Half a century of small islands with big egos
Jun 2nd 2012 | CHAGUARAMAS, TRINIDAD | from the print edition of The Economist
FOUNDED to speed independence from Britain, the West Indies Federation lasted just four years before breaking up on May 31st 1962. The plan had been to forge a Canadian-style federal country from a far-flung archipelago. But Jamaicans, worried about bankrolling weaker islands, voted in a referendum to leave, prompting the federation to disband. “The politicians betrayed the dreams of a whole idealistic generation,” recalls Sheilah Solomon, who finished training to be a federation diplomat on the day of Jamaica’s referendum.
Fifty years later, a revival is improbable. Caribbean politics is centrifugal: it is more fun being prime minister of, say, Dominica or Grenada than an island representative in a federal parliament. The Caribbean Community (Caricom), a loose alliance of the former federal provinces, along with Guyana, Belize, the Bahamas and non-English-speaking Suriname and Haiti, is in trouble too. As a producer of documents and committees, it rivals the European Union. But it finds doing anything a challenge. “Without fundamental change, Caricom could expire slowly over the next few years,” consultants told its heads of government in March.
Fortunes among the islands have changed. The Cayman Islands were a mosquito-ridden dependency of Jamaica in 1962; now, thanks to tourism and offshore banking, they suck in migrants from their larger but less successful neighbour.
Jamaicans now fret that Trinidadian companies control their national airline and supply their supermarkets. In an opinion poll last year, only 29% said they derived any benefit from Caricom. Nowadays it is Trinidad & Tobago’s prime minister, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, who lived for years in Jamaica, who warns that her country is not an “ATM card” for its regional partners.
The West Indies cricket team, once a world-beating symbol of Caribbean unity, has been brought low by inter-island squabbles. There are one or two regional successes. Eight small islands share a central bank and a common currency, the Eastern Caribbean dollar, pegged firmly since 1976 to the American greenback. Barbados, Belize and Guyana have adopted the Caribbean Court of Justice as their final appeal court, replacing Britain’s Privy Council; Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago (for criminal cases) are set to follow suit. In the private sector Jamaica’s Sandals runs resorts across the region. But Chaguaramas, the federation’s putative capital just outside Port of Spain in Trinidad, can boast only a few marinas and a dirty beach.