BY BARRINGTON M. SALMON -CONTRIBUTING WRITER-
The succession of killer hurricanes that tore through the Caribbean during 2017 devastated homes and businesses, uprooted people’s existences and exacerbated the fortunes of a region where dependence is the watchword economically, socially and in some cases, politically.
From Dominica, to St. Maarten, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, across the Turks and Caicos and Cuba and from Guadeloupe through Antigua and Barbuda, killer hurricanes, particularly Irma and Maria, cut a wide swathe of destruction, leaving shaken residents to slowly pick up their lives. The long-term implications are far-reaching and will touch all aspects of life in the region.
“I have one foot in hope and the other in trouble,” mused St. Thomas resident Dr. Malik Sekou, a political science professor at the University of the Virgin Islands. “Our society is in a struggle trying to overcome this desolation. What makes these twin hurricanes so devastating is that they were back-to-back in the same region.”
“It was like fighting Muhammad Ali. ‘Here comes the jab, then the overhand right.’ There are socio-psychological implications because so many Virgin Islanders have family in neighboring islands. Irma cut deep into the heart of the Caribbean. It sliced through people’s lives and what Irma didn’t hit, Maria did.”
Dr. Sekou, an author and chairman of the Department of History, Social Science and Political Science, said Caribbean leaders and residents must figure out the best way forward with tourism and agriculture in ruins and the island nations dependent on assistance from the United States, Britain, Holland and other parts of Europe.
The U.S. Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, three months after the double whammy of Irma and Maria, was still reeling from those natural disasters. A dubious federal response from the Trump administration did little to put a substantial dent in allaying the effects of the hurricanes.
Hurricane Maria hit the island on Sept. 20 and on Nov. 3, more than 70 percent of the island was still without electricity. Telecommunications was spotty or nonexistent with about 52 percent of residents unable to get a cell phone signal and nearly half of Puerto Ricans—about one million people—lack clean running water and have been forced to drink from springs, creeks, rivulets and collected rainwater.
Puerto Rico’s Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and government officials announced a death toll of 62 but there is credible evidence from several sources on the ground in Puerto Rico and investigations by news organizations that the death toll is almost 1,100. The governor has ordered government agencies to reopen their books and initiate a recount and review of all certified deaths that have occurred since Hurricane Maria.
Dr. Danielle Pilar Clealand said things have improved on the ground but residents are still enmeshed in a crisis.
“Where we stand now is that more people are getting power back in San Juan and outside of the city. While the situation has improved, we still have a crisis,” said Dr. Clealand, assistant professor in the Department of Politics & International Relations at Florida International University’s Cuban Research Institute. “The interior is recovering slowly. Most houses there were made of wood and were destroyed. People are living with family, in shelters and elsewhere. Tens of thousands have migrated to Central Florida. This is about migration, housing, running water, disease.”
Dr. Clealand said there are well-founded concerns among Puerto Ricans about the acceleration of gentrification, the effects of crisis capitalism on the future of the island and if and how the island will be able to deal with $74 billion in debt.
“All this has the potential to change Puerto Rico,” said Dr. Clealand, whose research focuses on comparative racial politics, racial ideology, nationalism, group consciousness, and racial attitudes throughout the Americas. “Who’s migrating? Are they professionals? Will this be a brain drain? Will people who have left return? Puerto Rico was having problems before the hurricanes but since the hurricanes, no one has been talking about the debt. Debt forgiveness is going to be the key to any recovery in Puerto Rico.”
Dr. Clealand said that the worst hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in more than 80 years has racialized Puerto Ricans.
“Puerto Rico occupied an elite position in the Caribbean and was considered one of the whiter Caribbean islands, but they’re being racialized,” she said. “They’ve been racialized as non-Whites in ways they haven’t before. This is causing them to change their perspective as it relates to who they are. That component is something to watch as people re-envision where they stand in the world.”
There are a number of complaints from residents living in the Caribbean, who are angry, frustrated or incensed. These include corruption of elected officials, crime, indifference and inertia.
Roy Hurley, a criminal attorney living in Barbados, echoes that frustration.
“Election fever is in the air on my sun-kissed rock. But I have developed immunity. I will not be crossing the threshold of any polling station even if they sent a Bentley to fetch me,” he said on a recent Facebook post. “Let me say at the outset that I have been a lifelong supporter of the Democratic Labour Party—the party of the late Errol Walton Barrow. A party wedded to the guiding principles of democratic socialism. These principles have become too elastic under this DLP administration. They have sacrificed them for short-term opportunism. Right now, my support is in abeyance.”
“I haven’t left the party. They have left me. Maybe one day it will return. If it does, I’ll be waiting. In the meantime, I’m voluntarily disenfranchised. I have no choice … .”
When reached in Bridgetown, Barbados, on the morning of Dec. 19, Mr. Hurley expressed a combination of resignation and disgust.
“It’s pretty bleak,” he said. “Our pressing problems in Barbados is a serious problem with drugs, a proliferation of drugs and senseless murders. And the politicians are scratching their heads. Barbados is a little 2-by-4 island. I think people on the island are really fed up with this administration. Early on, people realized that they had been conned.”
“All we do is reselect and recycle deadbeats. These politicians is all about greed and what people can do for you. The quality of candidates is poor. We need a third party.”
Mr. Hurley said there is a confluence of factors complicating life in Barbados. He said the island is a transshipment point for drugs; the police response is ineffective; there has been an infusion of Indians from Trinidad who have displaced Black Barbadians from various businesses; and the carnage caused by young Black men in regular gangs and drug gangs continues unabated.
“I don’t know what the answer is and the politicians don’t appear to have an answer either,” he lamented. “Young boys are killing each other and in the case of the Indians, we appear to have replaced one oppressor for another. I also want us to transfer economic power from the White elite to Black Bajans. This calls for revolution but Bajans are passive. They accept a lot crap. People mumble but do nothing.”