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Beyond the Irma carnage

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Like the vast majority of Caribbean people, my heart goes out to the countless victims of the wrath of hurricane Irma in the northern Caribbean.The strongest storm to have hit these islands chose some of the most vulnerable islands, in size and physical make-up, to wreak its havoc. Besides Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Haiti, the so-called Greater Antilles, poor Anguilla, Barbuda, the Turks and Caicos islands, the Virgin Islands (‘British’ and US) and St Martin were all practically destroyed.

The extent of the damage is really very frightening, but Irma’s path of destruction has enabled us to get a glimpse of a social, political and economic reality that is taken for granted. Irma served a reminder that this part of the Caribbean, in spite of all its apparent economic development, is still under foreign rule.

Collectively, these islands cover not more than 700 square miles, with a combined population of less than 300,000 persons. Yet they have not been able to escape foreign rule and, Barbuda aside, are ruled by four of the more developed countries on earth – the USA (US Virgin islands of St Thomas, St Croix and St John); Britain (Turks and Caicos, Anguilla, Montserrat, and the ‘British’ Virgin Islands of Tortola, Virgin Gorda, Anegada and Jost van Dyke); France and the Netherlands (Holland) jointly rule over the 33-square mile island of St Martin, while France singly also exercises sovereignty over St Barthelmy (St Barts) and Holland governs St Eustatius (Statia).

While the rest of the Caribbean has moved towards independence, this northern section of the region has remained firmly in foreign hands and its level of economic development, higher at glance than that of most of the rest of the region, is used as justification for the continuation of colonial status. But disasters have a way of exposing realities and the aftermath of Irma has demonstrated to many of the unfortunate victims that the colonial powers consider them as second-class citizens.

It is heartening, though, that in the rest of the region, support for the relief effort has been spontaneous and enthusiastic. Our country is, like many of its neighbours, poor, but this has not stopped us from mobilizing support for our brothers and sisters. There are, of course, limits as to what we can give in one form or another, but no limit to our solidarity.

CUBA NEEDS US TOO

Our limits will surely be tested by the horrendous damage to our sister Caribbean island of Cuba, a dear friend which has befriended us on many occasions in our hours of need. Today, the boot is on the other foot, for Cuba, though it does not get as much coverage in the international media, has been severely hit by Irma. That storm slowly traversed the length of Cuba for almost the whole of last weekend.

We are already embarked on a big fund-raising effort for our other sister-islands, but must find some space for Cuba. Just recall that in 1979, when we were not yet independent, and had no relations with Cuba, that country sent a shipload of relief supplies to aid the victims of the volcanic eruption. Even though there was reluctance at first, the ship waited until permission was given.

One year later, Cuba opened its arms to the first scholars from SVG, free of cost. One of these is now Assistant Secretary-General of CARICOM, the second is his country’s Ambassador to Venezuela, and the third, now working in the Pacific, was instrumental in establishing the Eastern Caribbean Telecommunications body, ECTEL. We cannot count the value of scholarships provided since then, nor the value of medical services provided and the contribution to the Argyle International Airport.

We must find a room in our hearts, and in our cupboards and pockets for Cuba too. Side by side with the efforts for our sisters and brothers in the Leewards, we must see how we can play our part in the Cuba reconstruction effort. Every graduate of Cuban institutions, every beneficiary of its medical assistance, every patriotic Vincentian with gratitude for those who came to our assistance in our hour of need, must now stand up and be counted on the side of suffering Cubans. Let us become the real ‘friend in need.’

WE CAN’T DO LESS!

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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