission of their owners; were subjected to physical punishment; and saw their obligation to labour enforced by the courts. To ensure uninterrupted work by the female servants, the law lengthened the term of their indenture if they became pregnant. But unlike slaves, indentured servants could look forward to a release from bondage. If they survived their period of indenture, servants would receive a payment known as "freedom dues" and become free members of society. It is easy to forget, or not know at all, that many of the original European settlers in the English-speaking Caribbean during the 16th and 17th centuries were indentured servants (English, Irish, Scottish and German, for example). So, slaves and indentured workers are very much part of the earliest ancestral chains in the region. After the abolition of slavery in the mid-19th century, the demand for workers in sugar plantations could not be met by shipping more slaves, so was being filled by indentured workers from China and Portugal, and later the Indian subcontinent (mainly from what is now India, but also the current Pakistan--very different places with very different religious and cultural bases). These groups had a clear leg up and once free used that to build an economic base largely as merchants, though also as plantation owners. Some of these indentured workers became numerically and proportionately significant in Trinidad and Guyana, especially those from the Indian subcontinent; this was not the case in Jamaica (except if looked at in some smaller areas).

Out of that mixture has come many things. Think about the names that people have in the region. I love it that I know a true Jamaican called Kevin O'Brien Chang--a one-man melting pot.

Now, we are reaping a bitter harvest from this mixture of seeds. I am not sure how much of the history of the region seeps into people's thinking about issues. Racial and ethnic divisions seem clear in Trinidad and Guyana, and sometimes they are openly hostile in both places. My reading tells me that much of that comes from politicians playing a 'race card' to build support and better identify their opposition. I cannot really say if deep racial animosity exists outside these two countries. The recent discussions in Barbados on illegal immigration have seen the seeping out of some clear racist and ethnic hostility aimed at Indo-Guyanese, but while some of those voices are loud and their words sometimes vehement and laced with violent intent, I do not know if this is a small minority speaking or a much bigger part.

I am not a political analyst, and am still unclear what part of the recent moves against illegal immigration to Barbados is a familiar political play that often surfaces in hard economic times, or if it is really grounded in a firm policy line. My fear that it is too much political gets some support from the limited factual support that has come with the stance, which suggests that things are being plucked out of the air and waved like flags that attract attention. One real event with the glib addition of "this is not isolated" but with no evidence of how widespread it is not what I should hear government ministers saying to underpin a policy. But facts can be brought to support a policy later, by which time much social damage could have been done by the spread of anecdote and conjecture. I am going to try to see if, from a distance, the flurry of discussion in Barbados on this matter is clearer.

I am also going to indulge in a little love for that great American pastime, baseball. When I first went to Washington, I got into a group of baseball fans, one of whom was a Ghanaian who had studied at Boston University. We became great friends, but not fans of the same team: he loved the Red Sox, and I supported Washington's 'home' team, the Baltimore Orioles. We shared many a beer and hot dog and barbecued pork sandwiches while watching home runs batten in an pitches striking people out. I cannot persuade him to come to Boston this weekend, when the Orioles happen to be in town. So, I will have to root for the Os without being able to get into his face. I will root a bit quietly, though, because I am a visitor and due respect is needed for the hosts. The hotel concierge told me that getting to Fenway Park by subway is a cinch. My mind is made up and I am raring to go. Will I be surrounded by my friendly band of black and white Americans, a Peruvian Jew, and a Guinean Muslim? Who knows. Play ball!

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