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Commentary: The political shaping of the Caribbean mind
Published on January 13, 2014 Email To Friend    Print Version

By Oliver Mills

Most Caribbean people are not aware that our political ideas and preferences have been shaped by many influences we are normally not conscious of. Some of these include the school, which teaches values through the various subjects it offers.

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
These values stress appropriate conduct, inform us about the political system and how it works, along with numerous rules and regulations, designed to shape and foster a certain type of politically correct behaviour. This is often presented as helping us to get along positively with each other, without stepping on the rights and freedoms of others.

However, others see this orientation as shaping us into a particular kind of person who conforms, whose character is desirable, and whose behaviour is such that it fits the preference of those with power and influence, so that it is not threatening to them.

The Caribbean mind is also shaped by parental values of respect, doing the right thing, loving the country, having faith in its institutions, and generally, being a good citizen. And connected to this, is the political party preference of our parents, which in most cases becomes ours as well, although as some of us mature, we make our own choices. But many political writers see this shaping of our minds as fostering a mind-set that accepts, but does not question.

Political parties themselves shape the Caribbean mind through their manifestos, and campaigns, with the intention of mustering support. This causes further division on party lines, and antagonism among opposing sections of the electorate.

But there are other factors in Caribbean society that shape our attitudes, even among the politically sophisticated. For example, Dr Eric Williams, in his various historical writings, describes attitudes towards him by certain individuals from the metropole.

While working with the Caribbean Commission, he gave a number of lectures on history and politics, the aim being to enhance the political consciousness of the people. But some Commission members were uncomfortable over one of his books, The Negro in the Caribbean, even suggesting it should not have been written, and when he expressed interest in a certain appointment, from the responses he got, he suspected an attempt to make the post so unattractive that he would resign.

Here, political shaping came from direct experience with colonial officials with a certain attitude towards colonial subjects. This, and many other experiences shaped his desire to enter politics, and he eventually became prime minister of his country for a number of years.

The experiences of Caribbean people are therefore important in shaping their political mindset. This is further shown in a recent article in Caribbean News Now, where the writer says that due to colonization blacks suffer from disunity on multiple levels. He mentions that this is seen where each Caribbean island thinks the other is less than it is, blacks with light skin are thought to be better than those with a darker complexion, blacks in and from Latin America see themselves as Spanish, not black, some Caribbean blacks do not value Africans, some Africans see Caribbean blacks as rejects, and that blacks do not support each other enough where business ventures or social events are concerned.

Many Caribbean people behave towards each other this way because of the historical political shaping they experienced not only during slavery, but up to the modern period, but, as the writer says, we have no one to blame but ourselves by continuing the colonial mindset of internal division amongst ourselves.

Even quite recently one person from a certain Caribbean country described the people of another as being small island minded, and went on to state that people from his island are continental minded. These observations we make of each other have become a part of our psychology, and we have yet to deconstruct them through reasoning, and arrive at the truth of who we are, and not deal with each other from our inherited prejudices.

One talk show host recently said that we were indoctrinated in our history to hate ourselves, and love those who indoctrinated us.

In reference to one metropole, one Caribbean political scientist says that its form of colonialism, measured by any lasting standard, remains wanting. He notes that it cared little about the artistic and aesthetic background of colonial life and experience, and gave as an example the official suppression of Carnival in Trinidad. It prided itself on its imperial manners, and imparted the code to the small groups of educated West Indian classes.

This is the political shaping process, and meant, according to the political scientist, the incorporation of these groups into the local colonial establishment. These groups continued the behaviour that shaped them, towards their own people.

It could also be said here that colonial officialdom also banned Junkanoo in the Bahamas. The political aim was to discourage any form of togetherness by local people, and also to deprive them of the one form of joy they experienced after having to cope with what they saw as the demeaning nature of the system. Officialdom, saw its actions as maintaining law and order.

But the scholar notes that the acceptance of the metropole’s constitutional system and its values would help to lay the foundations for a wider West Indian democracy. And that this metropole evoked respect and loyalty from the majority of its West Indian subjects. He also states that officials from this metropole, as reported by a visitor, were coldly impersonal. “They go out to rule, and nothing swerves them, and in their code, there is always socially, an abyss between natives and rulers.”

These experiences by local people, called natives, provided the ingredients for the shaping of their minds politically, and these very persons, and later their offspring began the kind of political activity that would result in their countries achieving their independence and sovereignty.

Yet, there are some official circles in many independent Caribbean countries who still say that officialdom from the metropole left too early. Some also claim there was more security, and that Caribbean economies were healthier when compared with the current independence era.

Just recently, in a former Portuguese colony, a local citizen also said things were better under the Portuguese. And in a yet to be independent country, people are still saying the current metropole is needed.

The political shaping of the Caribbean mind takes different forms based on the level of political consciousness of this or that group. Are these contradictions, represented by admiration for the colonial system, and efforts to attain, or strengthen sovereignty the end result of the ongoing, subtle political shaping of Caribbean minds by historical forces still actively at work?
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Paco Smith:

As with many of the author’s articles, I found this one rather insightful and instructive. He touches on themes which persist in the individual and collective psyche of our people. Certainly, the lingering effects of the large-scale enslavement of our ancestors, is not unique to the Caribbean; yet in terms of the context, as compared to our brethren and sistren in say, the United States of America, ours is somewhat unique. The “uniqueness”, in comparison to the aforementioned involves, as the author quite succinctly highlighted, is the reality of our colonial past.

In the case of a majority of the Caribbean, our people were subjected to the rules and parameters set by colonialists. We were made to conform and in a calculated and strategic fashion, they successfully applied the tactic associated with the term, “divide and conquer”, wherein certain groups were allowed privileges and access, while others remained excluded. This certainly created a level of exclusivity among the beneficiaries. In Belize, this group has been termed, “Royal Creoles” and I am certain in other territories equally descriptive monikers were adopted. This sense of privilege, of course, was accompanied with an air of “entitlement”, which to this day unfortunately holds true.

It is edifying to note that amid the consciousness which accompanied the independence movements throughout the region, in most cases, therein remained and to some extent developed an increased segmentation of the population. This, interestingly enough played out in the formation of political parties, whose leadership (in some instances, if not most) were drawn from the very ones who enjoyed the “entitlement”, yet it is important to note that the backbone of these entities were and remain to this day, comprised of the rank and file working man and woman. Again, this is no secret, but the critical element of note is the dynamic instituted by the colonialists who resulted in the setting-up and facilitation of those with entitlement, to function as emissaries of a system, which resulted in the natives, in effect, being purveyors of a system of inequity. Hence, what we find in our midst, those in positions of influence throughout the political landscape, who are inwardly neo-colonialist in their orientation. Hence, despite being recognised as “independent”, the structures, policies and practises as demonstrated by some of our so-called leaders are representative of the aforementioned system, which inevitably keeps us dependant, irrespective of the status of our individual nation-states.

Beyond this it is important to highlight that we, that being John & Jane Q. Public, allow for this to occur. The people of our region, in a general sense, despite always calling for change, simply continue to perpetuate this ill-cycle by adopting and facilitating an enterprise which ultimately works to our detriment. This is evidenced by the virtually unbridled graft which occurs, across the board. In my country we have the case of a Minister of State who boldly facilitated the appropriation of a Belizean passport for a Korean fugitive who never set foot in Belize and at the time was incarcerated in a Taiwanese prison and actually was presented with the aforementioned passport! Does it sound unbelievable? It shouldn’t because such actions are countenanced by the standing powers. To boot, the Royal Opposition, to their credit, has taken up the cause, as they should, but intuitively their campaign is devoid of the zeal which is necessitated to bring about the substantive change which is required. Instead they continue to go through the motions. Why one may ask? My assertion is that they realise that, meanwhile their opposite number is guilty of this gross transgression and crime against the nation and people of Belize, intuitively they know that any meaningful change to the system or even the rightful conviction of the perpetrator, will inevitably prove precedence setting and shall inevitably hold consequences for any future administrations. In short, to proactively advocate for what is right and true, in this instance, shall cramp their style in the future.

Interestingly enough, although I do not approve of this, being a student of governance, I understand that such is the dynamic of the Westminster System that we adhere to, at least as practised in our region. Therefore, I expect no less from the Opposition. Yet beyond that, I place the onus squarely on the shoulders of the people. I concede that not all Caribbean countries suffer, to the same extent, the political myopia which afflicts my beloved Belizean people, for there are instances in which movements beyond two political parties have increasingly gained ground. Yet, generally speaking, although the true power lies with the people (and not the politicians), we are inevitably to blame for the continuity of this inequitable system of governance which appears to be a commonality throughout our region. If our people were bold enough to step outside that which with they are truly not comfortable and open their hearts and more importantly, their minds, to a genuine call to action, separate and apart from the establishment, I believe that substantive changes can occur. Yet the lynchpin in this entire scenario lies within each individual to challenge him or herself to go against the traditional grade.

Therefore, I agree wholeheartedly with the author in his assessment that, “The political shaping of the Caribbean mind takes different forms based on the level of political consciousness of this or that group…”, with the key word being “consciousness”. Quite honestly, I believe the answer is within our grasp, but just as in the past, when our societies were ruled by colonialists, the present code of being obedient subjects to our new (internal) neo-colonial masters, apparently remains ingrained in our collective psyche. The capacity to reverse this resides in each of us, but until our people arrive at this determination, the neo-colonialists among us will continue to rape and pillage our resources, meanwhile enriching themselves and creating a larger divide among those who put them in positions of influence and fail to hold them accountable. It is an ill cycle, one that in true subservient fashion, lends to our continued demise.

I remain optimistic that change appears to be coming, albeit slowly and to this I simply offer an echoing of the prophetic words of Bob Marley, where he correctly identified that, “…none but ourselves can free our minds”.


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