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Commentary: The colonial pull in Caribbean politics
Published on March 26, 2014 Email To Friend    Print Version

By Oliver Mills

We are all familiar with the saying, “the more things change, the more they remain the same.” At the surface level, it appears ridiculous, even contradictory, because change means a qualitative difference from what previously existed. The situation, therefore, could not remain the same. But is there some truth to this statement?

Oliver Mills is a former lecturer in education at the University of the West Indies Mona Campus. He holds an M.Ed degree. from Dalhousie University in Canada, an MA from the University of London and a post-graduate diploma in HRM and Training, University of Leicester. He is a past Permanent Secretary in Education with the government of the Turks and Caicos Islands
For example, I once went on an archaeological dig, and we stayed at a former ‘Great House’ where the plantation owner once lived. Each morning we noticed how the workers on the estate congregated in front of the owner’s gate to receive instructions for the day. When we inquired about this ritual, our group leader, a noted historian, told us this was a re-enactment of what took place during slavery. Different actors, but the same script.

The descendants of slaves had absorbed the rituals of their ancestors, and perpetuated them. And the descendants of the Great House exercised the same power and influence of their ancestors. So the more things changed, the more they remained the same. And the colonial pull remains alive.

A Caribbean political writer described the recent celebration of what was seen as a number of years of unbroken parliamentary democracy in one country, as a celebration of planter autocracy, as parliamentary democracy, and suggested that it reflected a need for continued connection with colonialism. He noted further that there was nothing democratic about planter hegemony, which ended with the attainment of adult suffrage. And added that the period of planter rule ended once the blocks to government by consent were removed.

But in my view, the right to vote did not end the power and influence of a planter dominated society, since its descendants are here, now, and have perpetuated the system of political and economic dominance. Here again, we have a clear case of the stubbornness of the colonial pull on Caribbean politics.

Caribbean people have to realise, that slavery and the plantation, universal suffrage, self-government and independence, are all systems “crafted” by the powerful to maintain subtle control. The architects of slavery and colonialism fostered the plantation as a management tool, to shape the personalities of those under its influence.

The mission of the colonial system was to use laws and other regulations to perfect a set of values, behaviours, and a certain kind of character, which would serve as guides and signposts to the kind of society the powerful needed to maintain their interests, long after the architects of this system had faded into history. And they succeeded.

So despite the constitutional advancements of Caribbean countries, a psychological map was imprinted into the psyche of the various leaders by the system of colonialism, which acted as a pull back to the system from which they thought they had emerged, but which directed their thoughts and very being unconsciously. These colonial values made it appear to Caribbean leaders conditioned by them, that colonial values were the only good and proper ones to emulate, and a quiet sense of guilt was resurrected whenever they attempted to stray from the scripted path.

We therefore ended up with basically the same types of constitutions, legal systems, and parliamentary behaviours practiced during the period of Crown colony government, and the old representative system, but with different names, despite the rhetoric of being independent, sovereign states.

And we have continued with these archaic values, even though the parliamentary system of the metropole has moved on radically. For example, in the metropole, members of parliament can vote against any policy their government puts forward and, in the United States, members of Congress can do the same. In the Caribbean, if any member attempts this, his or her political career is endangered.

The former colonies remain trapped in an historical vortex because of this inherited authoritarian colonial political culture. What should frighten us most is that an unconscious fear of the maximum political leader in the Caribbean causes parliamentary members to cringe before him, or her, since they know these persons can determine the direction of their political careers. A relationship therefore exists bordering on idolatry, cemented by the colonial pull. This is the same fear a planter and colonial dominated society placed in the minds of those in its grip to coerce them into conformity.

Even the political rituals that have become part of national celebrations have a hidden intent, which is to take the minds of the people off their unpleasant experiences. These cultural distractions are designed to create a world where colonial values through continued planter dominance never ceases. Rituals such as having a national day, and independence celebrations, even events such as the celebration of national heroes, which on the surface seem to create a sense of nationalism, when examined more objectively, are really medications to ease social discontent, and get people to temporarily forget the contexts in which they exist. And they are also used to gain political mileage.

Those who really benefit are the successors of the planter class, who, being still in power, approved them in the first place. Is this not evidence that the sun might set, but colonial values always maintain their shine?
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