Vice Chancellor of the University of the West Indies, Professor Sir Hilary Beckles, on Saturday made a case for reparations for Caribbean islands that were devastated by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in September.
Hurricane Irma was the first category five storm to hit this region, causing widespread damage on the islands of Anguilla, Barbuda, Cuba, the British and US Virgin Islands and St Maarten. Hurricane Maria struck two weeks later, decimating Dominica and Puerto Rico.
Addressing the Vice Chancellor’s forum dubbed Irma and Maria: Relief, Reconstruction and Reparations, Sir Hilary argued that European economies were built by wealth created in Caribbean colonies, but whatever relief will be provided to the affected countries “is going to be a fraction of what was extracted from this region over 300-400 years”.
He supported calls by Sir Richard Branson for a Marshall plan for the Caribbean, based on the United States programme to assist in the reconstruction of the economies of European countries following World War II. However, he noted that similar calls have been made for such a development concept to be applied to the region over the past eight decades.
“So in the last 80 years, Caribbean peoples have been calling on the British state to develop a Marshall plan for this region that they are entitled to. In the 40s and in the 50s, the 20 years before independence, the labour movements, the anti-colonial movements were talking about these islands deserving a development plan, that they cannot go into their independence without a development strategy, funded by those who had extracted the wealth from this region in the first place,” Sir Hilary said.
He told the audience of academics, students and disaster management officials at the Usain Bolt Sports Complex that the Caribbean cannot imagine its future without a grasp of history, and that these are conversations that citizens need to have as they seek to rebuild from the disasters.
“We are in the midst of a historical construction; we are in the midst of our historical journey. It’s a moment in time, there’s a lot of history that we have to speak about and we need to understand that this is not a God-given situation. This is a historically made situation that can be unmade by those who have made it.”
Sir Hilary was particularly critical of the European leaders who visited the region in the wake of the disasters.
“We saw a French president flying into the Caribbean for a photo op. We saw a British foreign minister flying into the Caribbean for a photo op. And we saw an American president flying into the Caribbean for photo ops . . .
“Why is that? It is because the Caribbean is the only part of this hemisphere that is still colonised. Latin America has moved on with their history, they have moved on with their destiny. North America has moved on with its destiny, and in the middle of the hemisphere are these islands that are still trapped in the colonial past in the definition of colonies. And imperial overlords fly into their colonies to issue states of relief but to consolidate their image that we Caribbean people are still colonised,” he said.
The Vice Chancellor compared the response of Puerto Rico and Cuba following the passage of the hurricanes, noting the importance of resilience in such disasters.
“The images emerging out of Cuba are a people who are not only resilient but who are focused on rebuilding their world. The image coming out of Puerto Rico is an image of dependency, and it’s unfortunate. It is an image of colonial dependency as opposed to national and nationalist mobilisation . . . And that is a reflection of where we are in our history.
“We are mobilising around Dominica and Antigua and Barbuda because they are part of our nationalist landscape. It is natural for us to mobilise around our nationalist upsurge,” he said.
Sir Hilary recalled Hurricane Gilbert in Jamaica in 1988, and the determination of that island to rebuild, coupled with support from her Caribbean neighbours.
“In two months Jamaica was back on its feet and moving because there was a phenomenal upsurge of nationalism, a phenomenal upsurge of Caribbean integration, all the peoples of the Caribbean moved into Jamaica and Jamaica was back on its feet. I’m concerned about how we have taken for granted the issues of history and the future.”
He stated that the hurricanes have revealed the “colonial mess” that has been left behind by European countries, and while Caribbean countries take responsibility for their own wellbeing, “we also have a right to say that those who have created this mess have a duty, not only moral but legal, to come back and participate with us in cleaning up this mess and imagining a more sustainable and resilient future”.
“That is the message I think we need to begin with,” Sir Hilary said.