This past week (June 18-21) leaders of CARICOM met with President George W. Bush and other top U.S. government officials in Washington as part of the Conference on the Caribbean. Official word from the U.S. Press Secretary is that:
“The Conference on the Caribbean continues an important dialogue between the United States and CARICOM, and it forms an integral part of the President’s Western Hemisphere Initiative.”
Discussions were meant to focus on economic growth, investing in people, and security issues, though some mainstream Caribbean media ran stories detailing additional items on the agendas of various CARICOM Heads of State. Even the international media reported on the conference.
But Caribbean bloggers stayed unusually quiet, save for two references made by Barbados Free Press and Politics.bm to OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza's statement on the freedom of the press.
It made me wonder what issues bloggers from CARICOM member states would want to discuss had they been the ones sitting across the table from President Bush. A few responded to my question – Jamaican Geoffrey Philp, Trinidadians Jonathan Ali and Karel Mc Intosh and Bahamian Nicolette Bethel – and their views were as interesting as they were diverse…
Jonathan had an immediate reaction to what the conference itself was named and was sceptical about what it would achieve:
“Catchy, important sounding title. But what does it really mean? What will the Caribbean actually get out of it? We’ve had similar conferences and summits in the past, but what have they actually achieved for the Caribbean? Ours are small, client economies with very little economic or political clout—even Trinidad and Tobago with its oil and gas has relatively little influence in international affairs. Our politicians go cap in hand up north, get their photos taken with the US president, and come back trying to convince their people that they’ve secured major deals and concessions. But the reality remains that the US holds all the aces, and whatever deals are made will have had their terms and conditions, ultimately, set by the US.”
Geoffrey, who lives in Miami, put forward a unique perspective as a Caribbean-American. He admires the visceral love Americans have for their land and thinks it is an example Caribbean people could learn from. In fact, he sees changes already taking place and believes that the power to make a difference ultimately rests in the hands of the people of the region:
“Whether it's in the Jamaica National Heritage Trust‘s recent initiatives unveiled at a recent Conference at the University of Miami's symposium, Archaeologies of Black Memory, or the Annual Sunrise Remembrance of the Middle Passage, there has been a shift in how many New World Africans in particular, have begun to look at the land and by extension and their bodies. For there is an intimate connection that we have begun to realize–that we are the eyes, ears, nose, mouth and skin of this earth where we stand. Wherever we stand.
And we look to you and your governments, the elected elders, to preserve the past, nurture the present, and give hope for the future. We look to you to set a tone, project an attitude because we know that no government can nor should it try to solve all the problems in our region. What a government can do is inspire, and the people will follow. Inspire us and we’ll figure out a way to solve many of the problems.”
In Geoffrey's view, one of the most pressing problems Jamaicans face is the protection of their holy spaces:
“This may seem absurd to list as a priority when we face real problems with crime, unemployment, and dwindling resources. But as my current pastor, Rev. Dr. Annette Jones, says, “Seek ye first the kingdom and all other things will be added unto you.” Granted, the challenge to protect our holy spaces will be difficult because after years of slavery and colonialism the restoration to wholeness of the body and minds of New World Africans is a formidable task. A war has been raged over the bodies of New World Africans and it has extended to the land that we stand on and the space we occupy. We need to redeem our bodies and our space. To paraphrase Marcus Garvey–we need backbones and not wishbones.
We'll sell our sacred spaces for any price. And if this sounds like the ephemeral rant of an artist, do you think any American government would sell the Washington Monument or a piece of Arlington Cemetery because oil was found underneath? And yet everyday we hear in Jamaica of new plans to mine the Cockpit Country, to exploit one of the last pristine and ecological sensitive spaces located in the heart of Jamaica for a profit. As Tony McNeill said in the poem Residue: ‘And the grass is precious/ merely because it belongs to us.’ I really wish that idea could sink into our consciousness and stay there because it could lead to the channeling of the kinds of creativity that we see everyday in the Caribbean.
If we hold the land and the people as our highest value and show that we mean it, then we'll see a change not only in the creativity of our people which would lead to unimaginable new benefits, but also in our relationships with each other. I know this.”
Nicolette believes that creativity – “specifically intellectual property rights in the context of sovereignty, and in the context of the ownership of national cultural products” – is a burning issue:
“The Bahamas, being on the very borders of the USA, has for a century or more been mined as a source of cultural and folkloric inspiration. There is of course a connection between The Bahamas and the USA, probably more so than in most other Caribbean nations, because in the 1780s, following the establishment of the American republic, many of the American colonists loyal to the British Crown moved south to The Bahamas, where they were given huge tracts of land to farm throughout the archipelago. Their arrival changed the demography of The Bahamas, which till then was not a major slave-owning colony. Much of our slave-based culture is directly connected with that of the southern USA…and anthropologists, historians and folklorists regard The Bahamas as a goldmine of information about the African-based cultures in the American South.
Americans have been responsible, therefore, for the collection, recording and cataloguing of many of the Bahamian folkloric traditions in song and in folktale. These collections reside in the great repositories of the USA — in the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian. The rights to these collections similarly reside in the USA. For years these rights were simply part of the intellectual capital of our nation. Today, though, with the vast market for the exotic and the demand for different sounds and traditions, there’s an economic benefit that accrues to those collections as well, particularly in the case of Joseph Spence, a Bahamian guitarist and singer whose music is highly prized by folk singers around the world. His recordings are owned by the Smithsonian, not by the Spence family or by the Bahamian people, and to use them — as a Bahamian company recently found out — one has to pay royalties to the Smithsonian.
And because of the American interest in things Bahamian, private collectors and entrepreneurs are collecting, creating and owning all kinds of Bahamian cultural products, from the music of Alphonso “Blind Blake” Higgs and George Symonette (owned by a private collector) to the recordings of Nassau’s nightclub era (Putumayo owns many of these) to the costumes, instruments and sounds of Junkanoo. We are slow here to understand and appreciate the economic value of intellectual property, which makes us vulnerable to exploitation (still, or once again). So I’d really want President Bush to commit to the safeguarding of those rights for the people of The Bahamas and of the Caribbean.”
Still smarting from the fallout following the recent arrests of Caribbean nationals in the JFK terror plot, Karel agrees that sovereignty needs to be discussed, “especially with the forces of globalisation and international trade, which directly impact Caribbean economies”:
“Caribbean countries are sovereign states, and we have to ensure that our sovereignty is maintained and respected. Unfortunately, Fox News chose to label Trinidad as a hotbed of terrorism. Any Trinidadian knows that is the furthest from the truth. I am not a Guyanese, but I’d also think that the same applies to their country. The more developed countries need to not just look at the demographics of a country when assessing and determining their relationship with less developed ones, they need to know the psychographics of the people as well. My hope is that because of what four men have allegedly done, a superpower country won’t feel as if they need to clamp down on the Caribbean like they have the Middle East. I’d seek to ensure that our people’s security and way of life are not compromised.”
In this vein, Jonathan says that he “wouldn’t mind getting Bush’s ear for five minutes to talk about security”:
“What would I say? Just that the world, most of it, does not hate the US. The majority of people entering the country just want to get about their business, see their loved ones, do what they have to do. They have no designs against the US government or its people. Yes, there are those who, for whatever reasons, wish to hurt the US, and those people need to be guarded against. But you don’t make a nation, and by extension the world, safer, when you do this to people. When ordinary, decent people become fearful or angry or wish not to travel at all at the thought of going through US customs, you know you’re doing something wrong. So I’d tell the president to think a bit about that.
Oh, and I’d tell him: overthrowing Hugo Chavez? Not a very smart idea.”