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The Post Rodney Caribbean

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The two decades spawning the second half of the sixties, the entire seventies and early eighties represented some of the finest moments in the history of the self-organization of the Caribbean people. The influences of the anti-colonial struggles in Africa and the teachings of the like of Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, and the South African Liberation movement did not go unnoticed in the Caribbean. To the north too, the Black Power Movement had a strong impact on our region in which the bulk of the people were still largely second-class citizens in the land of their birth. {{more}}

But the Caribbean had its own heroes as well, Marcus Garvey’s trail-blazing work established a tradition taken up in the thoughts and actions of CLR James, Franz Faron, Cheddi Jagan and the early trade union pioneers and anti-colonial leaders. Not many people grasp the fact that while the rest of the world was marching on, by the beginning of the seventies, the only Eastern Caribbean island which had achieved political independence was Barbados. And of those which were politically independent, the governments of Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago had begun to bare some very reactionary pangs.

That was the region-wide scenario when Walter Rodney, returning home from his studies began his liberating work in Jamaica where he was lecturing at the University of the West Indies. Universities the world over are well known as “hotbeds of radicalism.” Many are the radical, revolutionary and even extremist ideas preached and actions carried out, behind those walls. Certainly in the sixties and seventies there was no shortage of what became to be known as “arm chair revolutionaries.” It was a shame to witness the degeneration of most of these, in thought and action, over the next two decades.

Walter Rodney was different. He took his teachings beyond the hallowed walls of the Mona Campus. Not for him the peacock-strutting, in UWI garb of many of his colleagues and students anytime they set foot on home territory. As though they were some soil of superior being. No, Rodney literally hit the ground, in his legendary groundings with the Jamaican oppressed, actions which scared the hell out of the Jamaican government to the extent that they banned him from its shores. Similar actions, not just against Rodney, but also against others perceived to be “threats to national security” were taken by other yellow-bellied Caribbean governments. Many of these were governments purporting to be “Labour” in designation.

Such tactics of banning have had the effect of separating the men from the boys. Many buckled under the pressure of deprival of their livelihood and either emigrated or made accommodation with the structures of oppression. Again, Rodney differed. He returned to his native Guyana to engage in the dual struggle to feed his family and support the liberating aspirations of his people. His sterling contribution towards understanding the instruments of oppression and the root causes of poverty put those struggles on a higher level.

Just as the Jamaican ruling class panicked when he went “beyond the boundary” so too did traditional two-party (Burnham-Jagan) Guyana tremble when Rodney began to cross the barriers of race and class. Sugar workers, then overwhelmingly of Indian descent, and bauxite workers, predominantly African, began to take his message of class solidarity and racial unity, seriously. The old, divisive, party political set-up began to crack. That decisive break-through caused those in power to press the trigger of assassination.

The strong responses of the people throughout the Caribbean to his murder in 1980 reflected the healthy state of the People’s Movement throughout the region. It came from the same root as the defence of the Maurice Bishop government in Grenada, the ousting of the reactionary Patrick John government in Dominica and the glorious “Kill the Bills” people’s victory in St. Vincent and the Grenadines in 1981.

Two years later all of that went up in smoke, literally, as US bombs and guns took advantage of the reckless and tragic cleavage for the revolutionary movement in Grenada to douse the flames of people power not just there, but throughout the entire region. The Caribbean has never been the same since. The People’s Movements became the target of a unifying campaign which destroyed the faith of the people in them and undermined the tenacity of its leadership. They too pressed the self-destruct buttons. Those leaders who survived found themselves having to seek accommodation in the bosoms of the old structures. Many donned the old robes to the extent that they are unrecognisable today. Others attempted to straddle the tiger, to work for change from inside, to try and put their own stamp on revamping the outdated party structures, with differing degrees of success.

Walter Rodney would be saddened to see the Caribbean today. But his life’s experience tells us that were he to return, he would not throw up his hands in frustration or disillusionment. It would stir him to even more determined efforts. If we truly understand what Rodney says in his seminal work “How Europe underdeveloped Africa,” if we grasp the influence of the policies of the international financial institutions on our lives, if we realise just how marginalised our countries are becoming, then it behoves us to resist. We have a gigantic task to rebuild the People’s Movements, to link the work of workers and farmers; women, and youth; Africans, Indians, and indigenous people and the other strands of our population; to encourage the new social movements to become part of this. Should we shirk this duty, then we are not worthy to even call Walter’s name.