Diaspora: The links that bind Caribbean immigrants

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by Tony Best
For New Pittsburgh Courier

It has become something of a rite of passage for Caribbean political leaders who direct the fortunes of the nations and territories that form the archipelago.

In recent weeks and months, Jamaica’s Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller, Guyana’s new President Donald Ramotar, Grenada’s head of government Tillman Thomas and Mia Mottley, a former Deputy Prime Minister of Barbados, came to New York at the helm of a six member delegation of the Barbados Labor Party to meet the Diaspora. What they all did was deliver an interesting message: nationals of their respective countries must continue to play an invaluable role in the further economic and social development of America’s third border.

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MIA MOTTLEY

When they spoke about “the Diaspora” what each had in mind was that Caribbean immigrants across the U.S., Canada, Britain and elsewhere constituted a significant movement of people who had a common identity and an overpowering interest in their respective birthplaces.

Responding to a question at an engaging Carib News editorial board meeting last week, Mottley and her party referred to the trying economic times being experienced throughout the Caribbean, a period when tourism, foreign direct investment, trade in goods and services and a range of other economic activities were all taking a beating from the global economic depression, the Caribbean Diaspora is considered an essential and reliable lifeline.

In all, Jamaicans, Haitians, Dominicans (from the Dominican Republic), Vincentians, Guyanese, Trinidadians, Barbadians, Grenadians and others in the region send back about more than $6 billion to relatives every year and the vast sums make a substantial difference in people’s lives.

What a pity, then, that Caribbean states haven’t done more to integrate their respective Diasporas into national development back home, much like Israel, Ireland and to lesser extent some African states. African states have moved much faster than Caribbean nations and for good reason. One of the largest Diasporas was the movement of people from the continent, beginning in the 16th century during the Atlantic slave trade. An estimated 20 million people from Africa were forcibly transported to the Western Hemisphere and Europe, creating a legacy of a major influence on the cultural and economic life wherever they were taken, sold and brutalized.

In the post Second World War era as independence from European domination became a reality in former English, French, Portuguese and Spanish colonies, the concept of the Diaspora assumed a forceful meaning.

Unfortunately, though, far too few governments have not matched their words with concrete action. Much too often nationals abroad are seen primarily as sources of funds for individual families or for the provision of equipment for health care and educational institutions.

The reward for the Diaspora, as many governments in the region see it, is the facilitation of nationals returning home after decades abroad. The elimination of customs duties on household items was an important first step taken in the 1990s, often in the face of fierce hostility from persons who benefited from the Diaspora but chose to forget the assistance they received.

Many prominent public officials and private sector executives who flocked to the U.S., Canada and England for their higher education since the 1970s were able to study because their brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts and other close relatives opened the doors of their homes providing them with room and board or helped to pay their tuition fees.

Jamaica, Haiti and Barbados were among the leading states which established formal governmental structures to reach the Diaspora but more needs to be done.

Many of them should find ways to the Diaspora representation on the boards of key state enterprises and should establish a process of regular consultation on national issues.

Countries can also help themselves by coming up with investment instruments such as bonds geared for the Diaspora, much like Israel. The nations can benefit and their citizens abroad can reap rewards from higher interest rates offered by government-backed securities. Of course, such instruments must conform to U.S., Canadian, British and European laws. At the same time the Caribbean states themselves must act to reduce the red-tape.

Another thing. Caribbean immigrants have accumulated vast technical skills and hold top executive positions in the private and public sectors of their homes-away-from home and that experience can be put to their country’s good use if the professional and governmental atmosphere was made more welcoming.

After all, the Diaspora constitutes a reservoir of goodwill for the Caribbean.

But West Indians in the U.S. must avoid an emerging and potentially divisive trap. Many of them opt to emphasize links with their own birthplaces to the almost total exclusion of firming up the vital bonds that have brought Caribbean peoples together in Caricom, the University of the West Indies, the cricket team and other regional institutions. P.J. Patterson, who led Jamaica for more than a decade recently urged the Diaspora to think both nationally and regionally. His words of advice should be heeded.

(Special to the NNPA from The Carib News.)

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