Whether we are talking the invasion of Grenada in 1983, our war-torn colonial history, various armies on the ground in Haiti, or US military bases like Guantanamo, the Caribbean’s story is marked by a history of militarism.
In her book Bases of Empire, anthropologist Catherine Lutz notes that as of 2007, there were 77 US military bases of varying sizes, from massive to small, found across the Caribbean.
Today, the war on drugs is an example of regional militarisation, with Britain and the US conducting operations all over the Caribbean using high-tech military equipment in operations with catchy names like Operation Weed Eater.
This war is not only about eradicating drugs but it is also about something anthropologists call the “permanent war economy.” This economy is wide and has many facets. One in particular that affects small island nations is the economic aid that accompanies continued acceptance and participation in the war.
This aid comes in the form of military equipment, intelligence expansion, new surveillance and security technologies, and propaganda systems. It also provides a constant drive for some of the richer countries like T&T to purchase more and more military hardware, connecting their oil and gas capital straight to the war economy.
It is quite normal for our Minister of National Security to speak—without anyone questioning his logic—that it’s sensible to embrace the US-led war on drugs and purchase six naval vessels from the Colombian Government. Just like the previous Government was happy to spend billions on OPVs. Someone might want to take note that the largest consumer market for these drugs is the US and perhaps joining a war driven by the lifestyle of another nation is silly in the first place.
The sadness is that it’s as if the western world is only moving in one direction: increased militarisation. Hopes of a move toward demilitarisation as Seymour Melman—the US economist who wrote about the damaging social costs of military spending—once discussed, seem less and less likely.
In cultural terms, this overt military footing seeps into everyday life. It becomes embedded in everyday language and symbols. We describe gangs as militarist organisations. Young people demand to play the latest computer war games from Black Ops to Medal of Honour. Media—TV, film, music, sport and all the rest—are saturated with military themes. And insecurity becomes something only to be tackled through increases in military personnel and equipment.
Think about law enforcement in T&T. During the SoE it was the army conducting a lot of police operations. And recently the Minister of National Security asked citizens to apply to the Defence Force in order to protect national security. There’s also the Multi Agency Maritime Task Force, comprising coast guard, police, army, and customs officers, again blurring the boundaries between policing and military operations.
By the end of the next year we are promised the entire country will be under CCTV surveillance, as if that’s indisputably a good thing.
Yet, as the State becomes more militarised, so too does the whole of society, including those the State deems criminals. That AK-47s are a more regular weapon in our poorest areas is an example of a militarised drug industry. That our private security industries also take on the semblance of military organisations with CCTV systems, guard dogs, high-tech security systems and military-style outfits is another example of militarism.
In a presentation a few years ago, Prof Rhoda Reddock pointed out this new culture of insecurity leads to armies being seen as saviours and opens the risk for a reduction in our human rights. Normal, peaceful communities become bloodthirsty, seeking revenge and punishment. Meanwhile, the demands for security extend distance between the rich and poor, as only some can afford to protect themselves through private security firms.
Where does this militarised society lead? On the one hand it’s clear some sort of army for defence is legitimate and can be useful in economic terms. Yet on the other side, what is too much? Have we not passed that mark? Can we go back? Are there really no other ways to organise our society than to curtail freedoms and become more militarised? And what sort of future is that?
• Dylan Kerrigan is an anthropologist at UWI, St Augustine
AS uniquely perplexing as the source of cocaine may seem, it is but the youngest of a long lineage of substances which provide novel sensory experiences. The economic forces driving cocaine’s production and generating hostility toward it are no different today from what they were three centuries ago when the rising flood of commerce in tea, coffee, sugar and tobacco linked Western Europe to its tropical colonies and revolutionized world consumption.
Precious objects and materials in great variety —ivory, spices, dyes, medicines, plants, silk— had been carried across the earth’s surface for millenia to satisfy the cravings of the rich and powerful. In the concluding decades of the seventeenth century, merchants, plantation owners, slave traders and government officials discovered that satisfying the desires of the humble might prove even more profitable than pleasing the palates of the wealthy.
Chief among those nonessential foods were the bitter stimulant beverages —coffee from the Middle East, chocolate from the New World, tea from China— and sugar. Their first appearance in Europe was linked to Europe’s aggressive outward thrusts beginning at the end of the fifteenth century and rising in tempo thereafter. Making these beverages intensely sweet, as well as calorie-rich, was sugar— known to the Europeans for centuries, but rare and precious until it began to arrive in substantial quantities from the New World. Though not a food, tobacco accompanied these other novelties and came to be consumed with happy, almost meal-like regularity.
As more and more disinherited rural people gathered in Europe’s cities and industrial production spread, tea and sugar came to satisfy people who were hungry anyway. The sweet calories were welcome, the hot drink itself made a cold meal seem warm, and the stimulant cheered the ill, the ill-fed, the overworked, the very young, the elderly. Often supplanting more nutritive substances —including beer, ale and broth— tea led the new pattern of consumption, changing from a treat for royalty to the very symbol of working class hospitality and homeyness, the first pause that refreshed.
While the English became strongly habituated to tea and sugar, the tropical areas where they were produced underwent drastic transformations. Tea remade the Indian subcontinent and the economic life of its peoples. The production of the leaf became a means for the control of land, the regimentation of labor and the expansion of British civil and military power. In the Antilles, sugar brought enslavement, the destruction of indigenous peoples and the reordering of life around the plantation. It drew over 1.5 million enslaved Africans to the British West Indies between the 1640’s and the end of the British slave trade in 1808.
Two things stood out - 1) that just like in feminism where not all women are equal i think it is far to say in battles for social justice not all communities are equal either. So when those living and working in the US against racial injustice and racism more generally speak for people of colour who live in the Caribbean they have to realise that their voices carry more weight than ours do. That is a statement of fact and a situation of privilege i don’t think those with the louder voices in our battles against power take as seriously as they should.
The second point builds of the first, that is in their original response to me they mentioned verifiable links as reason for publishing the article. All those links are to US based sources. My personal opinion is that if you are going to publish pieces about the situation on the ground in the Caribbean and give volume to an argument about that situation that the links supporting the article to publish, or at least some of them, should be from the Caribbean and not US based sites like CNN and Perezhilton. Im confused how they can be used as justification for representing the Caribbean. Misrepresentation as we all know silences the voices of the less powerful and denies us the ability to define ourselves for ourselves for some else’s version - in this case a discourse about race and power from the US and not the Caribbean. Those with power have a responsibility to use it carefully. Some may not agree with me or even take offence to what im saying. My hope is that you won’t and you might consider some of these points in the future for other posts on the Caribbean. Thanks.
There is an article about Nicki Minaj’s ‘Pound the Alarm’ video doing the rounds on tumblr. I didnt think it was accurate when i first read it. Then i saw it blasted by racialicious and i felt i had to comment because it was a form of representation by dominant US racial discourse about the Caribbean that pushed our own readings of ourselves out the window.
This is the second of two comments i made below the line on racialicious post:
Hi Adrienne, thanks for your response.
I fired my initial reaction off in a state of disappointment that an article I thought so wrong on tumblr had been promoted to added visibility on racialicous so I think I should quickly clarify that I am a fan of Minaj and proud of her in many ways for pushing the boundaries – as a women, as a trini, as a person from the Caribbean, as a dougla, as a POC, as a black women in the US racial binary, as an immigrant, as a minority and much more.
That she is appropriated by the capitalist entertainment machine and has her own unique voice still while obviously fighting against its patriarchal, misogyny is impressive and by no means was I belittling that. And I totally agree that it’s possible “for Minaj to have struggles with self-acceptance and also have a political opinion. The fact that Minaj operates on a wide spectrum should be heralded: she may not be a great role model or entirely unproblematic but I think she offers an honest and complex view of Black womanhood which is often denied to us.” That is a great point.
My issue was with the article itself and the oversimplication and misrepresentation of Trinidad, the political situation here, the history of Carnival and what the author claims the video is about. If statements by Minaj or the director were offered in support of the author’s readings – rather than a reading more in the style of literature studies essay then maybe I would be less critical. However, pushing political meanings into cultural objects where perhaps they don’t exist is problematic because it obscures the real politics and power relations at play for a more sanitised and hegemonic one. In this instance US racial politics read over Caribbean socio-cultural and economic realities.
So what I’m saying is my disappointment is directed at the author and not Minaj – it is also directed at racialicious for giving this argument more legitimacy. I should also add that the video has been discussed greatly in public and in academic circles in Trinidad (full disclosure I teach anthropology and political sociology at the University of the West Indies). To say a lot of people in Trinidad were disappointed with what they saw as a generic Hip Pop video wouldn’t be far from the mark too. However that is a different argument. It also doesn’t negate that some people love the video and for many different reasons. Our history is complicated – thus varied responses are normal. In that sense the author’s view might have a place here – however due to the many inaccuracies in the piece I am reluctant to let it slide.
Some examples of errors, problems and inaccuracies to add to those in my previous post:
The author overstates her interpretation and description of the curfew. I would also like to see the evidence for “several US and UK officials have informally implied threats of intervention.” That is pure hearsay.
Also, why report “a (unsuccessful) vote of no confidence in Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar”? It was knocked out of the park along party lines yes but it never had a chance since the ruling party has a substantial majority. In fact polls show that more people were in support of the Curfew than against it. This doesn’t negate that the curfew can be described as class warfare against poor black men – but our class and racial politics are extremely complicated. Many of the members of the Government – included our current National Security are black men so the curfew while racist was first and foremost classist.
The military and law enforcement aid from the US the author mentions is connected to the war on drugs which we all know is the most racist war there is. One forced on the rest of the world by the US Government and its capitalist cronies who launder hundreds of billions of US dollars through the first world’s banks and also support the corrupt class structure in Caribbean islands. A form of neo-colonialism if ever one needs an example. My point here is the author mentions such things and then just leaves them hanging without connecting them to Video. It a straw man and language used to politicise an argument where there isn’t much evidence of politics at all – i.e. the video has as an afterthought the Trinidad bandana as a gangsta symbol. Have you watch the making of the video? Minaj even mentions the bandana as an afterthought not as some political statement.
My biggest ire as someone who studies and has published on the history of Carnival is the author labelling the music video “a tribute to T&T Carnival”. This is just plain wrong. The history of T&T carnival is complicated and I touched on the basics above in my previous post. Put simply, a tribute to Trinidad Carnival and its black working class roots which were appropriated first on the road to Independence and now by the Capitalist machine needs to express the exclusion of the poor black working class from Carnival today. The author falls into the typical over hyped, multicultural b/s that does not mention how poor black people in an echo of the colonial situation are the servants to the middle and upper classes that now enjoy and pay between $4000- $7000 TT dollars for a costume (the average monthly wage here is $4000TT). If the video is a tribute to T&T Carnival then it is a tribute to the carnival that is stratified by cost and race. Not to mention the video has no shout outs to calypso or soca the real music of our Carnival. Nor does it have more than a few seconds of Ole Time Mas which again is part of the essence of our carnival. When the author says that Minaj “appears in a traditional carnival costume” I wanted to scream. She appears in ‘bikini and beads mas’ which is def not the same as a “traditional carnival costume”. Please do not represent us. That is what the author does with her analysis of carnival in the video. And even though she is claiming to give a political reading, the author speeds over the colourism at play in video which is extremely revealing of the local situation. I think the author needs to call the video direction out on the lack of black female bodies in the video for the high browns and light skin black women it uses. Yet the author speeds over this in less than sentence.
And I’d like to add that in contra to what the author says St James is not outside Port of Spain, it is part of Port of Spain. And today Woodbrook and Ariapita Avenue is the number one party district in Port of Spain. In fact the class, race and political differences between the two areas and their histories are an essay in itself.
Lastly, to call the ending of the video a “post-Mas apocalypse aftermath” when it is a generic pyrotechnic finale is another great example of the author overhyping her reading and misrepresenting an image as political. Does she even recognise where that is? It is the Savannah, the home of Carnival and definitely not apocalyptic to us. Maybe to foreigners. But it is the soul of Carnival for many – where the stage is on a Carnival Monday and Tuesday, and where for a few hours everyone gets to play king and queen.
So all in all the foundations and pillars that the author builds her argument on about the video are either overstated, open to disagreement or plan wrong.
Maybe the author has a point in her intro about most reviews hardly do Minaj justice as a political figure with agency, or recognize the political subtext of her video. But let’s not overhype it and get carried away with Pound the Alarm – that does more damage than good. In this instance it rewrites our local history, race politics and class situation. For me, that is the same thing white hegemony does to black history in the States. Here it is US based intellectuals – through the visibility the website racialicious provides the author – doing that to people in the Caribbean. It is the same hierarchical situation you always write against but you are doing it to us rather than having it done to yourselves.
If you got this far thanks for reading.
For the island’s residents, language has status and identity repercussions.
There is something fierce and delicious, almost edible, in the alchemic ways of Puerto Rican Spanish. Boricuas don’t merely speak their very own brand of the language of Cervantes with an aspired “s,” a nasal “n” and a guttural “r.” They seem to channel Al-Andaluz and Africa with every inflection and sound. They dance with words that melt into each other, producing a beautiful melody of elliptical patterns.
Every exchange, transcendent or mundane, is capable of unleashing the full potency of their spirit like a tropical hurricane. The sons and daughters of the Enchanted Island speak with their entire bodies, loud, passionate and unapologetic. Rhythm and attitude are part of the message. Laugh, gesture, slang and humor are all ingredients of a good quotidian interaction if you are in Puerto Rico.
This week, Republican Gov. Luis Fortuño — who has been mentioned as a potential vice president candidate — announced a plan to require public schools to teach all courses in English in the unincorporated territory, limiting the education of Spanish to merely two courses: grammar and literature.
According to a report by the Associated Press, the pilot project starts immediately, with an investment of $15 million. Thirty-one schools will kick off in August and another 35 will reinforce a bilingual curriculum already in place. The full plan to include the island’s 1,472 schools is unclear, but the governor says he envisions all the students in the public system to be bilingual within a decade.
“Bilingualism opens doors and provides opportunity to our children so they can shine and become successful in a labor market that is increasingly competitive and globalized,” Fortuño said in Spanish. He said his motivation is economical, not political, but the fact is everybody knows it is. Of course English is political in Puerto Rico!
The announcement was received with skepticism for three reasons. First, the AP report stated the undeniable fact that the governor wants to do in a decade “what more than a century of American citizenship has failed to accomplish: make Puerto Ricans fluent in English”. Second, Fortuño has a steep electoral run ahead, so the possibility of implementation has yet to be determined by the electorate in November.
Third, he will have a hard time changing the tune in his own pro-statehood party, for decades, deceased leader, Republican Gov. Luis A. Ferré, assured that Puerto Rico could obtain “jíbaro statehood”. That is, integration with the U.S., but in their own terms, in Spanish and with full preservation of the culture.
But, wait a minute. What is wrong with speaking English in American territory? In recent years officials have made very clear to Puerto Ricans that English is the official language of the union and an unavoidable pre-requisite for statehood. The requirement only seems natural and very logical. The problem for Gov. Fortuño and the pro-statehood movement is that only half of the islanders want to be a state of the union, and that is a “jíbaro state” for the most part. Knowing they just can’t have it both ways anymore, they are pushing for full integration.
Isn’t it great if the kids can speak English to improve their chances in the global economy? Sure, also if they learned Mandarin too! But, it is just too obvious that the big picture is much more complicated than that. Puerto Rico has centuries of history and a rich culture that is older than the United States. Puerto Rican pride is legendary, even among those who dream of integration. You just cannot change that in a decade.
Imagine if in the U.S., starting in August, your kids would have to adapt to a Spanish curriculum, and English was relegated to merely two courses a year. I do not have to tell you that would start a revolution.
Is Fortuño playing politics for reelection, or trying to earn visibility and recognition in the Republican Party? All the political theater occurs while allegations of fraud in the local Republican primaries are making news on a daily basis. Imposing the English language has proven a failed tactic in Puerto Rico, so he is playing to look good on the national stage while justifying the announcement as an economic measure at the local level.
Today, Fortuño is bashing gay marriage, wait a bit and you will see him playing every trick in the conservative book soon enough. So let’s not focus on the obvious, because he is acting out his role with astonishing fidelity for what’s expected of his character.
The big elephant in the room is that boricuas will need to make up their minds sooner than later. With the economy on the ropes and their identity on the line, there aren’t three options anymore. Either they become fully acculturated to request access as the 51st state of the union, or they finally become a sovereign nation preserving language and culture.
The United States has an unavoidable elephant in the room too. The majority of Puerto Ricans now live on the mainland and are all U.S. citizens in their own right. Both Democrats and Republicans have dismissed the problem with hypocritical rhetoric, adducing the solution is in the hands of the islanders — as if they weren’t talking about their colonial subordinates. More than a century of intervention of their land and people comes with a huge responsibility, and that is a pachyderm way too real to ignore.
So what do we do with the elephants? A three-ring circus is not an option anymore.
Monica Gutierrez (born in Colombia in 1970) is a journalist, content strategist, experiential and digital creative director. She has lived and worked in various Latin American countries, including Puerto Rico, and Spain. Her interests are travel, literature, human rights, sustainable development and new media arts. She lives with her husband and child in Brooklyn, New York.