By PATRICK HUNTER
CARICOM held it first regional reparations conference recently, hosted by the government of St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG). This is an encouraging sign coming so quickly following the landmark resolution that was adopted at the Heads of Government meeting in July. That resolution was a commitment to pursue reparations for the enslavement and colonization of African peoples.
It is encouraging on a couple of levels: One, a demonstration of the serious intent with which they plan to push for reparations for the enslavement of African peoples and, two, the sense of urgency they wish to impart on this goal. For this, the Prime Minister of SVG, Dr. Ralph Gonsalves, deserves considerable credit.
In the final communiqué issued by the conference, Hilary Beckles was elected Chairperson of the CARICOM Reparations Commission. The conference also named three Vice Chairs: Jomo Thomas of SVG with responsibility for inter-governmental relations, Verene Shepherd of Jamaica for research and Ahmad Zunder of Suriname for mobilization.
The key tasks for the Commission are clear. Among them is to establish “the moral, ethical and legal case for the payment of Reparations by the governments of all the former colonial powers and the relevant institutions in those countries, to the nations and people of the Caribbean Community for the Crimes against Humanity of Native Genocide, the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and a racialized system of chattel Slavery.”
The Commission will, in effect, co-ordinate all the efforts of the Caribbean governments in all aspects in the pursuit of reparations.
One of the positives of this arrangement is that it will provide a solid impetus and a relatively consistent standard by which the reparations commissions of the individual countries will work towards this goal. It will be, one expects, accountable to the CARICOM heads of government.
Governments change, and so do the individuals who make up those governments. Chances are that the priorities of new personnel and governments will shift, especially if those individuals prefer to reflect a non-confrontational image with the former slave trading countries. It happens. So, the fact that this push is gathering steam so quickly is an effort to ensure that much of the basic work gets done as quickly as possible.
This is not going to be an overnight accomplishment or a pleasant walk on the beach. There will be strong opposition to these efforts. The governments of the European countries that were involved in the transatlantic trade of African peoples as slaves will do all they can to sabotage the project. Some of their efforts may not be obvious or open. They will adopt all sorts of pressures and threats, primarily economic, no doubt, to ensure that this effort flounders.
It is reasonable therefore to appeal to the CARICOM Reparations Commission and to the Heads of Government of CARICOM itself to be wary of these efforts and urge that they should be prepared to be strong and united in defending against these possible threats and actions.
It is also reasonable to appeal to these bodies to be on the lookout for saboteurs who will come from the least expected quarters.
Throughout our history, there have been instances in which positive and progressive initiatives have been sabotaged by persons who look like us but carry a Judas complex.
Not every country in the CARICOM group has established a reparations commission yet. One of the urgings of the SVG conference was that this be done as soon as possible.
There is the considerable task of educating the populace of the member countries. The concept of reparations and, in particular, reparations for the enslavement of Africans, has been maligned in a number of ways, not the least of which are individuals expecting to receive a lump sum of money. The need to inform the population that a big-picture result – such as free tertiary education for people of African descent in the Caribbean, as an example, is a more realistic expectation.
One argument against would suggest that many of these developed countries have provided economic aid to the CARICOM countries which should be taken into account. Understanding how “economic aid” works – the developed countries creating markets for their own industries and talent with the net effect being economic gain for the providing country – should serve to nullify that argument.
The communiqué does not give a date for the second regional conference except to say “within a reasonable time-frame” and Antigua and Barbuda has offered to be its host.
It is important to note that not only governments were represented at the conference. There were representations from Canada, the UK and the United States as well as the Netherlands. Of course the latter representations were from among reparation activist organizations.
It goes without saying that this would have been a conference I would have loved to attend. It would have been useful to be able to assess personally the depth of seriousness and commitment of the attending government representatives.
Nevertheless, we will be watching the developments.