At the recent VII Summit of Heads of State of CELAC held in Buenos Aires, Ralph Gonsalves, Prime Minister of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, was elected to lead the Pro Tempore Presidency during 2023.
This is the first time since the creation of this integration mechanism in 2011 that a Caribbean island nation has assumed this role.
What does this election mean for CELAC and what significance does it have for the Caribbean and its people?
Leaving behind monarchical tutelage
Following the recent example of Barbados, which became a republic in November 2021, the agenda for the other independent Caribbean nations is to cease to be subjects of the British crown.
Gaston Browne, recently re-elected prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, anticipated after the death of Elizabeth II his intention to hold a referendum in the next few years to free themselves from UK government oversight.
For his part, Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness noted last August, on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of independence: “Speaking of sovereignty, we have already begun the work to become a republic.”
In the Bahamas, its Prime Minister Philip David, after signing the book of condolences following the death of Queen Elizabeth II said that Bahamians will have to decide if the country should become a republic and added: “I will have a referendum and the Bahamian people will have to say ‘yes’.”
In Belize, the government of John Briceño launched a constitutional reform commission in Belmopan last November to enable the transformation of the country’s institutional system. “Included in this consultative mandate is the suggestion to remove any vestige of colonialism from this document, that is, to simultaneously seek and modernise a new post-colonial constitution that reflects the will of the people and our collective future,” declared the commission’s chairman Anthony Chanona.
In Grenada, the National Democratic Congress (NDC), a centre-left party led by the newly elected Dickon Mitchell, signalled a similar course at the time of Barbados’ decision to become an independent republic. At the time, Claudette Joseph, in charge of Public Relations for the group said that “taking the final step to remove Her Majesty as head of state of Grenada will be one of the main items the NDC will put to the people in a referendum.”
The option is also being considered by St. Kitts and Nevis. Its foreign minister and former prime minister, Denzil Douglas, told the Axios news agency that it is time to chart a path to becoming a “truly independent country”. He added that “there is no concrete timetable for a constitutional referendum in your country, but it is time to start the conversation”.
And in the land of origin of the new CELAC pro tempore president, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, a referendum with the same objective had failed in 2009, because if the proposal to become truly independent obtained a simple majority, the constitutionally required two-thirds was not achieved.
In a letter to Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley on the occasion of that country’s republican milestone, Gonsalves explains one of the main impediments on the road to emancipation: “The truth is that altering the entrenched provisions of the Constitutions of the countries of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), including St. Vincent and the Grenadines, is a Herculean task. In St. Vincent and the Grenadines, such alterations first require a two-thirds majority in the unicameral legislature, followed by a two-thirds majority in a popular referendum. The breadth of the majority required in the latter respect is undoubtedly undemocratic”.
Something similar to what happens in other Latin American and Caribbean countries, subject to constitutional locks imposed by dictatorships and neo-colonialisms to hinder future structural changes.
The Vincentian goes on to clarify the origin of these difficulties in the sub-region as follows: “This follows the constitutional requirement imposed on Grenada’s 1974 independence constitution by the outgoing colonial power, Britain. Grenada was the first of the smaller Caribbean countries to accede to independence; it did so under the leadership of Eric Matthew Gairy. There was so much opposition in Grenada to independence under Gairy that the British exacted a heavy price.”
Undoubtedly, the passing of Elizabeth II, who reigned for seventy years, has accelerated the winds of freedom in her once colonies, now independent territories but still formally attached to the crown and under its aegis through the Commonwealth system.
Similarly, the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States rekindled the flame of awakening activism for the rights of black citizenship, still fiercely neglected and discriminated against as a result of a distant but all-too-near yesterday.
The resurgence of the anti-colonial emancipation movement is of particular importance in the English-speaking Caribbean, home to eight of the fourteen countries that still recognise the now King Charles III as their ruler.
Earlier, other Caribbean Community (CARICOM) nations established a republican form of government, leaving behind the vestiges of monarchy. Haiti, since its revolutionary founding in 1804; Suriname, a former Dutch colony, became independent in 1975. Guyana and Dominica have been republics since their independence in 1966 and 1977 respectively. Trinidad and Tobago, which achieved independent status in 1962, became a republic in 1976.
Truth, memory and justice
More than 80 percent of the population of the Caribbean island nations are descendants of enslaved people, who were abducted and transported in chains on slave ships from Africa. Reduced to subhuman conditions, they were forced into a regime of forced labour on pain of punishment or death on plantations owned by white landowners from the fierce “mother countries” or their progeny.
After the devastating genocide of the local indigenous population, the colonialist economy and the transfer of wealth to the colonial centres (Spain, France, Great Britain, Portugal, the Netherlands and Belgium, above all) could only be effected through the unspeakable human suffering of trafficking and the buying and selling of human beings in a condition of absolute alienation.
This crime against humanity, known today to every schoolchild in the world, is still not fully recognised by those who benefited – in terms of economic development – from its perversity.
Recently, with flagrant omission, delay and slowness, the Dutch government, the legal successor and legally responsible for the atrocity committed (as well as the other European governments of former colonialist powers), made a gesture and began to “apologise” for such an outrage.
On the occasion of a visit to the Historical Archives on 19 December 2022, the Prime Minister of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, the right-wing Mark Rutte, issued a statement in The Hague in which he pointed out that until 1814, “more than six hundred thousand enslaved African women, men and children were enslaved, enslaved African men and children were sent to the American continent in appalling conditions by Dutch slave traders, mostly to Suriname, but also to Curaçao, Sint Eustatius and elsewhere, where they were separated from their families, dehumanised, transported and treated like cattle, often under the governmental authority of the West India Company”.
And in Asia, “between 660,000 and over a million people were trafficked within the areas under the authority of the Dutch East India Company”.
Shortly before, an advisory board had recommended that the government apologise and acknowledge that the slave trade from the 17th century until its abolition “were crimes against humanity”. The report adds that institutional racism in the Netherlands “cannot be seen in isolation from the centuries of slavery and colonialism and the ideas that have emerged in this context”.
“The Dutch state was the European pioneer of the global enterprise of slavery. For most of the 17th century it monopolised the transatlantic slave trade and provided the finance and technology that enabled the English, French, Spanish and Portuguese to establish their own slave-based empires,” Professor Sir Hilary Beckles, Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West Indies and Chairman of the CARICOM Reparations Commission, noted in response. “As a result,” he added, “Amsterdam became the financial centre of Europe and the world’s leading provider of capital for colonisation.”
Not only in the Caribbean, but also in India, Iraq, Tasmania, Malaya, Afghanistan and half of Africa, the British Empire was responsible for slavery and countless massacres. This recently confronted members of the royal family on visits to various Caribbean countries.
The popular outcry demanding apologies and compensation was felt upon the arrival of Prince Edward and Countess Sophia, who stopped in April 2022 in Antigua and Barbuda, St Lucia and St Vincent and the Grenadines. The planned stop in Grenada was postponed, Buckingham Palace said. The same was true of Prince William and Duchess Kate, who were in Belize, Jamaica and the Bahamas in March.
For its part, the Belgian kingdom, which killed millions of people in the Congo, has offered no formal apology. The monuments to King Leopold, one of the main executors of the bloody theft, are still there.
The neoliberal Macron even backtracked on an outline apology for the French colonisation of Algeria, trying to capture the right-wing vote of the descendants of the “pied-noirs”, native settlers who fled the country after independence in 1962. He said nothing about the Haitians, who in 2015 demanded during the visit of the then French president Hollande, that he pay 19 billion dollars as repayment of the debt contracted two centuries ago to obtain their independence.
In the face of Spain’s silence, it was Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador who in 2019 urged King Felipe VI of Spain and also Pope Francis on behalf of the Church to apologise for the abuses committed during the conquest. Neither has Portugal offered any public apology for its colonial past.
But today’s meagre or non-existent apologies from European governments that still continue with an intentional historical amnesia will not suffice.
In 2013, the heads of government of Caribbean nations established the CARICOM Reparations Commission (CRC) with a mandate to make the case for restorative justice for the region’s indigenous and Afro-descendant communities, victims of crimes against humanity in the forms of genocide, slavery, slave trade and racial apartheid.
The CRC affirms that the victims and descendants of these crimes have a legal right to restorative justice, and that those who committed these crimes, and who have enriched themselves with the proceeds of these crimes, have a reparatory case to answer.
The programme points to the special role of European governments in this regard, as “they were the legal bodies that set the framework for the development and maintenance of these crimes. These governments, moreover, served as the main bodies through which slave-based enrichment took place, and as national custodians of the criminally accumulated wealth”.
To this end, the Commission has elaborated a 10-point Reparation Plan, which includes a formal apology, the possibility of repatriation and support for a reintegration programme for those descendants who request it, a development plan for expropriated, murdered and marginalised indigenous communities, as well as the creation of training institutions for researchers and teachers in the Caribbean on this painful past.
Similarly, the proposal calls for European involvement to alleviate the health disaster caused by five centuries of colonialism and four hundred years of legalised slavery. The chronic ill-health of blacks in the Caribbean is now a major challenge for the region. Curbing this pandemic requires an injection of science, technology and capital beyond the region’s capacity.
Other points in the plan include support for the eradication of illiteracy, the establishment of identity bridges with Africa in schools or through travel, and the implementation of psychological rehabilitation programmes.
Governments consider the cancellation of foreign debt, which today makes social investment and the transfer of technology, essential for human development, impossible, to be of great importance.
Final emancipation and CELAC
Comrade Ralph, as the San Vincentean Prime Minister is known in his close political entourage, has a significant but far from easy task ahead of him at the head of CELAC.
On the one hand, to reach the necessary consensus to make progress on urgent issues such as the eradication of hunger and the improvement of social conditions at regional level, as well as the defence and deepening of democracy in the face of the attacks that the neo-fascist right-wing reaction, the concentrated media groups, the economic power and the different diplomatic devices of the United States will continue to launch against progressive and revolutionary governments.
Environmental protection and sovereignty over natural resources will be central agenda items as well as respecting its proclamation of Latin America and the Caribbean as a Zone of Peace, the Community of States will have the immediate challenge of firmly preventing attempts to involve the region in any kind of warmongering or meddling strategy. This includes the absolute rejection of the blockade or coercive measures that today affect the inhabitants of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua and which are promoted by successive US administrations to force political changes favourable to the illegitimate recolonisation project.
In the same decolonising sense, the urgency of safeguarding the self-determination of the Haitian people, currently under attack by foreign intervention and Henry’s de facto government, as well as the denunciation of the coup against President Castillo and the cessation of the persistent repression against the Peruvian people, continue to be issues that CELAC must reconsider in order to mediate courageously in the current situation.
The migration issue, as well as attempts to address possible solutions to the scourge of crime generated by a structurally exclusionary economic model, will occupy a large part of the discussions in the relevant ambits of ministerial exchange.
The development of strategies for the mitigation of natural disasters, the cancellation or reduction of asphyxiating debts, the development of clean energies within the framework of fair trade economic models, as well as the elaboration of alternative financial architectures to the current monopoly controlled by the United States, are of particular relevance for the Caribbean, but also for the other CELAC members in the context of multiple systemic crises.
Similarly, the steps that the pro tempore presidency of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines can take towards a reconfiguration of technology and digital spaces, centred on human rights and approached from the perspective of regional cooperation, will be extremely important.
But above all, he hopes that during this period CELAC will deal with an issue of historic importance for the peoples of the Caribbean and the Americas as a whole: definitive decolonisation.
“It is my hope that, in my lifetime, all or most of the independent CARICOM countries will move from a monarchical to a republican system,” Gonsalves said in the letter to his Barbadian counterpart quoted above. “I sincerely hope that such a change will take place in Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Belize, Grenada, Jamaica, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia and St. Vincent and the Grenadines,” he said.
Referring to the other colonial territories still existing in the Caribbean, he wrote: “It is also to be hoped that all these colonial territories will push for their independence within the world community of nations. It would be good to see the end of colonialism in our Caribbean. But that initiative is not for me to take, but for the peoples of these twenty or so colonies or territories and their national leaders.”
A firm purpose which, without a doubt, includes the evacuation of the United Kingdom from the Malvinas Islands and other South Atlantic islands, as the document drawn up at the Summit states.
It is clear that CELAC will be a privileged forum to amplify and accelerate these processes.
Finally, reflecting on an essential issue, Gonsalves quoted in his letter to Mottley the Martinican writer and politician Aimé Césaire, warning about the effects of violence on those who exercise it: “Colonisation dehumanises even the most civilised man; the colonial enterprise, colonial conquest, which is based on contempt for the native and is justified by that contempt, inevitably tends to change the one who undertakes it; that the coloniser, who, to ease his consciousness, gets used to seeing the other man as an animal, gets used to treating him as an animal, and tends objectively to transform himself into an animal. This is the result, the boomerang effect of colonisation…”.
We must therefore wish Ralph Gonsalves the best of luck in his endeavour and bring the full support of the Latin American and Caribbean popular movement to his work.
 “In the Caribbean as a whole there are the following five British colonies or overseas territories: Anguilla, Cayman Islands, British Virgin Islands, Montserrat and Turks and Caicos Islands. Bermuda, located in the Atlantic but with Caribbean connections, is also under British sovereignty. The Greater Caribbean is also littered with colonial territories or departments of colonial powers of the United States, France and the Netherlands. In the case of the colonial United States, there are Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands (St Thomas, St Croix and St John); in relation to the Netherlands: St Martin, Curaçao, Aruba, Bonaire, St Eustatius and Saba; in the case of France: St Martin, Martinique, Guadeloupe, St Barthélemy and French Guiana in neighbouring South America.” Letter to Mia from Ralph on the occasion of Barbados becoming a republic. 22/11/2021