Modern "Gunboat" Diplomacy in the Caribbean

— an interview with Cecilia Green

1. IS THERE SUCH a thing as a “humanitarian intervention” carried out by U.S. forces?

I don’t think there’s any such thing as "humanitarian intervention," at any rate, on the part of the contemporary U.S. state. In the case of the Caribbean, there are two situations we can look at: Haiti and Cuba.

The U.S. government did not make a move to stop the military dictatorship that overthrew Aristide in 1991. They colluded in the creation of FRAPH, a gang of thugs that terrorized the population. When they were in a position to put pressure to bear on bringing down the dictatorship, they refused. Instead of mounting an effective boycott against the dictatorship, they blockaded the people of Haiti!

For more than thirty years Cuba has been under a blockade from the United States. That blockade has been politically motivated. Even if you maintain the fiction that the political system of Cuba is anathema to the liberal democratic principles of the United States, where were humanitarian concerns for the people of Cuba when they become victims of the disintegrating Soviet regime? The United States could end the blockade for humanitarian reasons, but instead they have reinforced the blockade.

2. What is the significance of the rise to world dominance of transnational financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank?

Capitalism has become very complex. The old-fashioned, bilateral relations – while they still continue, especially at a political level – aren’t enough. The enormity of the global system, in economic and trade terms, makes it impossible to maintain the old system. So it has become a lot more bureaucratized in terms of diffuse global institutions. As a matter of fact, this has led to mistaken notions about the death of the nation.

From the ’50s through the ’70s there was a nationalist, anti-imperialist dynamic operating in the Caribbean, a region that the United States has long considered its commercial artery. By the late ’70s the Nicaraguan and Grenadian revolutions and the radical nationalist Michael Manley government in Jamaica seemed to shift the region’s political dynamic.

According to the less hysterical Reaganite reading of the problem, economic stagnation, unemployment and impoverishment had fuelled attraction to alternative, non-capitalist systems of government and a growing rapprochement with hitherto isolated Cuba. In the short run this necessitated U.S. military intervention and build up in the region, but Washington’s longer-term antidote was the Caribbean Basin Initiative, which was implemented in 1983.

The CBI constituted an incentives package ostensibly based on "trade, not aid" and conditioned on political and economic adjustment and stabilization in the recipient countries. President Reagan made it clear in a speech unveiling the CBI to the Organization of American States:

Quote Nearly half our trade, two-thirds of our imported oil and over half our imported strategic minerals pass through the Panama Canal and the Gulf of Mexico. Make no mistake: The well-being and security of our neighbors in this region are in our own vital interests.

But the second major factor motivating Reagan’s call for the implementation of the Caribbean Basin Initiative was the prospective opening up of the Caribbean as a region of opportunity for U.S. trade and investment and as a cheap labor reserve for various kinds of "light" manufacturing and processing industries, particularly those needing to gain a competitive edge or improve their performance on the domestic and global markets.

Although the rhetoric around the CBI suggested the nurturing of a home-grown entrepreneurial class, in fact the "private sector" in "private sector-led growth" rhetoric was first and foremost a U.S.-based one.

Adjustment/stabilization was to take place along strictly prescribed lines by U.S.-controlled multilateral agencies like the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The Initiative was cast therefore as a politically strategic, pre-emptive project.

It was politically expedient for U.S.-based transnationals to conduct their international relations through a third party, such as the World Bank. They are not interested in getting their hands dirty. The World Bank greases the entry of the transnational corporations. It prepares the ground and transplants the free enterprise model to the Third World.

For the local business class who lives in the Caribbean, any small-scale pretensions they may have had for an internally oriented market and a manufacturing elite have been dashed. To survive, they now have to accept being junior partners to the transnationals. Even the smaller companies have shifted to joint site relations. A lot of the local manufacturing sectors have been destroyed by the IMF incursions.

It’s a dog-eat-dog situation: the smaller businesses fall by the wayside and the more successful ones manage to adapt to the new situation – even those who may have complained at first.

Take the garment industry. Although it was initially excluded from the CBI, it was later added by Reagan as a reward to loyal allies who had supported the Grenada invasion but were dissatisfied with early CBI results. It also represented an important concession to the U.S. textile industry. The new program granted practically unlimited quotas on garments assembled from components cut in the U.S. from U.S.-made cloth.

Then and Now

To understand the magnitude of the transformation, one need only look at the before-and-after picture. If we focus on one country, Jamaica, we see that in 1980 the garment industry supplied 85% of the garments worn by Jamaicans, employed about 5,000 workers and exported $10 million worth of clothing, of which $4 million was produced under special assembly and/or trade agreements (such as free zones). Exports accounted for about a quarter of the total production and a majority of firms, including those producing exclusively for export, were Jamaican-owned.

In 1992, by contrast, the garment industry supplied only 15% of the domestic market, while over 97% of apparel exports originated under special assembly arrangements. In 1993, total exports amounted to $453 million and the industry employed 32,000. But the Jamaican short of the export industry (excluding that destined for CARICOM countries) had fallen to less than 20%.

CBI countries have had to confront the threat that NAFTA poses to the future viability of their industry. The fear is that the quota-free, duty-free advantage of clothing from Mexico will simply overwhelm them in the marketplace.

Recent GATT negotiations have given them similar concern, as small suppliers in an open world market that will include giant producers like China, India and Pakistan. Their defensive strategy has tended to be to pressure for the consolidation of a regional free market (an enlarged NAFTA), which grants privileges to those inside that are not available to those outside. For example, liberal access to the U.S. market, supplemented by reasonable access to the Canadian and European markets, seems to constitute an optimal scenario for export-driven Jamaican policymakers.

Of course this strategy of seeking "preference" or "protection" within a regional bloc governed by the United States is exactly what Washington wants, although recast in a somewhat different mold. We can conclude, therefore, that the Caribbean Basin Initiative was enormously successful in deepening the region’s dependence on Washington and in providing a low-wage workforce for the transnationals.

For working people in the English-speaking Caribbean it has meant a downward structural adjustment. The labor tradition – the institutional infrastructure that was negotiated with the British colonial government on the transition to self-government and later on was strengthened by independence – has been severely eroded. Although somewhat ideologically compromised from its early history, this tradition sustained a certain militancy with regard to bread-and-butter issues.

There has been a decline in trade unionism because the new sectors of the economy – in the free trade zones which employ most young women – are not unionized. This is quite remarkable because the labor unions were born out of struggles in the central sectors of employment – traditionally, sugar, bananas, oil and bauxite. These sectors remain unionized, but the new and growing sectors are completely non-union. Even the labor unions appear to be accommodating themselves to this new arrangement.

Real wages have dropped considerably. Foreign companies rely on a comparison with more traditional sectors of female employment, like domestic service or even the informal sector. They try to maintain a wage which may be marginally better. But even in terms of the informal sector, we find women leaving the free trade zones and setting up a trading business of their own. Many of them ultimately don’t make it, but the most successful ones certainly have an income that is higher than they could make in the free trade zone.

One of the big effects of structural adjustment has been a tremendous growth in the informal economy. A recent report talks about the explosion of the informal sector in Haiti and the fact that “the market is full of former nurses, ex-medical students and teachers.”

If we thought before that these economies were geared to outside needs – and that the needs of the local population are largely unmet by the commanding heights of the economy – that is much more true today. Now more than ever these economies are geared towards production for the outside. People practically have to carve out for themselves an economy that will fulfill their "reproductive" household and social needs.

Clearly the nationalist economic impulse of the ’60s and ’70s for import-substitution industrialization has been destroyed. For the rural population there is tremendous immiseration. On the one hand, transnationals attempt to set up agribusinesses, providing U.S. consumers with winter fruits and vegetables. In Haiti and the English-speaking Caribbean that has largely failed.

But there are some successful agricultural entrepreneurs, both local and foreign. Success means the production of crops – expensive production of crops for the U.S. market – focusing on exotic fruits, winter vegetables, the shrimp industry. It is therefore based on the need to fulfill ever more exotic and upscale tastes of U.S. consumers. The peasant farmer is being pushed out.

At the same time, however, we see an increase in subsistence farming: people going back to the land out of desperation. There has been a repeasantization, but it is under conditions of immiseration. So there is a proliferation of micro-cultivators, who have left the commercial enclaves and moved back into subsistence ways of life.

Developing Strategies

3. Can the left maintain its long-held, principled opposition to imperialism without appearing irrelevant and sectarian?

Mass movements are protesting against the IMF all the time. But there’s a paradox. As these countries are becoming more globalized, many people have to opt out of formal employment, which provides limited opportunities. They are becoming fragmented and cut off from the older types of organization, like trade unions. Obviously they have to devise new ways of protesting. And here I don’t think the Caribbean has been as of yet as successful as certain groups in India, for example, in the formation by poor women of a Self-Employed Workers Association. The self-employed are not just protesting, but have organized themselves in economic and political ways. They have had to become economists and entrepreneurs.

Many non-governmental organizations have been active in the Caribbean since the ’70s. They have certainly documented extensively in the English-speaking Caribbean the impact of IMF policies. They have regrouped and form an alternative policy-formulating body. And they have formed working groups, some even in conversation with the World Bank.

I don’t think the left of the ’70s can regroup, at least not in the male-dominated form that it took. What is happening in the Caribbean is similar to what is happening in Latin America. Women’s groups are coming together and dialoguing about what the IMF policies mean for women, attempting to formulate a response that takes into account gender and the sphere of reproduction – household and family responsibilities.

I think to the extent that they are raising political demands, these are being raised from local sites. Even though in the Caribbean and in many Third World countries, any kind of policy formulation that is anti-imperialist and attempting to organize a new order is necessarily nationalist in scope – it has to take into account what’s happening at the level of the nation and the global system. I think increasingly people are trying to work on local-level programs that combine concerns of larger political vision with those of collective and internal democracy and economic viability. I think that’s good because it concretizes a lot of the rhetoric of the ’70s; people are learning what it takes to run an economic enterprise and are becoming both skilled and empowered in the process. It is easy for us at the “center” to underestimate what that means. Unfortunately, there is a vacuum, a crisis of left-defined coordination.

In this new situation there’s almost a contradiction of globalization and localization. It doesn’t automatically call forth a globalized response. Those who talk about the death of the nation should consider this. The nation – and this relates to both the powerful ones and the dependent ones – has bshifted its relative position, but still occupies aa critical space.

A lot of groups have conceded – and perhaps it’s a bad concession – that they can no longer rely on the state for many of the things we used to do. There’s a realization that protest has limited usefulness because the state, in a sense, is also embattled. So while people are not letting the state off the hook completely, there is a sense in the Caribbean – and that people have accepted – that they cannot lean on the state for everything. People are looking for alternative economic solutions. This is sometimes depoliticizing, not because they want it to be, but because they have to spend a lot of time figuring out economic programs.

On the other hand, in the United States, the labor movement has become more internationalist. They realize that they have to have an international strategy for their own situation at home. I find the National Labor Committee’s recent campaign to force the Gap to take direct responsibility for how and under what conditions the products it sells are made in El Salvador absolutely admirable. They have brought a new international vitality and militancy into the labor movement.

It was a campaign that involved both the Salvadoran women workers, who had been fired and blacklisted as well as their union leaders, who had been locked out. The campaign not only involved labor, but student groups, the religious community, consumer groups.

As a result of the NLC’s exposing the conditions, the Gap announced that it would pull out of El Salvador. But the committee said no, that’s not what was needed. As a result of negotiations with the National Labor Committee, the Gap became the first retailer to agree to independent monitoring. The company informed Salvadoran government authorities that if any harm were to come to Judith Viera, the young worker who toured the United States, or any one who supported the maquilla workers, the Gap would never again produce even one shirt in El Salvador. The Salvadoran union involved (SETMI) has been strengthened by the concrete support they have received internationally.

The new appreciation for an international working class, however, needs to be supplemented by a broader understanding of local needs at the periphery. For example, the need for a local economy that integrates, at some level, production systems and consumption needs, especially of those who have been forced out of the market economy. In Haiti, subsidized “food aid” from the United States has quite literally been the key to the dispossession of thousands of peasants.

Questions about the role of the AFL-CIO and its foreign policy remain. The AFL-CIO still appears to be behind some recent regressive trade union initiatives, in Jamaica, for example, which go against the grain of labor internationalism. A recent manifesto (of the new trade union confederation in that country) whose production was funded by the AFL-CIO endorses free trade and NAFTA; it calls for more free trade zones in the country, for entry into NAFTA, and even shows hostility to the women – they are called higglers or "informal commercial importers" – who bring cheap goods into the country for sale to mostly working-class people, on the grounds that they disrupt formal business. (Middle-class people shop for themselves in Puerto Rico and Miami.

I hope the new AFL-CIO leadership (as well as the Caribbean labor movement) addresses this questionable legacy. We need to build an internationalism based on an understanding of imperialism, the transnational inequalities and the different local needs it generates.

ATC 62, May-June 1995