Climate change is a prime threat to Caribbean islands. In addition to dealing with the effects disastrous of a warming planet, Caribbean islands also face a yearly barrage of storms every Hurricane season in late August to early September. The fact that most of the Caribbean countries are economically underdeveloped by the capitalist imperialist system and do not have the financial resources to erect infrastructure to weather the storms makes hurricane season in the Caribbean much more dangerous.
Moreover, the fact that the inhabitants of the Caribbean are predominantly the descendants of people forcibly transported to the islands through the trans-atlantic slave trade and schemes like Indian-indentureship is significant for understanding why residents of the various Caribbean countries are unable to easily escape the wrath of the storms. Given how inherent racism is to the capitalist system, the lives of Black and Brown peoples of the Caribbean are treated with utter disregard.
The Caribbean islands occupy a place in the world where they are seen as tourist playgrounds for European, American and tourists from more affluent places, as a result, it is expected that a resident population stays in place to serve as low-wage workers in the hotel and resort industries. Very little thought is given to these residents in the world imagination with regard to the yearly hurricane season or the way in which the warming of the world may have intensified the storms during hurricane season.
The 2017 hurricane season featured massive storms such as Harvey, Irma, Jose, Katia and Maria which wreaked record devastation across the Caribbean and parts of the southern US. The impact of hurricane Harvey in Texas, the resulting flooding and loss of life are indicators that more than mother nature is at play. The storms themselves, inflict one level of damage, the lack of infrastructure to address the effects and aftermath of the storms point to the man-made disaster that is capitalism. The impact of hurricane Irma in Florida, where the roads became jam packed with residents trying to flee the storm drove home the point that the social and economic organization of our society around the principle of profit accumulation has left those people who toil in the name of such profits behind.
As catastrophic as the impact of Harvey and Irma were on Texas and Florida, it pales in comparison with what was in store for the Caribbean. Islands of course are more exposed to the effects of the storms and this hurricane season they came one after the other with a previously unmatched ferocity and resulting devastation. In addition to the geographic factor, the fact that the Caribbean Islands are poorer countries which are in the shadow and under the domination of imperialist nations like the United States exacerbated the devastating impact of the storms.
This is no abstract theory but a sad reality of life. These contradictions are playing out in the most brutal way in the Caribbean Islands after they were hit by Irma. According to CNN, in addition to leaving at least 44 people dead in the region,
“Anguilla, Barbuda, the British Virgin Islands, St. Martin / St. Maarten, the US Virgin Islands, and Turks and Caicos were hardest hit, with up to 99% of structures at least partly damaged.”
Haiti, Puerto Rico and Cuba also sustained heavy losses from the Irma. As the recovery effort begins, one thing that is coming into clearer relief is the extent to which the Caribbean region is held back by its lack of integration. The fact some islands are politically independent neo-colonial states such Antigua and Barbuda, Haiti and Cuba while others, like St. Martin, the U.S. and British Virgin Islands are administered by imperialist nations like France, the U.S and Britain complicates the relief effort since there is no single entity which can coordinate evacuation, rescue or the distribution of supplies to those most in need across the islands.
On the contrary, the divisions capitalism has made in the world, between nation states, between the working class and the ruling class, and oppressions such as race and gender are the prism through which relief efforts are coordinated. These divisions are also responsible not just for the people of the Caribbean being put in the eye of increasingly powerful annual storms, but also for the fact that these island residents are unable to flee to unaffected islands or to the mainland due to restrictive immigration policies. The clearest example of this being Haiti’s membership in the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) which guarantees freedom of movement for citizens of member states and that fact that Haitians are routinely denied entry or detained upon arrival in other CARICOM countries as was the case in Guyana as recently as June, 2017.
Furthermore, the political divisions of the various nations leads to a situation where the imperialist countries belatedly create aid packages for the countries under their rule in the Caribbean, as President Trump has been doing in Puerto Rico, while countries like Antigua and Barbuda are left to fend for themselves and to rely on charity through international aid groups like the Red Cross which has a track record of misusing funds intended for victims of natural disaster like they did in Haiti after the earthquake in 2010.
Imperialist Business As Usual
Despite the catastrophic loss of life, the imperialist system has made it clear that nothing has changed. A large part of the reason that countries like Antigua and Barbuda are unable to make the infrastructural developments to protect itself from hurricane season is the crushing debt owed to institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. In the wake of Irma’s devastation, the IMF made clear that they would not even convene to discuss a moratorium on the repayment of Antigua and Barbuda’s US $15.8 million debt to the IMF or the US $3M payment currently due to the IMF. Every dollar which Caribbean countries pay to imperialist IMF takes away from resources that could be dedicated to Irma’s victims.
Puerto Rico, likewise, labors under a tremendous debt burden and their fiscal crisis had already led to catastrophic cuts in wages and social services across the island prior to the devastation wreaked there by hurricane Maria. This situation was worsened by the imperialist Jones Act which restricts vessels not registered in the US from bringing goods to Puerto Rico. Under intense pressure as the images of devastation from Puerto Rico hit the media, Trump temporarily suspended the Jones Act, however, his recent statements about the Puerto Ricans needing to help themselves and his photo-op of tossing rolls of paper towels to a crowd of displaced residents make clear that the the American government intends to offer nothing but crumbs to the people of Puerto Rico as they hunger for relief from the impact of Maria. FEMA has even declared that it is not their responsibility to distribute supplies in Puerto Rico.
We must be clear as to who the culprits are here. This is not simply an act of mother nature. The colonial powers, the ones most responsible for climate change, are the ones still exploiting and impoverishing Caribbean nations. Meanwhile those who are least responsible for CO2 emissions, people in impoverished countries like those in the Caribbean, are facing the brunt of climate change.
The local ruling classes of the Caribbean should not be let off the hook either. The horrific devastation wreaked upon the nation Dominica by hurricane Maria should not lead us to forget that in February, 2017 protests broke out in Dominica over the country’s Citizenship Investment Program (CIP), which grants citizenship to foreigners based on a US $100,000 cash investment and a US $200,000 investment in real estate. After it was discovered that Dominica’s Prime Minister Skerrit had granted citizenship to an Iranian national, Ali Reza Halat Monfared, who was later arrested for embezzling Iranian state funds, a mass protest was organized against the government which was met with brutal repression from state police.
Empty promises from Guyana’s president Granger to resettle victims of the hurricanes in Guyana remain just words and are unlikely to be acted upon given the government’s inability to house its own citizens and the forcible removal of squatters and their homes in Sophia currently underway. While Guyana is not susceptible to hurricane and typhoons like other Caribbean countries, Guyanese are still very vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Around 90% of people live in coastal plains that are significantly below sea level. The majority of economic activity, 75%, is in coastal areas. Flooding along the coast remains a danger given the lack of infrastructural development and the aging sea defense system.
Which Way Forward?
Caribbean nations must band together to survive climate chaos. Attempts at a federation of nations in the Caribbean have been made before, notably the federation of nations formerly under British colonial rule. However, that federation fell apart as the various nations gained independence from the British. What the British exit from the European Union shows is that federation under the capitalist banner will always be strained by the role of each nation state.
What is needed is a federation of Caribbean states which bands together the countries, regardless of which nation was the former colonial leader, recognizing the inherent power of the working people of the Caribbean as the producers of wealth who should not leave the administration of our societies to a minority ruling elite or foreign imperialist leaders. This may sound like a fanciful vision, however, there are tangible steps that can be taken towards this goal. The most concrete of which would be to advocate for the non-repayment of all debt to the IMF, World Bank and other financial institutions which keep the Caribbean financially subjugated through a cycle of debt repayment.
Even countries unaffected by natural disasters are under the burden of imperialist debt repayment because this is the price they are forced to pay for economic and infrastructural development. The ruling class of these countries live well based on their exploitation of the local working people and the benefits accrued in their role as compradors with the imperialist ruling classes, however, to repay the loans they have imposed austerity measures which cut back on the standard of living of the working masses.
The French Guianese masses showed the way forward earlier this year when they launched a general strike against the poor standard of living created by austerity measures. A movement in the Caribbean and Latin American to repudiate the imperialist debt can be a powerful weapon in the fight against the system which leaves the Caribbean masses to the whims of powerful storms. This movement would be especially strong if we made it clear that should our current governments prioritize debt repayment over storm prevention, disaster relief and raising wages and improving social services, we will engage in work stoppages and mass protests to show the true power of our class, which knows no borders.