Why Caribbean history matters (2023)

Over the years I have had dozens of conversations about whether Caribbean history "really matters" and to whom it matters. I have heard that the region's history has been dismissed because of the relative size of Caribbean societies, historians' alleged preoccupation with slavery, and questions about what lessons can be learned from such supposedly dysfunctional societies.

A particularly memorable meeting took place at a fundraiser for Haiti. A surgeon waved his cocktail and asked me if I could explain the "erratic behavior" of the Haitians who greeted him when his American medical team arrived at a temporary field hospital after the 2010 earthquake. He noted that many of the Haitian staff "suddenly disappeared" and the American doctors were left to fend for themselves. When I suggested that the Haitian staff had probably left because they had been on call 24 hours a day for days before his team arrived, the doctor didn't seem to hear me: "I think they were sick because they think , that we are somehow responsible for slavery.” But slavery ended in Haiti two centuries ago. Does anyone in Haiti today really remember slavery?" To his apparent astonishment, I replied, "Yes, yes, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone in Haiti who did not remember slavery."

Why Caribbean history matters (1)

This otherwise liberal doctor's inability to understand the reality of Haiti was matched only by his lack of reflection on how Caribbean history shaped his own position in society. We who live in the United States—regardless of our class or race—enjoy a number of historical advantages that Haitians and other people in the Caribbean do not. So even though we have the luxury of forgetting, everyone in the Caribbean "remembers" slavery because they experience a daily amount of historically accumulated disadvantage.

I was not surprised by this conversation. But I was surprised by several colleagues who were concerned about what my focus on the Caribbean, and especially Cuba, would mean for my career. Many Hispanics suggested that I go to a "bigger country" after my thesis. Several department heads have noted that, beyond the colonial origins of slavery and poverty, Caribbean history has little to offer when it comes to "the larger issues of this area." In fact, just as I was beginning the manuscript for a new book on 1960s Cuba, a particularly demoralizing colleague went so far as to say that even the study of the Cuban Revolution was passé.

Caribbean history is important for the same reason that everyone in the Caribbean "remembers" slavery: the legacy of slavery, imperialism and the historical responses to it are immediately evident in the Caribbean in all the "heavier" concepts that we associate with modernity: notions of citizenship , individual freedom, collective liberation and nation. The story of the Caribbean is not only about the "colonial origins of poverty". It addresses the most fundamental questions: who we are, what we believe, and how we got there. But the inconvenient facts of Caribbean history rarely reach the consciousness of even the most educated elite of our society.

Take Haiti as an example. In 1804, Haiti hosted the first successful slave revolt in world history and was the first and only country to call itself "black". Thanks to Haiti, blackness has become something other than a colored marker of inferiority; It became a banner of unity and mobilization for a common project of freedom and equality, speaking out against racial and economic injustice around the world. Haiti changed everything by challenging what almost everyone in the European and European-dominated world took for granted. The history of freedom in America arguably began not with slave owners like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington who demanded a limited, racist vision of anti-imperialist freedom, but in the Caribbean with the Haitian revolution and broader struggles for freedom from colonialism (which ended with the rise of American colonialism in the 20th century).

Although the Caribbean countries are geographically small, they have had a profound impact on the development of the world economy and political thought. Just as Haiti was the first country to embrace blackness as an ideological position promoting true freedom and the right to self-determination, the people of the British West Indies were the first in the 20th century to invite the people of the African diaspora to embrace themselves . panic to unite -ethnic liberation movements. These eventually included Garveyism, Rastafarianism, and the American Civil Rights Movement. Without José Martí, Antonio Maceo, Evaristo Estenoz, Marcus Garvey, Luisa Capetillo, Franz Fanon, Aimé Cesaire, Walter Rodney, José Peña Gómez, Sonia Pierre, Stokely Carmichael, Jamaica Kincaid and Bob Marley, societies everywhere would probably never have challenged, you have the values ​​of inequality, exclusion, hierarchy and Eurocentrism been as successfully defended, let alone defeated.

The work of these individuals and the ongoing protest of so many millions of anonymous Caribbeans has redefined global struggles and the way we think about them. While the actual efforts of Caribbean societies to subvert colonialism and its legacies may never have fully fulfilled the dream of just, democratic change, even the most controversial of these efforts have changed the course of world history. They have shifted the balance of power between elites and poor, changing the political landscape of what even the world's most marginalized people can expect—not just from their own governments, but from America's as well.

There is no better example than Cuba. Whatever we may think of Fidel Castro, the dictatorship that the revolution undoubtedly became, and its long-term results, the Cuban Revolution of 1959 symbolically and practically attacked and undermined the fundamental "right" that the United States had to overpower the Caribbean and Latin America. exercised for nearly 100 years: the right to disrupt local political processes, set limits on what states can do for their citizens, and control the economy in ways that transcend US business interests represents the interests of the majority of Caribbean and Latin American citizens.

Cuba also made many Americans in the United States aware, for the first time, of the nature of 20th-century American interventions in Latin America—that is, their own history. In history and other disciplines, Cuba catalyzed radical changes in the way scholars perceived the basic building blocks of American power abroad, particularly the role, the myths of American exceptionalism and American democracy in justifying government policies and their results played out to the American public. . The Cuban Revolution also forced scholars to decipher the central paradox that defines and unites the political history of much of the Caribbean, including Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Cuba with the United States.

This paradox is a contradiction between what the US says it believes and what the US has actually done historically to promote its values ​​abroad: Successive US administrations from McKinley to Obama have developed foreign policies to promote the growth of ​political democracy and a fair capitalist system based on a "level playing field". Yet we have largely advanced this mission through the contradictions between democracy and fair capitalist competition: repeated US military occupations, violations of sovereignty, and the training of backup armies to protect US business interests. Study of the Caribbean is perhaps more relevant today than ever, as it reveals the limits of American power and the limits that liberation can assume when it comes in opposition to American power.

Like Haiti, Cuba's historical precedent has forced a global rethinking and questioning of all that the world's elites once took for granted. And like Haiti in the 19th century, Cuba became a hemispheric pariah.

Slavery is also a living memory in the Caribbean because its greatest legacy is still with us—a legacy that is largely invisible, yet evident in the clothes we wear and probably much of the food we eat, down. Before slaves mass-produced stimulants like sugar, coffee, tobacco, and chocolate, humans had never experienced the daily consumption of a commodity whose production process was "invisible." For hundreds of years, Europeans ate sugar every day and never considered that the cost of sugar production would cost human lives. Pleasure justified the enslavement of nine million people and the wholesale destruction of African cultures, political systems and lives.

Today, the invisibility of the work that goes into the production of consumer goods is probably one of the greatest legacies of slavery. We don't think about the age of the person who made our tennis shoes in Nicaragua, or the average hourly wage of the woman in the Dominican Republic who sewed our shirts together, for the same reason that European and North American consumers never bothered to question the source to the work that went into making their sugar - it was just easier not to.

Knowing about injustice often means doing something to change it, and so in most cases people choose not to know. Ignorance remains the advantage and bliss of privilege. History should continue to work against it.

Lillian Guerra is Professor of Cuban and Caribbean History and Director of the Cuba Program at the University of Florida's Center for Latin American Studies.

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