An elusive independence: Neocolonial intervention in the Caribbean

Issue: 146

Kevin Edmonds

On the eve of Jamaica’s celebrations marking 50 years of political independence, the Jamaica Gleaner released the results of a poll finding that an estimated 60 percent of Jamaicans believed that they would be better off if they had remained a colony of Britain.1 Central to the argument was a comparison of respective GDPs per capita, with that of the Cayman Islands (a British overseas territory) sitting at $43,800 while Jamaica’s was at $7,500.2 Not surprisingly, the outcome of the poll was quickly circulated around the globe as an indictment of Jamaican self-rule, with little attention to the context, the larger structural conditions which led to the development of this popular, albeit troubling, sentiment. While stagnant economic growth, increasing inequality, crime and outward migration are the unfortunate realities of much of the contemporary Caribbean, it becomes necessary to distinguish whether or not these are the consequences of domestic mismanagement—or the symptoms of a form of political independence more symbolic than substantive in nature.

While it is widely known that Jamaica achieved political independence on 6 August 1962, the fact that Jamaica would go on to trade in this newfound independence in exchange for assistance from the International Monetary Fund roughly 15 years later is not. While the IMF did not exert its considerable power in Jamaica until 1978, it immediately set the ground rules for what was possible. This relationship was a direct consequence—or a form of retaliation for Jamaica trying to change the structural conditions of the colonial economy through programmes such as the bauxite levy and the New International Economic Order, which sought to ensure fairer prices for primary products originating in the Global South. This relationship with the IMF would go on to symbolise that the real transfer of power was not from the British colonial administration to the Jamaican people, but rather a more troubling and complex reorientation from an order based upon British monopoly to the interests of transnational capital.

A direct example of this was given by the late Norman Girvan of the University of the West Indies, who argued in a paper entitled “50 Years of In-Dependence in Jamaica: Reflections” that:

for 35 years of the 50-year independence experience…Jamaican economic policy has been under the direct supervision of Washington-based international financial institutions; or carried out within a framework that they approve of and is aimed at maintaining the confidence of donors and investors. One consequence of this is that successive Jamaican governments have surrendered many, if not most, of the policy tools for the shaping of economic development which the state had acquired in the late colonial and early postcolonial period.3

Thus, when examining the Caribbean, it becomes increasingly difficult to embrace the notion of a post-colonial era in a region which is as close to a working model of neocolonialism that one can find. Today, just as in the past, the Caribbean is economically, socially and politically structured in a way that facilitates the interests of the same metropolitan centres, via the Westminster parliamentary system, Washington Consensus, all-inclusive tourism, international financial services and primary commodity exports—with public expenditures largely dependent on foreign loans. The contemporary state of affairs in the Caribbean was accurately and articulately summed by another University of the West Indies professor, Tennyson Joseph, who stated that while “in the old days the colonial rulers enjoyed power without responsibility, today our local governments have responsibility without power, and international agencies enjoy power without responsibility”.4

Through an analysis highlighting the historical continuities between the colonial era and the Caribbean’s experience under capitalist neoliberal globalisation, this article will argue that in many ways the political and economic experience of the Caribbean over the past 50 years can accurately be characterised as “the more things change, the more they stay the same”, as independence in the region has been merely a symbolic event—not an ongoing condition. That said, no historical overview of the political reality of the Caribbean would be complete without including the short-lived but incredibly important periods of disruption which sought to extinguish the flames of neocolonialism and bring about the self-determination and genuine development of the Caribbean people.

A flawed independence?

When Jamaica and Trinidad first received their respective independence in 1962, it was hailed as a transformative period whereby sovereign governments would now be able to redress the historical wrongs of the past, create a more just society and enjoy the self-determination to chart their own political, social and economic future.

Today the Caribbean stands at a crossroads, due to the intense political and economic fracturing resulting from the multifaceted legacies of colonialism and the current crisis of capitalism. The obstacles to the achievement of genuine, self-directed development are so numerous and varied that Girvan argues that the Caribbean is currently facing what he calls “existential threats”—“systemic challenges to the viability of our states as functioning socio-economic-ecological-political systems; due to the intersection of climatic, economic, social and political developments”, challenges “too wide in scope and too vast in scale for any one Caribbean country to cope with by itself”.5

Jamaica is not alone in this situation. Due to their weak, highly vulnerable and relatively undiversified economies Antigua, Dominica, Grenada, Haiti, Jamaica, St Kitts, St Lucia and St Vincent were all involved in IMF programmes of varying durations and intensity between 2010 and 2012. Given the magnitude of the problems faced by the region and not just by a few bad apples, it is imperative to ask what went wrong.

While political independence might have come to the Caribbean more than 50 years ago, it did not include a reorientation of economic relationships and a shattering of colonial mentalities. Indeed, a great deal of the issues and vulnerability which the region faces are a result of an incomplete independence, what Walter Rodney referred to as constitutional decolonisation, which “almost invariably concluded with a political arrangement from which the masses are excluded and one which provides the political basis for neocolonialism. British West Indian territories have been typical in these respects”6—what Girvan terms “in-dependence”.

While there were indeed important criticisms of the nature and process of independence, with the benefit of 50 years of hindsight we can see that the current social, economic and political ills are largely the result of a mythical independence, full of symbolism but empty of substance. As Louis Lindsay discussed in his analysis regarding the devaluation of independence:

No sooner was the right to independence conceded in form, than it was withdrawn in substance. If native leaders demanded independence, they were given independence. But by removing from the offer of supposed national autonomy the key operational component of self-determination, European imperial powers pacified and placated colonial discontent by offering the myth while withholding the reality of national political sovereignty.7

As hard evidence of the embedded neocolonial nature of the Caribbean, any attempt to reorient the economies of the region towards greater self-sufficiency seen as a threat—from outright socialist revolution to progressive reforms—has been violently cut down. Starting with the coup to derail socialism in Guyana in 1953, the undermining of Michael Manley’s call for democratic socialism and a New International Economic Order to the US invasion to crush the New Jewel Movement in Grenada, we can see a pattern whereby any attempt to improve the lives of the people and away from the status quo has been disproportionately met with violent repression and economic blackmail.

1930s labour rebellions and the roots of a false independence

Despite the abolition of slavery in 1838, the structure of the colonial economic system prevented the practice of self-sufficient, small-scale cultivation insofar as the British colonial elite still owned virtually all of the land. This structure of land tenure led to a widespread and unequal pattern of land ownership whereby small farmers and peasants squatted on or rented smallholdings nearly always on the most unfertile and geographically unsuitable land. The situation forced many technically “free” Africans back onto the plantations through sharecropping systems such as metayage (tenant farming) in order to access enough food and material goods to survive.

Social unrest and trade union militancy that broke out across the Caribbean from 1934-9 in response to the institutionalised inequality, poverty, political frustration and successive drops in the price of sugar began to make British colonial authorities increasingly uneasy. From Kingston to Port of Spain the protests were in direct response to the exploitation, poverty, ­disenfranchisement and abysmal conditions fundamental to the working of the colonial economy. The labour unrest would become the catalyst for political change and eventual independence, with calls for representative government, mass political parties and trade unions.

In 1945 the West India Royal Commission released a report identifying the extreme inequality of land distribution between the plantations and peasants as the source of the unrest. Strikingly, the report was initially completed in 1939, but publication was withheld during the Second World War as the British government feared that the findings of widespread poverty in the Caribbean would fuel an embarrassing propaganda campaign by their enemies. The resulting Moyne Commission was a concerted effort to stem the revolutionary potential of the workers towards more peaceful, gradual reform in the areas of social welfare, employment practices, colonial development and the promotion of moderate labour leaders. To achieve these ends, the Commission recommended the creation of a West Indian Welfare Fund, financed through British Treasury grants, of a paltry sum of one million pounds per year, over 20 years.8 By implementing such recommendations, the British government hoped to strengthen its international and economic influence by reforming its imperial policies—not eliminating these policies. The recommendations put forward by the West India Royal Commission were regarded as a way to maintain “stability”—code for the economic and strategic interests of Britain—in the wider Caribbean.

As such, this reformist shift tempered the revolutionary potential of the times as the eventual granting of self-government would serve as a convenient distraction to the public—allowing for a historical break or buffer to be created to distance the former coloniser from any responsibility for the dire circumstances of the post-1962 Caribbean reality.

The developmental paths pursued by newly independent Caribbean states and their moderate leaders also served to undermine the strength of the organised working class and a broader socialist labour movement. This was primarily achieved through the implementation of policies of ­“industrialisation by invitation”, which sought to attract foreign investment on the basis of having a “responsible” workforce which would accommodate the needs of capital in the early 1960s. This particular path of economic development worked further to cement the power of transnational capital at the expense of labour—and was to be intensified later on through a myriad of economic trade agreements and structural adjustment policies.

As highlighted by Louis Lindsay:

Given, however, that the character of the “documentary independence” which is given does not and cannot by itself qualitatively change the traditional pattern of relationships between metropolitan power and hinterland colony, with the granting of independence, the metropolitan country often manages to extract additional increments of prestige and moral comfort, while at the same time it preserves (perhaps even increases) the concrete benefits which it traditionally obtained from its mother-country role.9

Thus the legacies of colonialism and imperialism live on as the current imitative models of the Westminster parliamentary system; two-party politics and capitalist industrialisation have demonstrated their inability to bring about the self-determination and genuine development of the Caribbean people. However, that does not mean no one tried.

The short-lived West Indian Federation

According to C L R James:

Federation is the means and the only means whereby the West Indies and British Guiana can accomplish the transition from colonialism to national independence, can create the basis of a new nation; and by reorganising the economic system and the national life, to give us our place in the modern community of nations.10

Aside from the Cuban and Grenadian Revolutions, the West Indian Federation was the only real alternative modern political model proposed within the Caribbean. With the Federation providing regional integration, it was hoped that the Caribbean would successfully overcome the ­geopolitical constraints of its small territories, as well as the structural legacies of colonialism and underdevelopment. Implemented in 1958, the West Indian Federation was expected to benefit its members by reducing government costs, securing better prices for primary commodity exports and achieving economies of scale that would encourage intra-regional trade and economic diversification, thereby facilitating more inclusive and efficient economic and social planning. This, member nations hoped, would help to alleviate the grave problems of social inequality and reverse the legacy of economic dependency on England.

Similar to the aforementioned thinkers, C L R James was critical of the superficial nature of much of what passed for national liberation in the former colonies, arguing that the Caribbean needed something more substantive. James states that:

freedom from colonialism is not merely a legal independence, the right to run up a national flag and to compose and sing a national anthem. It is necessary also to break down the economic colonial systems under which the colonial areas have been forced to live for centuries as hinterlands, sources of raw material, backyards to the industries of the advanced countries. Independence is independence, but when you continue to live in territories which still bear the shape of the old colonial territories it is extremely difficult to free yourself from the colonial mentality.11

James goes on to warn that “it has to be done or the consequences for these islands would be dreadful”.12

Unfortunately for the people of the Caribbean, the Federation was short-lived and the resulting consequences have been dire. The failure of the West Indian Federation was primarily the result of a long effort to cultivate insular nationalism through the colonial project. In The Growth of the Modern West Indies Caribbean scholar Gordon K Lewis remarks that the Federation failed largely due to British colonial policy which “kept the islands unnaturally apart from each other for three centuries or more and then expected them to come together in less than 15 years”. Lewis continues: “Political imperialism, in brief, explains, more than any other single factor, the present disunity of the region, the aimlessness so distressingly apparent…with the resultant trend towards micro-nationalism”.13

The failure of the West Indian Federation is an important indicator of the strength of the colonial cultivation of insular national identities above a radical, regional identity which remains in place to this day as the national bourgeoisie and eventual ruling classes preferred to be rulers of their own individual territory rather than to have to submit to leadership of another as part of a greater cause. As a result, the “post-colonial” history of the Caribbean is largely one whereby the political classes have betrayed the aspirations of the people to make a decisive break from colonialism. That said, there is an important history of Caribbean radical thought and action in the second half of the 20th century which must be examined despite its ultimate failure to reorient the region.

Reversing revolution

As a reaction to this imperial history, the English speaking Caribbean witnessed three political experiments, with their degrees of radicalism ranging from the relatively mild democratic socialism under Michael Manley, and the multiracial, radical-nationalist politics of Cheddi Jagan to the conflicted Leninist model of revolution under Maurice Bishop and the grassroots revolutionary ideas of Walter Rodney. Despite their political diversity, all of these political experiments met with the same outcome—international intervention by imperialist forces.


The first of these efforts to break the colonial links by building socialism came in British Guiana (now Guyana). As a response to the Moyne Commission’s findings on the potential threat of rebellion in the Caribbean unless reforms were implemented, the British government agreed to the gradual implementation of self-government in selected territories. Once this process was underway, the limitations of self-government would be quickly revealed in Guyana, with the landslide election of Cheddi Jagan, and the People’s Progressive Party, in the hysterical Cold War political climate of 1953.

Jagan, a publicly declared Marxist-Leninist, and the PPP were elected on a progressive, multiracial, nationalist platform which called for the improvement of social services through the redistribution of wealth, workers’ rights, investment in agricultural and industrial production and land reform. His American born wife, Janet Rosenberg Jagan, who co-founded the PPP, served as the party’s general secretary and was later herself president of Guyana (from 1997 to 1999). In 1953 British Guiana was an important supplier of raw materials for England, acting as a key source of sugar, bauxite and timber. Without a doubt, the British government was deeply disturbed that the openly socialist PPP would win the elections over an elitist, pro-colonial party. Released colonial documents from the period state that “if the Jagans remain in power after independence and if their activities and views remain unchanged, they will represent a threat to the stability both of British Guiana itself and of the neighbouring territories”.14

On 9 October 1953 Winston Churchill, fearing the spread of Communism, declared a state of emergency in British Guiana, suspending the constitution with the help of a British military intervention, which carried out what was essentially an imperial coup d’état. Documents recently released by the British National Archives outline how MI5 was directly involved in the coup which would remove Jagan from power and set Guyana down a very destructive path which would fracture the nation’s multi-ethnic nationalist movement. The colonial secretary went on to state that due to the actions of the Jagan government “a number of American or overseas firms…were already abandoning their projects in British Guiana” and that if democracy was to be restored in the colony the same government would be elected once more.15

Despite the efforts of the colonial government to imprison Jagan and marginalise him politically, he was well liked by the Guyanese people, elected in 1957 and once again in 1961. British Guiana would not achieve political independence until 1966, but in order to stem the influence of Jagan and his political ideology, the United States steadfastly supported Forbes Burnham, the former chairman of the PPP, who was progressive in his rhetoric, but deeply authoritarian and despotic in practice. Burnham violently took advantage of Guyana’s racial divide to ensure his rule would go unchallenged while he oversaw the destruction of Guyana’s economy.

During his time in opposition—which spanned 28 years—Jagan remained committed to the non-capitalist path of development and affiliated the PPP with pro-Soviet political positions until its dissolution. By the time Jagan would finally have power, the world was now unipolar, where the only choice was whether one would adopt neoliberalism voluntarily or through the dictates of the IMF. By then much of Guyana’s natural resources had been auctioned off to multinational corporations, with its people living in poverty or becoming part of the overseas diaspora.


In 1972 Michael Manley was elected as the prime minister of Jamaica on a progressive platform of instituting socioeconomic reforms such as implementing a minimum wage, land reform, free education, literacy programmes, food subsidies, equal wages for women, maternity leave and a fair price for the nation’s natural resources, particularly bauxite. Manley’s political mantra that “better mus’ come” was weakened by international economic events which were beyond his control—primarily the 1973 oil shock. With Jamaica totally reliant on foreign oil, the rapid price increase quickly sent the economy into a tailspin resulting in a massive trade imbalance.

The experience of the OPEC-led oil shock was a motivation for Manley’s New International Economic Order (NIEO) whereby the ­producers of primary commodities would be able to get a fair price on the global market. Manley envisioned the NIEO as being a global extension of Jamaica’s bauxite levy, which imposed taxes on the foreign multinational corporations which controlled the bauxite industry as a way to gain access to much needed foreign exchange and tax revenue. Not surprisingly, the bauxite levy and the NIEO were not supported by the First World or their multinational corporations, many of whom chose to relocate their activities to Australia and Brazil.16 Many international and domestic investors followed suit, fearful that Jamaica was on the verge of becoming another Cuba. Despite this, the taxes from the bauxite levy were integral to funding Jamaica’s education system—and it is regarded as one of the most important legacies of the Manley government.17

With regard to foreign policy, Manley was a vocal spokesperson for anti-imperialism within the Non-Aligned Movement, hitting a nerve with the US, primarily due to his support for Pan-Africanist causes and his unwavering support for Cuba and Fidel Castro. In 1975 Manley was promptly warned by US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to withdraw support for Cuban troops in Angola—but refused. It was not long before Jamaica became the target of economic destabilisation and CIA sabotage.18 As William Blum points out, Kissinger’s response to Manley in many ways reflected the US’s involvement in the overthrow of the Salvador Allende government in Chile years earlier.19

Not long after that the Jamaican economy fell apart at the seams. By 1976 Manley was forced to turn to negotiate with the IMF in an attempt to stabilise the economy. By 1978 Jamaica and the IMF agreed to a very strict structural adjustment programme which spelled the end of Jamaica’s experiment in democratic socialism. Given Jamaica’s dire economic straits (which were a result of poor planning and external meddling), it adopted draconian terms from which it has yet to recover. In many ways, the IMF played a central role in demonstrating to the Caribbean that any experiment in democratic socialism would be devastating to the economy. Jamaica was an unfortunate Exhibit A.


On 13 March 1979 the government of Eric Gairy was overthrown by the Marxist-Leninist New Jewel Movement and the People’s Revolutionary Army. Gairy had ruled Grenada’s neocolonial economy through a mixture of corruption and terror. Speaking in 1983, Maurice Bishop remarked on the conditions which led to the emergence of the New Jewel Movement: “The legacy of this neofascist regime for the people of our nation was a total dependence on imperialism, a reality that meant extreme poverty, characterised by massive unemployment, with more than half of the workforce out of work, high malnutrition, illiteracy, backwardness, superstition, poor housing and health conditions, combined with overall economic stagnation and massive migration”.20

The primary goals of the Grenadian Revolution were to end the conditions of dependency and underdevelopment by restructuring the economy so that it served society—particularly those who had historically been marginalised by the neocolonial system. Central to the revolution was the implementation of a low cost housing programme, free medical and dental treatment, free primary and secondary schooling (including textbooks and uniforms), literacy programmes, a scholarship programme, value added agricultural industries, infrastructure projects and equal rights for women. As to be expected, the small island of roughly 90,000 people at the time drew the violent attention of the US under Ronald Reagan.

Despite implementing numerous social programmes that benefited the people of Grenada, Ronald Reagan firmly believed it was all a show to create a Soviet/Cuban military base on the island. On 19 October 1983 an ideological split between Bishop and the deputy prime minister Bernard Coard resulted in the execution of the more popular Bishop and the declaration of martial law on the island. The US quickly used this instability as a pretext to invade Grenada to save US medical students, while eliminating the New Jewel Movement and removing the Cubans from the island.

While the revolution in Grenada did not last long, it did show signs of success which were important lessons for other Caribbean nations. From 1979 to 1983 the New Jewel Movement increased popular participation in government and implemented a wide array of social programmes while at the same time nearly doubling per capita income from $450 in 1978 to $870 in 1983.21 One of the most interesting elements of the Grenadian Revolution was the creation of mass organisations for youth, women and workers—and the potential that these organisations would have had if they had had a longer time to develop.

Thus the experience of Grenada reveals the limitations of constructing state-led socialism in a single nation.22 While the revolution was largely top-down, important efforts to develop and organise the grassroots were underway—but cut short through a political rivalry between Maurice Bishop and Bernard Coard which led to eventual imperial intervention. The rivalry between Bishop and Coard was largely based on what form the revolution would take—with Bishop advocating a model which favoured the grassroots empowerment of workers and farmers, while Coard pushed for a more rigid system based upon hierarchical decision-making.

Walter Rodney

Assassinated at the age of 38, Walter Rodney was arguably one of the Caribbean’s most important intellectuals and activists and is often referred to as the political consciousness of Guyana. Growing up in a working class family and earning his PhD from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London at the age of 24, Rodney quickly immersed himself in the revolutionary struggle against capitalism, becoming deeply involved in Pan-Africanist/Caribbean politics in Tanzania, Jamaica and Guyana.

Rodney would take his teachings of Black Power, Pan-Africanism and the liberation of oppressed peoples to Jamaica, where he became very close to the long marginalised Rastafari community. Deeply critical of the Caribbean political classes, Rodney argued that “probably the most important conclusion which can be drawn from contemporary political trends in the English speaking Caribbean is that working class power is the only guarantor for economic growth and political democracy which precede and accompany socialism as a system of social justice”.23

In October 1968 the Jamaican government under the conservative Hugh Shearer banned Rodney from returning to his lecturing position at the University of the West Indies while he was attending the Black Writers’ Conference in Montreal. When word of this spread, it trigged a protest which shut down the campus eventually leading to a riot in which six protesters were killed by the authorities and millions of dollars in damage occurred.

Upon his return to Guyana in 1974, Rodney would become an influential part of the Guyanese political party the Working People’s Alliance (WPA), which believed that the progressive transformation of society could only take place through the mass mobilisation of all peoples—cutting across racial and class barriers (uniting workers, farmers and progressive professionals). Rodney firmly believed that the racial divide in Guyana between the descendants of indentured Indians and enslaved Africans was a tool of colonial divide and rule, which no longer served any purpose in Guyana. The country was politically and racially divided between the largely Indo-Guyanese People’s Progressive Party and the Afro-Guyanese People’s National Congress.

As such, the WPA was an anomaly in Guyanese politics and arguably the wider region due to its desire to establish pan-Caribbean unity along multiracial, democratic socialist lines. Rodney highlighted the motivation to bring the previously divided populations together politically, stating that:

These groups came together in response to at least two important pressures. One was a new demand to overcome a racist-oriented politics, to break with the divisiveness of race as a fact of organisation, so that both ASCRIA and IPRA [African and Indian descendent political organisations respectively] collaborated on issues such as the landless squatters, of both Indian and African descent. The question was dealt with in class terms rather than racial terms. Second, as questions of socialism and ideology were being raised, the aim was to provide an organisation which would take the task of political and ideological education more seriously than any other existing political group.24

However, the potential that Walter Rodney held and the example he set were too frightening for the Guyanese government at the time. On 13 June 1980 Rodney was assassinated by a bomb planted in a walkie-talkie by a government agent. C L R James, who had long mentored Rodney, had previously warned him that the Burnham government would assassinate him, urging him to take the utmost care in minimising his exposure to risk so that he could serve as an intellectual leader for a long time to come. Aaron Kamugisha writes in Caribbean Political Thought: Theories of a Post-Colonial State:

His assassination at 38 deprived the Caribbean and the Third World of one of its leading radical intellectual voices, and for many, was one of the decisive defeats of the early 1980s from which the Caribbean left has never recovered, stumbling from structural adjustment to neoliberal globalisation in the decades that followed. Rodney for many is both remembered as the most brilliant radical intellectual produced in the Anglophone Caribbean’s post-colonial history as well as a reminder of the authoritarian lengths of the elites that govern its states.25

Economic conditions today

When it comes to international political economy, the Caribbean is often marginalised due to the small size and lack of global influence of its countries. However, the negative effects of global capitalism are being felt there on an intense magnitude. Social dislocation, poverty, inequality, violence, eroding state power, environmental crisis and massive outward migration are all evidence of failing state capacity. Governments have little to no say in their economic policy, resulting in a de facto laissez-faire regime, leaving social policy as a fraction of what it needs to be for present and future generations to have an opportunity to live healthy, safe and productive lives.

A great deal of this stems from the traumatic fall-out due to the failures of the aforementioned political experiments. The Grenadian Revolution in particular signalled to many Caribbean radicals that incremental change or treading water in the service of traditional political parties were now the only options going forward. In the world of free market fundamentalism, there was no longer room for revolutionary ideals. Efforts to reorient the region away from capitalism have largely faded away from the popular consciousness—to find refuge in academia.

Currently, the Caribbean finds itself as one of the most indebted regions in the world,26 with many countries finding themselves on an endless treadmill of debt. Over 40 years Jamaica has been “rescued” on countless occasions by international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund but with little to show. As with most countries in the Global South, Jamaica has repaid more money ($19.8 billion) than it has been lent ($18.5 billion), yet the government still “owes” $7.8 billion, as a result of huge interest payments. Levels of public debt in Jamaica sat at nearly 150 percent in 2013, with interest payments accounting for 37 percent of government revenues.27 Government foreign debt payments ($1.2 billion) are double the amount spent on education and health combined ($600 million), leading to deteriorating social conditions and a general lack of opportunity.28

The IMF agreement with Jamaica calls for reductions in social spending (impacting pensions, healthcare, post-secondary education, etc), a reduction of 7,000 public service jobs, divestment of state-owned entities (eg Wallenford Blue Mountain Coffee Company and Clarendon Alumina Production Ltd), the privatisation of the Kingston Container Terminal, the Norman Manley International Airport and the Jamaican Railway Corporation.29 As evidence of the degree of the IMF’s control over Jamaica’s economy, Jamaica will have to provide daily reports on six key economic indicators and monthly reports on another 27.30 It would be hard to imagine that the colonial government reported to England so widely and frequently on economic issues in Jamaica.

This neocolonial shift has also caught the attention of Tennyson Joseph of the University of the West Indies, who points out that the gains in human development from the 1960s to the early 1980s:

have been undermined by globalisation, which has re-presented the old colonial problematic of power without responsibility in a new guise. Firstly, our new independent governments are now constrained in their policy choices and critical economic decisions are now being made more and more in the IMF, World Bank, and the G20 than in our domestic cabinet rooms. Whilst the power of our domestically elected governments has decreased, they remain no less accountable for actions over which they have very little or no control. So whilst in the old days the colonial rulers enjoyed power without responsibility, today our local governments have responsibility without power, and international agencies enjoy power without responsibility. All of this negates the very essence of democracy, in which the right to self-determination and government by the consent of the governed are essential parts.31

Transformations in global capitalism have destroyed much of the Caribbean’s traditional economic base, concentrating the jobs and income in the hands of sectors dominated by a transnational elite or the civil service. The alternatives offered, such as in tourism or financial services, do little more than serve the needs of the imperial powers first, and those of the local people a very distant second.

Tourism and the service sector

This is not to say that the old agricultural industries of bananas and sugar were perfect, but whereas agriculture had an important multiplier effect for the local economies, the new dependence on tourism has made the Caribbean the site of the experience—but not of payment. While the growth of the tourism industry would normally be considered a good thing, it is the nature of how and who grew it which has led to several problematic outcomes.

Firstly, the industry is dominated by a network of foreign multinational corporations, which makes the regulation of the industry virtually impossible due to the threat of relocation to a more lax environment. This is especially problematic when it comes to matters of taxation. For example, a 2006 CARIFORUM study of the Caribbean tourism industry lamented that the project was “hindered by a lack of willingness by hoteliers in the region to share data” pertaining to issues of taxation and operating costs.32 Given the reluctance of the hotels to share such information it can be assumed that they were seeking to avoid making the terms of their concessions public. The disconnect between the Caribbean’s reliance on tourism and the sector’s contribution to the region’s economic base via taxation is demonstrated by the fact that tourism provides anywhere from one to three quarters of a country’s income, yet tax revenue from hotel accommodation for example ranges from 0.5 to 3.2 percent of national GDP.33

Due to the all-inclusive enclave structure of much of the Caribbean’s tourism industry, according to the United Nations Environment Programme the region leads the world in tourism “leakage” with an estimated 80 percent of the money spent by tourists ending up leaving the region via foreign owned hotels, operators, airlines, imported food and drinks, etc.34 The lack of regulation discourages the creation of much needed linkages with the local economy and job creation for farmers, food processors and artisans. Thus, due to the uneven nature of the Caribbean’s tourism industry, out of 12 global regions, the 2014 World Travel and Tourism Council ranked the Caribbean as the most dependent on tourism (based on contribution to GDP in 2013).35

While it is generally agreed that this aggressive model of neoliberalism is inherently unsustainable over the long term, one has to wonder how much damage it must cause before serious efforts to overthrow it are taken. Thus, in the face of such dire consequences under neoliberalism, it is hard to predict where and when the next uprising for radical, structural change will occur.

Unlike other parts of the world, the Caribbean has not seen mass social movements emerge to challenge the political and economic order. This does not mean that the social conditions are benign enough that people see things as being tolerable. The entire English-speaking Caribbean is currently facing a cost of living crisis, as the prices of household staples continue to rise much faster than wages.36 The region’s small manufacturing sector has been hollowed out by the North American Free Trade Agreement and the World Trade Organization.

As a result of the shifts in the global political economy, the Caribbean working class and the few radical political parties have largely been decimated and disempowered, with many workers forced to become dependent on finding irregular, informal employment. A 2006 study by the Inter-American Development Bank found that the informal economy in Jamaica amounted to 40 percent of the island’s total economic activity.37 Dramatic declines in agriculture and manufacturing for export have led to a significant change in composition of the Caribbean working class.

Those who work in the service sector are routinely exploited by the multinational corporations and their allies in government. It is not uncommon for the cost of a round of golf and dinner at a luxury resort in the Caribbean to equal six months wages of the average low-wage worker. Despite this glaring inequality, the power of unionised workers in the sector is largely offset by demonising potential strikes and industrial actions in a competitive tourism environment as threatening the livelihoods of entire nations.

For example, in 2006 the ruling St Lucia Labour Party was on the verge of implementing a long awaited Labour Code which would regulate dismissals in order to protect workers’ rights. Hotels were hostile to the code, regarding it as a hindrance to their bottom line. In response, the Sandals Resort chain fired 100 workers without warning, claiming it as a result of the economic downturn.38 The action was widely regarded as a form of economic destabilisation and a warning against the implementation of the Labour Code. This action in turn revealed the power of the hotel chain on the island as the prime minister eventually ceded to the pressure of the hotels and scrapped the implementation of the Labour Code. Never one to mince words, Lloyd Best accurately described this state of affairs in 1967 when he wrote of the newly independent Caribbean governments that they, “admittedly as a mere strategic device, deliberately assume the role of house-slave, as it were, to metropolitan business”.39

Furthermore, the demands of fiscal austerity have hit the civil service, which has traditionally been the largest source of employment in the region. While the majority of unionised workers currently belong to the civil service, recent strikes across the region are largely limited to medical, police, firefighting and educational fields. They do not seek to bring about widespread social, economic and political reform like their working class predecessors did in the 1930s, but are grounded in the values of the middle class, seeking to gain a larger share of the pie for themselves. An example of this can be seen in Barbados, where the government has announced a series of job cuts which will impact 3,000 public service workers—with the organised response having little influence on the outcome.40

Given the dire situation and the lack of an organised radical response, it is clear that this is a result of the Caribbean being recolonised by the forces of transnational capitalism, with sustained attacks on traditional farming, public services and working class organisations. As a result, many of the militant anti-colonial organisations of the 1970s Black Power and West Indian Marxist tendencies and their ideas have been demobilised. The growth of the informal sector and mass emigration has limited the ability of popular organisations to emerge and challenge state and class power. Indeed for most young people, their aspiration is not an education, profession or social service, but rather simply to emigrate to North America or England. In many ways the governments encourage this, as it is a release valve for the discontent—but also an important source of remittances for those who are left behind.

Lloyd Best remarked: “Let us look. Choose any point of vantage. Most everywhere there is disorder: fragmentation, segmentation and disarray. What is more, it is mounting disorder: growing populations, lagging incomes, increasing unemployment, widening disequality, lengthening dependence and rising discontent”.41 Today it would be hard to argue that anything has fundamentally changed in his observation. As reaffirmed by Norman Girvan, the Caribbean countries are facing a multitude of pressures which threaten their very existence as livable, viable nations.

While the tasks are daunting, the Caribbean should be considered as an unfinished project—one of staggering potential in regard to the goal of substantive independence and self-determination—but interrupted by political fragmentation, economic dependence and foreign intervention. However, despite the odds, the turbulent history of the Caribbean has taught us that unbounded pessimism can often result in great disappointment for the most powerful.


In his work, C L R James continually stressed the need for ­self-organisation and mobilisation from below. In his most famous work The Black Jacobins he note what was possible, that it was the seemingly ordinary slaves in San Domingo who defeated Napoleon and the most powerful and modern army of the time. James believed that the people of the Caribbean were the most rebellious in history, but noted after the failure of the Federation that the post-independence politicians in Jamaica and Trinidad had distanced themselves from the interests of the majority. This decision to try and move forward in a divided manner helped to ensure that much of the colonial state was left intact. This is why Tennyson Joseph has called for a “Second Independence Revolution,” where a West Indian Federation is the only way forward, with new and responsive institutions to reflect the region’s unique reality.

Despite the failure of the Federation, James’s lessons laid an important foundation for us all to build upon. Thus it is the responsibility of Caribbean intellectuals to put the idea of the Federation back into the popular consciousness of the people, using a combination of grassroots organising, social media and the traditional press in the Caribbean and the diaspora, in order to make a dent in the insular nationalism which currently dominates the Caribbean. James has often been credited as being a founding influence in the field of postcolonial studies, but I would challenge this strongly—James was not a postcolonial thinker; he was an anti-colonial thinker. He consistently wrote and worked towards ridding the Caribbean of all vestiges of the retarding effects of colonialism. It is this anti-colonial thinking which needs to be re-applied to the Caribbean in the current context. Using James’s inspiring and tireless example of combining theory and action, important steps can be taken in order to present the Federation as the only possible solution to bring about a political alternative that can better the material interests of the marginalised majority.

We have seen it in Haiti, we have seen it in Cuba, and we have had glimpses of it in Jamaica, Guyana, Grenada and all of the other uprisings and insurrections that have faded into history. While neither radical nor reformist experiments lasted more than several years at best, there is no need to discredit and ignore their important contributions to history, as they laid the foundation with lessons for future generations. Given the current depth and scope of the crisis facing the Caribbean, transformation in the region must not be regarded as an impossibility but a necessity.

The lengths to which the imperialists and local elites will go to extinguish the spark of revolution and radical change demonstrate their very real fear that such change is not only possible, but necessary. At this moment there is no telling what will be the spark that lights that fire. However, until this happens—and I am confident that it will—there is a need for Caribbean activists, organisers, writers, educators and intellectuals to press home on a sustained grassroots level the notion that the region is in the dire situation it is not because of a failure of independence, but rather due to the illusion of its existence.


1: Jamaica Gleaner, 2011.

2: Espeut, 2011.

3: Girvan, 2012, p4.

4: Joseph, 2012, p28.

5: Girvan, 2010, p24.

6: Kamugisha, 2013, p1.

7: Lindsay, 1975, p94.

8: Mandle, 1996, p60.

9: Lindsay, 1975, p95.

10: James, 1958.

11: James, 1958.

12: James, 1958.

13: Lewis, 2004, p5.

14: Associated Press, 2011.

15: Curtis, 2003, p351.

16: Neita, 2014.

17: Jamaica Observer, 2014.

18: Blum, 2004, p263.

19: Grey, 2013.

20: Mandle, 1985, piv.

21: Ferguson, 1990, p9.

22: Joseph, 2010, p22.

23: Kamugisha, 2013, p8.

24: quoted in Hinds, 2010, p85.

25: Kamugisha, 2013, pxvii

26: Girvan, 2012.

27: International Monetary Fund, 2013, p4.

28: Jubilee Debt Campaign, 2013, p21.

29: International Monetary Fund, 2013, p23.

30: International Monetary Fund, 2013, p46.

31: Joseph, 2012, p28.

32: Caribbean Hotel Association, 2006, p7.

33: CARICOM, 2004, p35.

34: Data from the United Nations Environment Programme—go to

35: World Travel and Tourism Council, 2014, p5.

36: Jarvis, 2011.

37: Inter-American Development Bank, 2006, p2.

38: Jamaica Observer, 2006.

39: Best, 1967, p8.

40: Jamaica Gleaner, 2013.

41: Best, 1967, p7.


Associated Press, 2011, “MI5 Files Reveal Details of 1953 Coup That Overthrew British Guiana’s Leaders”, Guardian (26 August),

Best, Lloyd, 1967, “Independent Thought and Caribbean Freedom”, New World Quarterly, volume 3, number 4,

Blum, William, 2004, Killing Hope: US Military and C I A Interventions Since World War II (Zed books).

Caribbean Hotel Association, 2006, “Taxation and Operating Costs for the Caribbean Hotel Sector” (November),

CARICOM, 2004, “Survey on the Caribbean Tax Systems”,

Curtis, Mark, 2003, Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World (Vintage).

Espeut, Peter, 2011, “Better or Worse Off?”, Jamaica Gleaner (8 July),

Ferguson, James, 1990, Grenada: Revolution in Reverse (Latin American Bureau).

Girvan, Norman, 2010, “Are Caribbean Countries Facing Existential Threats?” (1 November),

Girvan, Norman, 2012, “50 Years of In-Dependence in Jamaica: Reflections” (Speech Delivered to the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies, Kingston, Jamaica, 22 August),

Grey, Al, 2013, “Time to Re-Visit Michael Manley’s Path—A Vision for Jamaica”, Jamaica Observer (22 December),

Hinds, David, 2010, “The Grenada Revolution and the Caribbean Left: The Case of Guyana’s Working People’s Alliance (WPA)”, Journal of Eastern Caribbean Studies, volume 35, issues 3 and 4.

IMF, 2013, “Jamaica: Letter of Intent, Memorandum of Economic and Financial Policies, and Technical Memorandum of Understanding” (17 April),

Inter-American Development Bank, 2006, The Informal Sector in Jamaica (December),

Jamaica Gleaner, 2011, “Give us the Queen!” (28 June),

Jamaica Gleaner, 2013, “Barbados to Dismiss 3,000 Government Workers—Wage Cuts Coming for Ministers, Legislators, Political Appointees” (17 December),

Jamaica Observer, 2006, “St Lucia PM Distances Himself from A-G’s Attack on Sandals” (24 November),

Jamaica Observer, 2014, “The Contentious Bauxite Levy 40 Years After” (15 May),

James, C L R, 1958, “Lecture on Federation”,

Jarvis, Mike, 2011, “Caribbean Cost of Living Crisis”, BBC Caribbean (2 March),

Joseph, Tennyson, 2010, “C L R James’s Theoretical Concerns and the Grenadian Revolution: Lessons for the Future”, Journal of Eastern Caribbean Studies, volume 35, numbers 3 and 4.

Joseph, Tennyson, 2012, “Towards a New Democracy and a New Independence: A Program for the Second Independence Revolution”,

Jubilee Debt Campaign, 2013, “Life and Debt: Global Studies of Debt and Resistance” (October),

Kamugisha, Aaron, 2013, Caribbean Political Thought: Theories of the Post-Colonial State (Ian Randle Publishers).

Lewis, Gordon K, 2004 [1968], The Growth of the Modern West Indies (Ian Randle Publishers).

Lindsay, Louis, 1975, “The Myth of Independence: Middle Class Politics and Non-Mobilization in Jamaica”, Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies (SALISES) working paper number 6,

Mandle, Jay R, 1985, Big Revolution, Small Country: The Rise and Fall of the Grenadian Revolution (North South Books).

Mandle, Jay R, 1996, Persistent Underdevelopment: Change and Economic Modernization in the West Indies (Routledge).

Neita, Lance, 2014, “Bauxite and the Other Mega Projects”, Jamaica Observer (27 April),

World Travel and Tourism Council, 2014, “Travel and Tourism Economic Impact 2014: Caribbean”,