A GLOBAL SEA BASIN
 
From one resource to another

 

Derek Walcott, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Saint-John Perse, Arthur Lewis, Oscar Ariaz Sanchez, V.S. Naipaul, Nobel Laureates for literature, economics and peace, from Cartagena to Castries, all wrote about the lands bordering the Caribbean sea. Far from being isolated voices and scribes, they are first among equals in a peer group of great renown, though the others may have not received the same glittering recognition. Lafcadio Hearn, Aimé Cesaire, Édouard Glissant, Patrick Chamoiseau, Raphaël Confiant, Alejo Carpentier, Jose Martí, Nicolas Guillen, Bob Marley, Claude Mac Kay and Jacques Roumain, are but a few of those strong voices that have been heard in intellectual circles world-wide.

Exhibitions in the major art galleries of Europe and North America, of Haitian painting and its different schools are too numerous to count. London, Paris and New York dance and vibrate to the music of the Caribbean. Sometimes the vogue is for the Cuban sound and the salsa, or Jamaican reggae, at other times for the West Indian zouk or calypso which succeeded the beguine and rumba. The cultural output of the Caribbean Basin is both prolific and lively. It is much richer than might have been expected from such small territories and populations. Its very vitality is the product of mixture and ‘othertheness.' More than in any other region of the world, across a relatively, brief time-span (little more than four centuries), the Caribbean came to be shaped by a multiplicity of contributions. The historical particularities from one island to the next combine to confer on each its own identity, but the degree of commonality evident across the whole string of islands, from the largest in the north to the smallest in the south, is sufficiently strong as to create a collective awareness and recognition, in which languages (both creole and international), shared fragments of history, social relations, cultural practices and kinship are inter-mixed. It is a constructed identity, much stronger within the islands than that found on the surrounding mainland, the latter subject to other rationales that are essentially continental.

Viewed within a contemporary spatial and historical matrix, this cultural product is both consumed locally and heavily exported. The new dimension is the consumption that takes place in situ, much more in evidence today than its embryonic and limited presence a few decades ago. Incontestably, it is the music that has seen a massive spread across the Caribbean Basin, well ahead of literature and painting. In a dialectical sense, the local consumption of cultural products within the region itself is part of the construction of a Caribbean identity, consisting of a related sense of belonging.

However, it would be ‘selling short' this cultural production to view it as uniquely endogenous, created just within the islands for and by its inhabitants. Rather, it is simultaneously ‘here' and ‘elsewhere,' and from here and from elsewhere.

Since the 1950s and 1960s the immigrant communities originating from the Antilles in Paris, from Jamaica in London, from Puerto Rico and Cuba in New York and Miami are not just extraordinary purveyors and diffusers of Caribbean cultural product. They have also produced their own characteristics, their own tastes. New mixtures, new ‘creolizations,' have emerged within the urban societies of the great metropolitan regions of the industrialized world, within which they have pursued the search for roots and the satisfaction of new fashions, new desires and new aesthetics.

This cultural bridge – coinciding with large-scale migration to the major world centres and with increased frequency provided by the development of air transport – created the conditions as much from its rapid growth in the large states of Europe and North America, as from its development within the Caribbean Basin. This stimulus presents itself in terms of openings and multiple contacts, but also markets, income and employment. A new source of wealth, a cultural resource appeared in the contemporary era.

This further stimulus is much more than a simple quantitative enlargement of a market outlet for a (new) product from the Caribbean Basin, or its emigrant satellites. Occasionally it becomes merged into the core of the cultural product itself. Of the plastic arts produced in the Caribbean, Haitian painting is indisputably globally the most well-known. It is recognized and seen as emblematic across a large part of the Basin. Different schools, styles, indeed “Masters,” are discernible. The tiny population of Haiti, given rough-ride elsewhere, rediscovers itself in art; its scenes and landscapes are recognized by the other islands. Paintings with the prestige of a Prefete-Duffaut, Hector Hyppolyte or Petion Savain command high prices in the showrooms of New York, Paris and London. While certainly this situation, the rise of now established painters, the different schools, draws its roots and inspirations from a popular art going back just a few decades, from various 19th century academies, from the patronage of King Christopher, clearly its current expression is relatively recent, born out of contact with the wider world.

Since before the onset of modern globalization, the Caribbean appears ceaselessly defined both by and within the wider world order. This was the misfortune of its peoples, its curse, but it was also, and still is, its opportunity. The Arts Centre in Port-au-Prince, created by Dewitt Peters in 1944, provided the trigger that gave the initial impulse to contemporary Haitian art; in turn the French and American intelligentsia brought it visibility, echo and support. The Art Centre did not generate the painters, but it strongly stimulated and supported the emergence of talent. Difference – its originality being constructed through contact with the major art markets – created, literally 'fabricated,' the cultural and pictorial identity. It then pursued this process by re-interpreting its recent heritage, creating yet another identity.

This contemporary cultural resource has, in common with previously exploited natural resources, an outward looking dimension. In the development of past resources, ‘extroversion' was essential and hypertrophied. This was the whole focus of the system of development, as much a product of geography as it was the child of history.

This historical, economic and geographical convergence produced two outcomes, firstly, a permanent extroversion of the regional economy, that went beyond that of changes in modes of production, social relations, political regime, prestige and products; secondly, a quasi-total ‘entry' early on into world history and large-scale world economies within inter-continental systems.

This latter scale provided the fixed backdrop to the historical, political and economic construction of the “Far West;” the islands, the West Indies, large and small, the Caribbean, the maritime façade of the isthmus and continental mainland, constituted a distant destination, even for those nearest. This feature remains characteristic of all the different global historical and spatial matrices which have succeeded each other since the 'invention' of the sugar islands at the end of the 16th century.

The colonial period, that of prospecting for gold and silver, of slavery and the age of sugar, represents one extreme. The first period focusing on rare and costly spices during the decades of the 16th century brought new additions to the dining tables and markets of Europe, spices that came by caravan and maritime expeditions from so far away that prices were exorbitant and provenance mythic – Samarkand, the Malabar coast, the unreachable China of Marco Polo. Following this period of spices and indigo, the introduction of the cultivation of sugar cane, with a proto-industrial production of sugar and a slave-based economic system, propelled the ‘Far West' into the heart of the formation of private and royal finance capital of the Spanish crown, the major European commercial banks and (then) the Kingdoms of France and England. Though the notion of the ‘the nearest of the far' and the extroversion of Caribbean economies have endured, never, since the age of sugar, have the resources of the Caribbean been so crucial as then to the economies of the dominant powers of the era.

This crucial economic role rapidly raised the stakes, with wars and treaties and the full-scale implementation of the dreadful slave system, crushing human beings to extract profit and wealth, hoarded and invested in Europe, unequalled by any other production. Never since has such a geopolitical position been able to reproduce itself in these terms. This situation of “distant but nearest” also characterizes a contemporary resource development, that of tourism. It is the much vaunted land, sand and sea that is sold to people escaping harsh winters. Here are the mild climates, the sun and light breezes, the natural, the open air and wind. Here are the landscapes, the particular play of the elements, colours scents and sensations, the call to pleasure and the imaginary, a modern exoticism that evokes the eating tables and cafes where Europeans of centuries past came to indulge their tastes – places now reachable in one day. Here are the countries, the peoples, the atmosphere, whose merits are promoted. This is a representation of otherness, but an otherness tinged with familiarity, shared history and an interwoven destiny, which offers an invitation to make the journey.

The transport revolution has brought many parts of the world within reach by air but, with this shrinkage of the planet, the Caribbean has not completely lost its position of “distant but nearest” established in the age of sail. Three weeks have become eight hours. According to the posters of the subways of Paris, London, Montreal or New York, it is never more than a few hours to the Virgin Islands, Bahamas, Dominican Republic, French Antilles, and today also to Cuba (which 20 years ago took more than 20 hours via Czechoslovakia). All other inter-tropical destinations, the Seychelles, Maldives, Pacific islands, are still more distant for the inhabitants of the European and American Continents.

The element of pleasure, of exoticism associated with rarity and thus luxury, are another constant of the developed resources of the Caribbean. From the beginning, there has been a close relationship with demand from European, and later American, markets. This constant dimension runs through from spices to tourism. They become intermingled within the evocative publicity, one rubs-off on the next, each in turn feeding the imaginary. This constant is clearly understandable when seen from today's major urbanized regions with their unkind winters.

Whilst pleasure and exoticism have continued to attract, rarity and luxury have waned. Once reserved for the few, exotic products have progressively become those of mass consumption, with long haul travel in the same category. The transport revolution, the reduction of both costs and journey times, the rise in standards of living in industrial countries, the increased time allotted to leisure activity in these same societies, have all placed the Caribbean not just within reach time-wise but also cost-wise for hundreds of thousands of Europeans and North Americans. As with the development of cultural resources, the consumption and practice of tourism within the Caribbean by its own inhabitants is significant. This testifies to a rise in level of living and development of the middle classes. The tourism practiced in other islands and local societies contributes to the growth of a common sense of belonging; with the production of media reports, new magazines, information on and familiarity with the islands of the Archipelago is developing.

Culture and tourism constitute the last of the Caribbean's resource bases to be developed to date, carrying its imprint across most of the region, as had been the case during 'the age of sugar.' From the first to the last there was a succession of other developed resources, of which agriculture and its by-products were both the most important, leaving the most durable imprint on all the islands of the Archipelago as well as the coastal facades of this Caribbean ‘Mediterranean.' Just as the age of sugar was the founding age of the insular Caribbean, the founding of the populations it attracted, the complex social relations it introduced, the global links it instigated, the agricultural production surrounding or succeeding it, was developed within a classic system of production aimed at distant markets, in an economic, social and ideological world derived from “the age of sugar.” Coffee, nutmeg and above all, the banana, all belong to this primary agricultural activity that experienced, and continues to experience, fluctuating success on the world markets for which they are destined.

The international growth of the 1950s and 1960s, and the modes of development of that period saw the emergence of new energy and other mineral resources – the oil of Trinidad and Tobago, Mexico and particularly Venezuela. The latter benefitted from substantial revenues, and would thereby find itself propelled beyond its former trajectory, participating in the founding of OPEC. The Caribbean, including the surrounding American littoral, accounts for 15% of world oil production. Jamaica is the world's third largest producer of bauxite contributing wealth and opening up development horizons that coffee could never match. These resources have provided both Mexico and Venezuela with new and significant revenue streams, altering both their internal situation and their regional position, even international ranking in the case of Venezuela, but the latter has not impacted overall on the Caribbean Basin. When agricultural resources still provided the main economic base for most of the islands of the Archipelago, the way was being paved for the full development of present-day tourism.

The juxtaposition fits in well with the very strong compartmentalization and the mosaic which makes up the Caribbean. Everywhere the reality of the Basin is constantly finding expression in this type of complexity: features in common and division. This co-existence of opposites attains an exacerbated form in this part of the world. It has neither prerogative, nor exclusivity. Its complexity is probably the only way of grasping its essence without minimizing it. It has also led to the emergence of niches in terms of economic development: niches at the global scale, niches at the scale of the Caribbean Basin.

The situation regarding economic niching does not simply come down to (albeit spectacular) offshore or underground activities. Within the Basin, playing in criss-cross fashion to partition off and form special relationships, as well as giving rise to different activity ‘niches.' Tourism, largely present across the whole Basin, has developed different modes. Some states, or particular islands, have positioned themselves in a specific niche: luxury tourism or mass tourism, remote processing of electronic data in Jamaica and Barbados, distance-learning or in situ training in Puerto Rico and Barbados, a projected science park in Puerto Rico, etc.

Simultaneously, where the economic resource base was being diversified and developed, where political affirmation for Caribbean ventures was in place, where the population was growing rapidly, where the lengthening of (educational) training and the development of higher education (as seen in advanced industrial economies) was being adopted as a model, across the whole of the Caribbean universities have undergone very rapid growth. These latter constitute, whatever future trajectories might bring, a new essential given, one of fundamental importance to the Caribbean.

From the beginning of the present century, one of the fundamental features of global social and economic development was the growing and increasing part to be played by the “virtual,” in its widest sense, in the development of human activity and value-added as well as via the new technico-economic paradigm, now establishing itself through the generalized introduction of generic systems that underpin communication and information technologies. At this point in time, the position of the Caribbean Basin is being newly reformulated but as a cross-roads between continents, meeting-point between multiple customs, newly-developed resources or as ‘dead-angle' within new configurations, a left-over cul-de-sac reverting by escheat, and the forgotten corners of new developments?

Communication and information technologies modify both the division and location of economic activity. They instantaneously and permanently bring together the financial, industrial and informatics nodes of the networked operations of contemporary economies. This is their radically new and essential contribution. They attenuate the handicap of distance and, in that respect, open up possibilities for all regions of the world that are remote from the major markets and the great nerve centres of the global economy. For the moment, this translates itself more often into the remote operation of low value-added activities (data capture and accounting), the drawing to a close of a previously well established model of the old economic order and the relocation of activities to countries with low-cost labour. Distribution, notwithstanding the obvious technical possibilities, is not the central logic of this new technico-economic paradigm. On the contrary, it is an even stronger concentration around the major centres of specialist producer services that has today become the over-riding trend.

The main logic behind what is referred to as a “site advantage” (fostering the creation and performativity of activities) is dictated by proximity to major markets, the centralities of primate city-regions, higher education and training, and Research and Development. In this list, the Caribbean does not possess all the cards, far from it; but neither is the region totally lacking in assets. It can once again find new niches, seek to extend the development of the virtual in its direction.

The Caribbean is able to draw on some long-standing but still valuable natural assets conducive to economic development – its position as 'far but near' in relation to the large metropolitan countries, its environment and agreeable life-style (both vulnerable and needing protection). With higher and secondary education extended to a significant sector of the relevant age groups, the region could now pay greater attention to small-scale, but high value-added, manufacturing. The same applies to its already established agricultural production; it could avoid areas of competition where its low output and small surface area in relation to the world markets served is a disadvantage, as in banana production. In positioning itself in particular niches, the region could 'reinvent' itself in the spirit of the spice market, that is, tiny in terms of overall production, but with a select and desirable exclusiveness.

Another niche, that is already exploited but may have further potential, is that of gateway into the world's major political and economic blocs. This offers a variant on the region's earlier political history of links with its former metropolitan centres through a reformulation of existing economic accords. In Brussels parlance, it appears as 'furthermost region,' yet the ACP (Africa-Caribbean-Pacific) accords, preferential access to the American market and to the MERCOSUR free trade area (all arrangements with a history of increasing economic co-operation) could lead to a reorientation in favour of nodes of development at the junction of a new techno-economic paradigm – one centred on information services and networking based around the 'virtual' – and the consequent construction of large supranational economic groupings. Such selective access between major blocs within this part of the world could lead to the Caribbean's assuming a cross-roads position which, though remaining secondary and regional in scale, might allow it to lose its dead-angle status in global relations.

The developing role of the 'virtual' in the contemporary world may facilitate the insertion of the Caribbean mosaic. Its cultural contribution, in the widest sense, can continue to develop, to act as a bridge between different world economic centres and their 'far but nearest,' to pursue a construction of identity based on difference as well as creolization – an extended hybridization. This is one path open to the Caribbean that could lead to a positive outcome. The movement from one resource base to another and the very coexistence of these resources may then translate into an in situ development in liaison with the wider world. The most recent resource to be exploited, that of the 'virtual,' will itself bring about further distancing from the 'extroversion' inherited from the exclusive relationships with the colonies under the Ancien Régime. It offers perhaps the most optimistic of the possible ways forward, but it is not the only one. The continued possibility of marginalization and withdrawal also exists and could once more become a reality. This would lead to the Caribbean becoming the 'dead angle' of all kinds of global exchange. The denouement in respect of this bundle of possible outcomes will not emerge from any single factor, whether distant or regional; it will result only from the conscious choices of contemporary societies, a blending of local options with weightier global trends.

Author: Pascal Buleon
Translation:  : Louis Shurmer-Smith

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