Globalisation is as old as Colonialism

by Ras Tyehimba

The term ‘globalisation’ has its origins in the latter half of the 20th century, referring to, in a very general sense, the movement of the world’s nations towards some sort of global village, characterized by advanced technology, and rapidly expanding economic and political interdependence. However, for the Caribbean, globalisation is nothing new (Brown, 2002; Sankatsing; Watson, 2003; Klak, 1998, Boodhoo, 2002; Singh, 2002, Girvan, 1999; Pantin, 2001; Sylvester, 2002). Despite the technology, and other unprecedented aspects of the present phase of ‘globalisation’, it is a process that can be traced to Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the New World in the latter 15th century and the subsequent 500 plus years of European conquest, colonization and exploitation of the Caribbean region. From a Caribbean perspective, the essential nature of globalisation translates into a continuation of Euro-American political, economic, intellectual and cultural imposition on the region, albeit more effectively via modern technology, and the activities of multinational corporations and international organizations such as the WTO, IMF and the World Bank. Despite the seemingly overwhelming global forces, these immense challenges do not negate the opportunities available for the Caribbean to navigate the turbulent geo-political economy to bring benefit to the region.

According to Norman Girvan, the early impact of globalisation on the Caribbean was the extermination of the majority of the indigenous population, mercantilism, slavery, the plantation system, and centuries of rivalry and wars among the colonial powers. He implicates these factors as part of a legacy of political and linguistic fragmentation that continues to be a obstacle to regional integration. This legacy, however, not only impedes regional cooperation, but stifles the internal development of Caribbean states.

During the period of colonial rule, the institutions and the socio-economic arrangements were constructed to maintain the status quo of European domination that allowed for exploitation of the enslaved (and indentured) labour force towards maximum extraction of natural resources, in most cases sugar. The struggle for Independence was intimately linked to hopes of ending the centuries long pattern of subjugation, whereby the Caribbean as sovereign nations, could take control of its own social, political and economic destiny. With Independence achieved, however, within the geopolitical climate of the Cold War, the Caribbean turned to the world’s ex-colonial powers for financial, technical and infrastructural assistance, and they were only to happy to comply, thus maintaining the relationships of dependency and exploitation. Thus, these newly formed states remained bound to the values, institutions, paradigms, and economic and political dictates of their former colonial rulers under the guise of ‘modernization’ and ‘development’ and Multi-National Corporations replaced the plantation as the mechanism of exploitation.

In addition, there has been, “a continuing trend on the part of the developed countries to move decisions away from democratic forums such as the UN and to locate decision-making functions in institutions such as the WTO, the IMF and the World Bank- which are under the control of developed countries (Benn, 2000).” For instance, the debt crisis of the 1970’s brought about by the world recession forced some countries of the Caribbean to turn to the IMF and the World Bank to borrow money that came with neo-liberalist conditionalities attached. In Jamaica, in the 1970’s Manley’s socialist-democratic regime after being critical of the US and the IMF was forced to go cap in hand to the IMF after Washington engineered economic and social destabilization which rocked the country (Chin, 1997).

The ‘Banana Wars’ is another prime example that underscored the nature of the relationship between Transnational Corporations, International Organisations, and the United States. Chiquita, a large Transnational Corporation with extensive banana plantations in Central and South America, and a contributor to campaign funds of both the Democratic and Republican parties, pressured the US to take action via the WTO against the EU’s preferential treatment accorded to Caribbean banana producers (Girvan, 1999). The WTO, to which the US is the largest financial contributor, ruled in favor of the US. Given that banana is the main export of the small eastern Caribbean states who cannot compete with Chiquita’s large plantations that reap not only bananas but economies of scale, it is hard not to draw the conclusion that the WTO, like the IMF and World Bank, acts to preserve the interests of powerful nations and their homegrown Multi-National Corporations.

Endemic in the neo-liberal shaping of the world order is the notion of superiority of American and Western European society inclusive of religion (Christianity), values and culture, intellect, economic systems, general lifestyle/world view and their consequent right and even duty to shape the world order to force all others to conform to the globalised ethnocentric norms. The Caribbean has suffered from the West’s dominance in the production of information as it inevitably reinforces the patterns of psychological dependency, the myth of ‘Third World’ inferiority and provides the justification for the hegemonic actions of the ‘developed’ world and their agents. The production of knowledge is one of the ways in which the West attempts to exercise political, economic, and cultural control over the Caribbean.

The so-called developed countries, particularly the US, disseminate a high quantity of books, academic journals, magazines, television programmes, music and computer software that is increasingly becoming elements of the global popular culture (Bernal, 2000). These mediums convey American perspectives on society, love, wealth, success, education, style, right, wrong, gender, justice, etcetera, that ultimately are a part of the ideological foundation of the global American empire. Caribbean researchers and media professionals have long been expressing concern over the potential threat to indigenous Caribbean culture by the unprecedented penetration of new age media technologies (Brown, 1995). For instance, Nettleford (1993) criticizes, “the hijacking of the region’s media, the invasion of the Caribbean people’s intellectual space and the cultural bombardment of the entire region by every means possible from North America.”

The United States’ so-called ‘War on Terror’ since the events of 9/11 has deep implications for the Caribbean as the globalizing world is accompanied by increasing militarization which threatens fragile Caribbean sovereignty. Watson (2003) observes that, “the hidden hand of the Market will not work without a hidden fist.” The US and France, the two veto-wielding permanent members of the 15-nation Security Council who played a role in President Aristide’s removal from Haiti, signaled to CARICOM that they did not want a U.N. probe of the matter. France, who refused to support the US’s invasion of Iraq on supposedly moral grounds, had no problems (moral or otherwise) in collaborating with the US to kidnap President Aristide. Aristide had earlier demanded that France pay Haiti over 21 billion U.S. dollars, which he said was the equivalent in today’s money to the 90 million gold francs Haiti was forced to pay France after its successful revolution against colonial rule that saw it becoming the hemisphere’s first independent black nation in 1804. Historians say that the massive toll that France exacted on Haiti coupled with international isolation has played a significant part in the impoverishment and underdevelopment presently seen in Haiti.

The government of Trinidad and Tobago’s misguided thrust towards ‘developed country status’ embodied in the Visionless 2020 project, shows the role of the local elite in keeping the country locked in the grip of foreign control, in so far as it meets their political and/or economic desires. Is it the Western miseducation that many have been subjected to that, is responsible for the inability to craft meaningful national development outside of mass industrialization and subservience to multi-national corporations (ALCOA, Digicel, SuperPharm, PriceSmart, BPTT, etc), which are no more interested in local social development than local big businesses? What is the sense of the increased revenue and access to goods and services if it means compromising national sovereignty, the environment and the health and wellbeing of the general population? ALCOA’s proposed aluminum smelter plant in the Cedros peninsula which threatens the community and their environment is one such industrialization project that must not be allowed to happen. The distorted understandings of ‘progress’ and ‘development’ championed by the national political and economic elite must be challenged.

Some points are worthy to mention for consideration:

  • The US and Europe champion the neo-liberalist agenda, yet the US Farm Bill 2002 approved multi-billion US dollars of subsidies to American grain and cotton farmers. Though the EU expressed disapproval, their subsidy payments to their farmers are even higher.
  • UNDP reports that draw attention to the narrow distribution of benefits from globalisation has created huge disparities of wealth and power within states.
  • Environmental threats posed to Caribbean countries not only by industrialization and destruction of natural habitats but by foreign ships loaded with radioactive waste passing through the Caribbean Sea.
  • The impunity with which the Unites States deports American bred criminals back to the Caribbean.

Although much can be said about the negative impact of 500 years of the Caribbean’s experience with globalisation, it is an oversimplification to suggest that it is merely an issue of Euro-American powers imposing themselves on the Caribbean. While powerful global forces have deeply penetrated Caribbean societies, human agency cannot be negated and thus it is important to recognize that domination is never complete. The legacy of imposition has also been accompanied by a legacy of resistance on the part of Caribbean peoples for 500 plus years. The struggles of the indigenous Caribbean people, the Haitian Revolution as well as the numerous other slave revolts are all important aspects of this legacy of anti-colonial resistance.

In spite of the challenges there have been some benefits to the Caribbean. These benefits have been particularly in terms of the increased access to a wide range of both consumer and industrial goods and services. A wide range of technology including computers, transportation, and communication is accessed by the Caribbean populace. This has helped the Caribbean to access and develop limited scientific expertise. The advances in inter and intra island communication as well as the harsh geo-political landscape has increased the potential for cooperation between the countries of the Caribbean and the other nations of the Global South.

The experiences of the Caribbean overwhelmingly suggest that neo-liberal globalisation is the new face of colonialism, imperialism and neo-colonialism (Sankatsing, 2002) and as such it is synonymous with Americanization, Westernization and imposition. Globalisation can be seen as a concept in the mainstream as an ideological weapon (Girvan, 2000; Held and McGrew, 2004) that masks the mechanisms of hegemony, injustice and control that underlie the neo-liberal globalised world order characterized by free trade instead of fair trade, advanced modern technology, power and wealth disparities between and within nations, unbridled hegemonic aggression, and Multi-national corporations and International Organizations acting as agents of G7 nations. The implication of the hegemonic forces that impinge on Caribbean sovereignty is that Caribbean nations are not free to adopt certain developmental orientations nor are they free to form deep relationships with some countries (such as Venezuela and Cuba) without incurring the wrath of the United States. U.S. interventions in Guyana, Jamaica and Grenada in the latter half of the 20th century demonstrate this. In the Caribbean, having both the definition of ‘progress’ and the pathway towards it imposed by external forces overshadows the benefits (including increased efficiency, expanded access to consumer goods and services, increased technology and communications and the movement towards deeper Caribbean cooperation) of ‘globalisation’ but it does not extinguish the potential for resistance and innovation on the part of Caribbean peoples.