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Independence and today’s realities

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I was invited by the Vincentian Association of the British Virgin Islands to participate in their Independence Anniversary celebrations and in particular to deliver their Independence Anniversary lecture. This event which took place on Friday, October 24th, at the H. Lavity Stoutt Community College, was a collaborative effort between the Vincentian Association and the H. Lavity Stoutt Community College and the University of the West Indies Open Campus of the British Virgin Islands.{{more}} I decided to speak on their theme for this year’s celebrations: “Forging links for a Stronger Caribbean”, but entitled my talk “Independence Anniversary: A Time to Reflect on New Realities.” While trying to put my thoughts together for this presentation, two things struck me, the theme of their anniversary celebrations and the fact that when we take into account Vincentians in the Diaspora there are probably more Vincentians abroad at this time celebrating or perhaps thinking about St.Vincent’s independence than persons on the ground in St.Vin cent and the Grenadines. Forging links for a stronger Caribbean appears to be a strange theme for an Independence anniversary celebration, but at the same time it represents an acute awareness of certain realities facing Vincentians living in the BVI. This was not something pulled out of a thin air, but relates to the Association’s motto: “Forging linkages with BVIslanders and all Nationalities in BVI”

Most Vincentians living abroad retain some emotional attachment to their homeland, and this comes out particularly on occasions such as Independence anniversary celebrations. But what does Independence mean to them? They are facing a new reality that involves meeting the challenges and confronting the realities of carving out a life for themselves in their new home. The challenges in the BVI are enormous. The BVI Island grouping constitutes a very small population where immigrants outnumber those who were born in the island. There are certain fears which come with that. I had made the point that the American and in fact, global financial crisis is extremely bad news for the Caribbean and particularly for countries like the BVI which have economic and other ties with the US Virgin Islands that defy their different political realities. A recent editorial in the Caribbean Net News made reference to a meeting of OECD countries at which strong criticisms were voiced about tax havens. The editorial singled out the BVI as one of the tax havens that is under threat. There were damning comments by the French President and Prime Minister. The Prime Minister stated: “Black holes like off-shore centres should no longer exist. Their disappearance must be a prelude to a reform of the international financial system.”

The article also noted: “Those countries and territories that currently rely heavily on revenue from the off-shore and financial sector seem to be facing some inevitable economic turmoil and those that are counting on new or additional revenue from such sources to shore up already faltering economies may have to rethink this ambition. Coming on top of sharply higher costs and declining tourism revenues, this is not good news for many in the region.” Of course any economic downturn or uncertainties will feed the suspicions that run so deep.

Recently, in reflecting on the challenges of independence, we have been making the point that we need to extend the definition of nation to incorporate Vincentians living in the Diaspora. With today’s new technology Vincentians abroad have found a medium to participate in the conversation about the state of the nation and its future. This, of course is deeply appreciated, but as with the BVI, Vincentians in America and elsewhere are living in countries that are facing or might be facing what appears to be a global financial crisis that can seriously affect them. This is going to demand a lot of their energy and attention as they try to confront the challenges that come with it. Additionally, particularly when the threat to our bananas first emerged, we were asking our people living in the big capitals of the world to become politically involved and to use whatever political space they had to push issues of concern for those at home onto the national agenda. In situations such as these, what does Independence really mean? When our people abroad celebrate our Independence anniversary, what is their state of mind? Is it just a romantic occasion? To what extent is the hope of many Vincentians abroad to resettle at home at some point still a major influence in how they function in their new found home? How do they cope in their particular mind set with children who are born abroad, who attend school abroad and to whom the homeland of their parents is a distant thought or a place to which they occasionally visit for Carnival?

But there is another issue to us at home. Recently, the idea of a political union of St.Vincent and the Grenadines and some other countries of the OECS has arisen. We are still at the formative stage and no one is sure how far this will go and if it goes anywhere what shape it will take. This is not the 1958 situation. The reality is that we now have some countries that are independent or rather the leaders of these countries, talking about forging a political union. What does October 27th mean in this scenario? Really, as we celebrate the anniversary of independence we have to broaden the conversation. What does it really mean at a time when we are contemplating a union of more than one country? Is the anniversary of Independence more than an emotional occasion for Vincentians abroad? Unfortunately, Independence Anniversary is to a large extent a time for a show or a party. The realities that impact on us as an independent people and can change the nature of our independence are hardly ever in any meaningful way the topic of any serious conversation. My trip to the BVI to participate in the Independence anniversary activities of the Vincentian Association has set me thinking about a number of realities that we need to begin to seriously talk about.

My presentation was followed by a panel discussion at which three BVIslanders participated. It appeared to me that this kind of conversation was needed and I challenged the Association to continue it. The two tertiary level institutions appeared willing to provide a forum to do so. On the following day I was guest on a television show that lasted one hour and provided a medium to continue the discussion we had started the night before.

I must use this occasion to thank the Association for its wonderful hospitality and to say how impressed I was with the work of President Sean Rose and the other members of the Executive.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.