Who are we? Editorial
Stabroek News
March 26, 2002

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The idea of a West Indian identity has for long been an empowering myth in our region, particularly on the part of the intellectual and political elites going back to Marryshow. The failure of the Federation of the West Indies, though it has been interpreted by various analysts as among other things an imperial imposition, was undoubtedly a setback of major proportions as each country hurried to obtain and consolidate its own independence and put into place all the trappings of the nation state. The leaders have since got used to wielding power in their own countries, though the insecurity and fragility of the status of these mini states in the modern world of economic blocs and global organisations can never be too far from their minds.

Caricom has been too little and too late. It never accepted the vision set out by Thomas and Brewster in the Dynamics of West Indian Integration. Progress towards regional freedom of movement and a single market and economy has been painfully slow and could be overtaken by other, broader alliances. One suspects that the preoccupations of statehood have blunted whatever federal vision once existed and that for at least the last decade prime ministers and president go through the rituals of summits with no real conviction. There has been no domestic will or drive for the detailed hard work that needed to be done to push the regional agenda at a faster and more realistic pace.

Indeed from a Guyanese standpoint the only times the regional dimension takes centre stage is in a negative sense when Guyanese are given a hard time at regional airports. A variety of explanations have been offered in our correspondence columns but the phenomenon of hostility to Guyanese in the region clearly springs from the era when there were widespread shortages here of goods of all kinds due to banning and economic collapse and a new class of traders invaded the airlines and the airports in the region, did not on the whole abide by the existing rules and put great pressure on the system, thus creating a hostile reaction. It is that attitude that still unfortunately prevails though the situation that created it no longer exists.

The myth of a West Indian identity has taken some hard knocks. Yet out of the blue there has been a development that can give us a little hope. It was announced last week that the Eastern Caribbean governments (Antigua - Barbuda, Dominica,St Lucia, St Vincent and St Kitts-Nevis) have agreed to freedom of movement in the islands as a first step towards creating an economic union that they say will clear the way for eventual political union. People can now travel without passports and can stay in other states for up to six months and will be free to own property and operate businesses. The countries have been co-operating for some time in several functional areas as members of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) but as Denzil Douglas, prime minister of St Kitts-Nevis recognised, the key event to deepen integration is freedom of movement. Critics had felt that this step would never be taken due to concerns about the impact on unemployment and already weak social services and also because of the prevailing parochialism and the fear of island leaders that their power would be curtailed by a regional government. Given all these negative factors, which all of course exist at the wider level of Caricom, this bold move by OECS leaders, including the relatively new and energetic Dr Ralph Gonsalves, prime minister of St Vincent, must be hailed as a major advance in our political civilisation.

Hopefully, these six Caricom member states can bring the impetus created by this move to the councils of Caricom. If they have found a way, as Dr Gonsalves put it , "to address a fundamental and previously intractable problem that has bedevilled regional integrationists for years" why can't the rest of us? It is the sort of bold decision the regional movement needs. Freedom of movement in the region has never become a reality except for limited groups like persons holding university degrees and even there some countries have not passed the relevant legislation.

The empowering myth of a West Indian identity is all but dead. It can only be revitalised by bold decisions. The lack of vision and timidity of our political leaders, with one or two notable exceptions, does not encourage us to be optimistic.