A History of Colonialism and Imperialism in the Caribbean: Setting the Stage for a "Natural" Disaster

September 9, 2017 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


“The Caribbean!” Sun-drenched beaches, blue skies and water, luxurious hotels, and a small army of local people bringing drinks and a smile to tourists relaxing by the pool in places like St. Martin, the Virgin Islands, or Barbados.

“The Caribbean!” A center of finance in countries like the Cayman Islands, the Bahamas, or Dominica, where large corporations can “headquarter” their business and wealthy individuals park their assets in order to avoid paying taxes.

“The Caribbean”: scene of devastating economic crisis, poverty, and misery in nations like Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti.

Each of these images has a certain reality. Each greatly amplifies the vulnerability of the tens of millions of people in the Caribbean to major storms like Irma—and Jose, now approaching—which are becoming more powerful and common due to global warming. And each is the product, not of the needs or desires of the people of these islands, but of the over 500-year history of colonial conquest and imperialist domination.

The European Conquest

The string of large and small islands in and near the Caribbean Sea were mainly conquered by the Spanish empire in the early 1500s. This was at the dawn of capital accumulation in Europe, and the great powers there were seeking gold and silver to finance trade and early industry.

On Hispaniola, they found not only gold but hundreds of thousands of Arawak/Taino people, of whom Columbus said:

When you ask for something they have, they never say no. To the contrary, they offer to share with anyone. ... They do not bear arms, and do not know them. ... Their spears are made of cane... . They would make fine servants... . With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want. [Emphasis added.]

And so they did—not only on Hispaniola, but throughout the Caribbean. Arawak and other native people were worked to death in the mines in massive numbers. When they resisted, repression was savage—a priest wrote that the Spanish “thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens and twenties and of cutting slices of them to test the sharpness of their blades...”

Through murder, being worked to death, through disease, and through the destruction of their existing agricultural economy, virtually the entire population—possibly millions—was all but wiped out within a few generations.

But as the Spanish extracted the gold, their power was declining in Europe. Increasingly, rival powers—Britain, France, and Holland—began raiding their ships and colonies in the Caribbean, eventually seizing many of the most important such as Haiti (the western half of Hispaniola), Jamaica, Aruba, the Cayman Islands, Martinique, and many more. This happened through intense warfare in which the native people suffered greatly. Between 1762 and 1914, the island of Lucia changed hands seven times.

To this day, various European powers and the U.S. hold onto the islands as “overseas territories,” “commonwealths,” and other terms that seek to conceal an actual colonial relationship. In the case of St. Martin, the island is actually split—one side ruled by France, the other by the Dutch. Besides the profit that the imperialists extract from these islands, a major part of this is maintaining a strategic foothold in the crucial Caribbean region, which could again assume mainly military dimensions under future conditions.

Sugar and Slavery

With the new rulers came new and even more savage forms of exploitation. As gold deposits—and native populations to enslave—were exhausted, the British, Dutch, and French (as well as the Spanish on the islands they still held) turned to agriculture—that is, to slavery—to make profits. An estimated five million people were kidnapped from Africa and sold into slavery in the Caribbean.

Take French Haiti as one example of the system that also reigned in Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Cuba, and elsewhere: the colonial rulers of Haiti imported up to 40,000 slaves a year. And by the late 18th century, 60 percent of the coffee and 40 percent of the sugar consumed in Europe came from this small country, making it France’s most valuable colony.

Conditions were brutal: working under the lash and in the broiling sun, ill-fed and housed, beaten and tortured, the average life expectancy of a slave in Haiti was 21 years! This led to courageous resistance, which was met with the most grotesque tortures. A former slave wrote:

Have they not hung up men with heads downward, drowned them in sacks, crucified them on planks, buried them alive, crushed them in mortars? Have they not forced them to eat excrement? Have they not thrown them into boiling cauldrons of cane syrup? Have they not put men and women inside barrels studded with spikes and rolled them down mountainsides into the abyss?

Yet in the face of all this, Haitian slaves organized repeated rebellions, until in 1804, Toussaint L’Ouverture, (and after L’Ouverture’s murder by the French, Jean-Jacques Dessalines) led a revolutionary war that defeated a series of European armies and established Haiti as an independent republic. This victory inspired slaves in other places, and the growing fear of revolution was a major factor in the decision of the European powers to abolish slavery in the Caribbean between 1838 and 1863. (Other factors in ending slavery were opposition among sections of people in Europe, and economic changes that rendered it not so central to capitalist profit.)

After Slavery—Continued Exploitation in New Forms

After slavery ended in the mid-late 1800s, the great powers (which had now reached the stage of imperialism) continued to brutally exploit the Caribbean nations. Where there were natural resources like bauxite (Jamaica) or petroleum (Trinidad), large sections of the population, including the descendants of former slaves and indentured servants, went to work enriching the imperialists, now as “free” proletarians rather than outright slaves. In other situations, agriculture remained the focus of the economy, but it was increasingly organized under imperialist auspices as agriculture for export—bananas, sugar, coffee, cacao—leaving even many islands with thriving agriculture and rich soil dependent on food imports to actually feed their population.

Often, large numbers of small farmers were driven off the land in the interior of these countries to make way for plantation-style agriculture of these export crops, a form of production that required very few year-round workers. Many of these former peasants went to the coastal cities, in search of work in industries that grew up there exactly to take advantage of the desperation of these displaced peasants, who were willing to work cheap and hard just to survive—for example, pharmaceuticals in Puerto Rico and garment in Haiti (in the mid-20th century).

Another tendency was the buildup of the economy around service industries for the big imperialist powers—whether tourism or the “off-shore banking industry.” This, too, drew and drove large sections of the population to the coastal cities, and was associated with the decimation of agriculture meeting local needs.

None of this was a “paradise” for the great majority of people who lived there—at best it was a steady job and slight economic stability for a section of the people, servicing the needs of Europeans and Americans, whether tourists or wealthy tax dodgers. And at worst it was savage exploitation in cane fields or mines, little better than slavery, and then being tossed aside when capital moved elsewhere. In many countries, it has meant massive slums surrounding the major cities, where many live by scavenging in garbage dumps or are forced into the dangerous underground economy of drugs. For whole countries, like Haiti and the Dominican Republic, it has involved repeated invasions by the U.S. and the installation of brutal dictators who slaughtered and repressed the people in the service of foreign interests. It has meant the mounting debt crises, and the steady deterioration of social and physical national infrastructure.

So all of this—the impoverishment, the breakdown of social infrastructure, and the distorted economic development that drives people to the vulnerable coastal areas and increases dependency on foreign powers—has created a situation of extreme vulnerability to the ravages of these powerful storms. A vulnerability 500 years in the making, and which will now require profound revolutionary change around the region and world to overcome.



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