Sugar production under the plantation system was the dominant economic activity in the European colonies in the insular Caribbean from its introduction (imitating the model implemented by the Portuguese in Brazil) in the 16th century. The system ended with the abolition of slavery. All of the European empires abolished slavery during the 19th century.

From the beginning, efforts to abolish slavery in the Caribbean were closely tied to (and were nearly inseparable from) the struggles for independence and against colonialism, beginning with the Haitian Revolution in 1803.

Specifically, in the Spanish Caribbean, the region faced a dilemma: the internal divisions between the slaves and their owners and the need to unite these two bands in a common struggle against Spain. The battles for independence made it essential that a unified national identity be created, once independence was achieved, to serve as the foundation for the new nation. Founding a new nation would require an act of reconciliation between the two antagonistic groups that would make it possible to look toward the future. Although Cuba and Puerto Rico remained colonies for almost all of the 19th century, the countries in continental Latin America that had achieved independence in the early part of the century provided a model for national reconciliation that would be implemented in the Caribbean once these territories achieved their independence. The model was based on the idea of a racially mixed figure as a racial synthesis of the antagonistic groups.

Although Spain’s territories in the Caribbean did not separate from Spain until 1898, they displayed processes of building a national identity that were similar to those in the Spanish-speaking continental countries during much of the 20th century, which were also based on the mixture of races. One of the differences in the Caribbean was that while in the continental countries the mixing was the fusion of Spanish and indigenous, in the Caribbean the African was added as part of the equation.

Therefore, many of these territories (even those that had not achieved independence) began to build national identities in which it was essential (there was no way around it) to incorporate the African cultural heritage. In the Greater Antilles, the contributions of the African culture to the national imaginary were perceived in limited terms and almost exclusively as contributions to the national music. The important exception in this case was the Dominican Republic, due to its struggle for independence from Haiti, which developed a national identity that denied the African heritage. The region known today as the Dominican Republic (which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti) remained part of Haiti after the Haitian Revolution in 1803 but it became involved in a war against the Haitian government that led to its independence in 1844. In the war of 1844, the pro-independence Dominicans tried to gain the support of European nations and the United States with the argument that it was a war of whites against blacks, or of civilization against barbarism. From this experience emerged a national imaginary in which the African element on the island was located exclusively in Haiti and the region that we know today as the Dominican Republic consisted mainly of people of mixed race whose dark skin was due to their indigenous heritage, not African heritage. This led Haitian historian Jean Price-Mars to declare that the pro-independence Dominicans suffered from “collective bovarism” (“bovarism” referred to the character of Madame Bovary in the novel by Gustave Flaubert of the same name) for believing they were not black.

The construction of a national identity generally had to be a process of reconciliation among two (or three) historically opposed groups that would have to unite for a higher purpose: the nation. It was not just reconciliation among the antagonistic groups, but rather a reconciliation that would serve to provide the basis for the birth and takeoff of a new nation, of a new “race,” the mestizo or mixed race. This mixing was not seen as an historical event that had already occurred in the past and could now be seen in full form, but rather as a task yet to be completed. The new mixed race was not something already created but something yet to be created, an ideal to follow. On a most elemental level, the execution of the project would require that members of different races come together and produce offspring of mixed race. In fact, the act that founded the nation would be the act of reproduction, an act of love among those who could be considered the biological parents of the mixed-race nation. As shown by historian Doris Sommer, novelists were the ones who took on the task of narrating foundational events that, precisely because of their mythological nature (taken from fictional literature), Sommer called “foundational fictions.” In her book of the same name, Foundational Fictions (1990), Sommer showed how literature of the 19th century Latin American literature (including the Caribbean) showed an obvious preference for novels of love and particularly for those in which the lovers were of different races. The predominant theme was interracial love, which led to racial mixing. This tradition was also inspired by the tradition started by James Fenimore Cooper in his novel The Last of the Mohicans, which told of the mythical romance between James Adams and the indigenous woman Pocahontas.

In continental Latin America, authors of romantic novels such as Rómulo Gallego in Venezuela (Doña Bárbara, 1829), José Mármol in Argentina (Amalia, 1851), Jorge Isaacs in Colombia (María, 1867) and José de Alencar in Brazil (O Guarani, 1957) imitated Fenimore Cooper. In the Spanish Caribbean, novels such as Sab (1841, inspired in Cuba and published in Spain but banned in Cuba) by Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda and Enriquillo (Santo Domingo, 1882) by Manuel de Jesús Galván were published. The latter was an historical novel that recreated actual events on the island of Hispaniola very early in the era of colonization, between 1503 and 1553. The events tell the story of a tragic love between the Taino princess Mencía, baptized with the Christian name doña Ana and the daughter of the great chief Anacaona, and the Spanish solider Hernando de Guevara, all in the middle of an uprising by the indigenous people, led by the chief Guarocuya, who had been baptized as Enriquillo.

As Doris Sommer notes, in these 19th century romantic novels of the Spanish Caribbean and Hispanic Americas, Eros and Polis were fused to form the basis or foundation on which the mixed-race nation would be erected. In the post-slavery societies, the recently freed black went from being African to being mixed-race.

In any case, with the abolition of slavery during the 19th century, the success of these foundational myths was not exactly as hoped, and many of the freed blacks adopted an attitude of refusing to work on the plantations and not taking part in the project of building a new nation. As Trinidadian writer V. S. Naipaul has said, for blacks the idea of “being free” meant “that they would be left alone and not involved.” Various social scientists have conducted studies of the economic behavior of these Caribbean subjects, former slaves and descendants of slaves, and of the rural working class in general. It was in this setting that social scientists developed theories such as Sidney Mintz’s “corporate land-and-factory combine” or Lambros Comitas’ theory of “occupational multiplicity.” Both concepts tried to document the hybrid forms of labor and political participation by the rural working class communities in the transition from pre-capitalist to capitalist modes of production. It was also at this historical juncture that Trinidadian economist Lloyd Best developed his theory about the culture of resistance, which was reflected mainly in what Best called the “residentiary sector,” or the home-based production that emerged after the abolition of slavery. Later, motivated by the problematic aspects of the work ethic of Caribbean subjects, U.S. sociologist Oscar Lewis developed his theory of the “culture of poverty,” a study of cultural patterns that conditioned the economic behavior of Caribbean subjects. When conditions of poverty and unemployment lasted for long periods of time, Lewis argued, anti-work behaviors by unemployed persons settled into the culture and were later passed on from generation to generation. According to Lewis’ theory, anti-work behaviors and the “culture of poverty” would continue to exist in the population even when the structure conditions that caused unemployment disappeared.

The refusal by blacks to work on the plantations caused a shortage of labor in the Caribbean economies. Many plantation owners tried to fill this need by importing workers from other countries under arrangements called “tied labor” or “indenture contracts.” During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Caribbean societies saw a significant influx of workers from China, India, Indonesia and Africa. It was at this historic juncture that the Caribbean became a multi-cultural region. In fact, it has the highest concentration of different racial and ethnic groups of any region on the planet.

In any event, the new capitalist system of production, based on labor, also led to problems for industries such as sugar, which required huge numbers of temporary seasonal workers during the cane harvest but left most of these workers without jobs for much of the year. This situation, along with the masses of former slaves who were unemployed or lived outside the formal labor market, created societies with high rates of poverty and social inequality.

During the second half of the 20th century, the transition from economies based on agriculture to economies based on manufacturing and service industries (tourism), as well as the liberalization of trade through free trade agreements (such as TLC, CARICOM, CBI), revealed a lack of training and skills in broad sectors of the islands’ populations and created a mass of unskilled, unemployed or underemployed workers and population sectors dependent on aid from the welfare state or remittances from abroad. Rates of social inequality and unequal distribution of wealth in the Caribbean islands continue to be among the highest in the world and poverty and unemployment continue to be a central problem in many Caribbean economies. This situation is particularly acute in the Greater Antilles, which accounts for approximately 80% of the total Caribbean population, and particularly in Cuba and Haiti, two of the poorest countries in the Americas. The most drastic case in the region is Haiti, which has the highest poverty rate in the Americas, with 80% of the population living below the poverty level and an unemployment rate of 40.6%, followed by Dominica with a rate of 25.0% (2002 data).


Author: Luis Galanes
Published: May 24, 2012.

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