On the Move
The Caribbean Since 1989
The Caribbean is a paradoxical collection of nations. Travelers come from all over the globe to enjoy a multitude of pleasures on beaches and casinos in the region. Yet the world knows little about the individual islands of the Caribbean, their varied histories, or their vast interregional and international connections. Historian Alejandra Bronfman addresses this problem in On the Move: The Caribbean since 1989, an engaging and informative set of interlocking essays in which she addresses the historic place of the Caribbean as a centre of circulating people, goods, capital, and information.
Bronfman tells us early on that her intention is to put the Caribbean people at the center of their own regional narrative, noting group intentionality and action in all important phases and stages of Caribbean history. At the same time, she wants to clarify the continuing role of the Caribbean in international exchange. There are several ways to focus on these questions, some of which would require an encyclopedic discussion of each island, language group, and political-economic trend. Bronfman instead opts to propose "circulation" as an orienting concept that illustrates the intensive historical integration of the Caribbean into world markets. This thoughtful and creative approach allows her to cover a multitude of issues and situations briskly and without losing the central point, that Caribbean nations have never been isolated islands passively accepting destinies imposed from outside or above.
People, capital, drugs, and information are among the important factors and products of production that have originated in the Caribbean and circulated throughout the world. Though every nation in the area has in one way or another engaged in these trades, flows, and movements, some settings illustrate the nature of particular circulation better than others. Bronfman has chose national exemplars that are both useful and information. Four substantive chapters focus on these cases and themes: Haiti and the movement of people and their citizenship abroad; Cuba's recent capital investment in tourism, medicine and biotechnology; Jamaica's history as a produces and marketer of illegal drugs and the development in various islands of digital technology and communication.
The story of Haitian migration to the United Sates following the removal of the Duvalier family from political office and election of Jean-Bertrand Aristide is a tale well worth telling as one explores the continuing financial and political influence of émigrés. A largely education group with strong monetary and affective ties to Haiti, the immigrant community living in the United Sates grew in numbers and influence through the 1980s and 1990s. With several newspapers and radio outlets, the group was easily mobilized by Aristide into a "tenth department." Dividing that sector into arrondisements proved to be considerably more complex, though the support of Haitian immigrants was critical to the reinstatement of Aristide to the presidency during the Clinton Administration. The effectiveness of the immigrant community living in the United Sates is contrasted with that in the Dominican Republic, poorer and with shifting patterns of political influence on events in Haiti. However, immigrants in neither locale have been able to stem the tide of neo-liberal economic policies and general economic disarray in contemporary Haiti.
Much commentary on Cuba today continues to focus on its economic weaknesses, with little recognition of success in the form of new industries. Bronfman uses the Cuban case to concede the circulation of capital in the region. She begins by describing recent Cuban state efforts to capitalize tourism and extend its appeal beyond the "sun and fun" associated with Caribbean destinations. She notes as well that tourists in Cuba are unable to avoid exposure to economic inequality and exclusion, even as their contributions to the national economy are in part diverted to social investment by the state. Two other industries of growing significance in Cuba are nickel mining and medical research and biotechnology. A Canadian company invested heavily in Cuban nickel mining and profited in the process, while enhancing Cuban job and trade opportunities in Canada and Europe. At the same time, Cuba's investment in medical training and biotechnological research has yielded a boom in the medical tourism, the exchange of medical personnel with other countries, and increasing sales of sera and other medical substances abroad. This success has at once inspired more US restriction on travel and trade with Cuba while intensifying international business interest in the island economy.
The Caribbean has long been a site for illicit circulation, whether of money, people, or goods. Bronfman examines this phenomenon through an account of Jamaican involvement in the international marijuana and cocaine trades. Marijuana, or ganja in Hindi, was introduced to the Caribbean by Indian workers. It has been cultivated in Jamaica since the late 19th century when it was considered a benign substance. That changed in the 20th century as ganja was redefined as a dangerous drug and criminalized with every more serious consequences for those possessing, growing or selling it. Jamaican immigration to North America, the rising worldwide demand for marijuana, and the intensification of political violence on the island converged in complex ways that resulting in, among other things, the development of gangs that trade in ganja and operated in Jamaica and abroad. The developing market for cocaine in Europe and North American drew Jamaican dealers and their "posses" into more lucrative and dangerous enterprises that interdictions by the United States and Jamaican governments have done little to stem. There is no doubt that the illicit production and trade in drugs have enriched many Jamaicans while creating a social and political juggernaut that has been impossible to escape.
Bronfman leaves the least decisive discussion, that of ICT (information and Communication Technology), until last. Cell phones and computers have taken the Caribbean by storm, creating new avenues for communication and productive investment. Looking at the region in general, however, she finds that ICT utilization is widely uneven. Cell phones are the most readily available form of new technology, with a majority of some islands' populations possessing personal telephones for the first time. For every progressive experiment in introducing computers and the internet into remote classrooms, there are as many cases of offshore data processing and gambling that reproduce the patterns of international domination and exploitation that have long plagued the region. Firm conclusions have yet to be reached on the impact of ICT on the nations of the Caribbean and their intra- and extra-regional economic, political, and cultural linkages.
On the move: The Caribbean since 1989 closes with a brief essay by Bronfman on the difficulties of studying contemporary history in a region whose defining moments are often perceived to have occurred more than a century ago. While plantation slavery and emancipation established patterns of production, trade, and culture that have influenced the history of the region in profound ways, there are meaningful and self-determining moments in the more recent past that must be related. Bronfman's discussion of the complicated and thoughtful ways that Jamaica's National Bicentenary celebration valorized a range of historical eras, constraints, and struggles, should interest scholars and student of the region. It is one more way in which this accessible and compelling work succeeds in rescuing the Caribbean from narrow categorizations.
University of Toledo