The international migrations of our times represent opportunities, challenges and dilemmas for nations, their governments and world humanitarian organizations. In the Caribbean, as in other areas, migratory processes are inseparable from the political and economic conditions in the region’s societies. It is easy to see the relationship between the current increase in the movement of populations and the level of economic development in Caribbean countries and their integration into the global economy.

The Caribbean islands have experienced important economic changes in recent times. Sociologist Emilio Pantojas García identifies two key moments: first, in the 1980s, when the region went from being an exporter of agricultural products and minerals to a base of exports for the clothing and food industries; and second, in the 1990s, as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the creation of the World Trade Organization, it became an area where international service industries related to tourism and entertainment were established. Pantojas García called the changes a movement from the plantation to the resort, as tourism became the most dynamic sector in Caribbean economies.

More than economic interdependence, however, Caribbean countries continue to show signs of underdevelopment and peripheral dependency. Poverty and underdevelopment have not been overcome. There are plans and practices aimed at addressing economic development and chronic structural problems. Reducing poverty is an unfinished task for the government administrations in office.

Socioeconomic and political factors in the Caribbean encourage migration, while the conditions in the receiving countries attract migrants. Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic are net exporters of migrants. Puerto Rico is an importer, although it has historically had migrants in various directions, including the sites in the Antilles mentioned above and, throughout the 20th century, to the United States. In general, the region has become an exporter of migrants, but the flow among Caribbean island nations is not homogenous, nor have huge masses of people been exported to other countries, historically. Additionally, there are various income levels among emigrants, as well as differences in educational preparation and geographical origins. Undoubtedly, however, the Caribbean exports human capital while benefiting economically from remittances and other economic measures and from the skills provided by those who return. As noted by Rafaello Benetti: “remittances are an increasingly large source of ‘external’ resources coming into Latin America and the Caribbean and support consumption, savings and investment in the region. The movement of professionals and businesspeople, when they involve the return of technology, capital, new markets and contacts, will be beneficial for the countries of origin.”

The existence of large economic differences between countries in the region and the presence of employment opportunities in wealthier sites are incentives for migration. Two regional trends are low levels of technological advancement and economic growth strategies based on low labor costs. If these characteristics are accompanied by restrictive migration policies, instead of reducing migration through economic development, they encourage it.

The Caribbean is one of the sub-regions of the world with the highest levels of migration. There are 25 million Latin American and Caribbean people who are living outside their countries of origin. However, “in the Caribbean the average emigration rate of the five countries with the greatest proportion of emigrants is 39.5% of the population, a number far higher than that of the five countries with the highest emigrant populations in Latin America.” In recent years, the increase has been significant: from more than 21 million in 2000 to about 25 million in 2005.

The main extra-regional destination countries for Caribbean immigrants are the United States, Spain, Canada and the United Kingdom, particularly the United States, where half of the Latin Americans and Caribbean people live undocumented. In total, some five million Caribbeans and Central Americans live there. Canada is also an important destination for Caribbean emigrants because the number of Jamaicans, Haitians and Trinidadians who have moved there is considerable, representing 80% of the Caribbean immigrants in that country.

Seen in statistics, migration can be considered to have dangerous consequences for Caribbean societies in terms of exporting human resources, or in other words, workers of productive age. It is important, however, to also recognize the individual and collective economic effects of the remittances sent by emigrants, which are earned by the work they do in their destination countries, where they contribute to the economy. There are few studies about the role that remittances play in the Caribbean’s economic development, but the information that is available confirms that they cause mixed social and economic effects. In other words, they benefit the well being of those who receive them, but they also increase dependency relationships between underdeveloped countries of the south and the developed countries of the north.

Some Caribbean countries depend almost exclusively on the flow of remittances for their economic functioning, as remittances are a good portion of gross domestic product: Grenada, 31.2%, Haiti 21.1% and Jamaica 18.3%. The Dominican Republic is the main recipient of remittances to the Caribbean ($3.2 million in 2007) and is sixth among Latin American countries. The remittances by Dominicans, like those of Haitians, quadruple the amount of foreign currency funds the country receives. Additionally, 40% of the tourism to the island nation consists of Dominicans who live abroad, mainly in the United States.

On the other hand, Cuba is another illustrative case in the Caribbean. Its socialist economy was affected by the disappearance of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Remittances alleviate the economic situation and have the same double function as in other countries: to support the budgets of low-income families and as a source of foreign currency for the state. The 2008 report of the United Nations’ International Agricultural Development Fund estimates that the country receives $983 million annually in remittances, most of which come from Cuban immigrants in the United States. The amount of remittances would probably be greater if the tense situation between Cuba and the United States and the internal political and economic circumstances experienced by Cubans could be relieved.

Remittances have a direct influence on economic improvement in the Caribbean communities studied. The work by the migrants yields double fruit: first, the use of their labor as a means of personal and family improvement through migration — with all the difficulties and hardships an immigrant’s life entails — and second, becoming an active agent (though absent physically) in the economic development of their country of origin through remittances. When this migration takes advantage of conditions created by countries’ integration into the global economy, globalization occurs through migration, a fact that can be seen from a variety of angles and is not without contradictions.

It shows, for example, the need to analyze the increased flow of remittances and their effects on national economies. Rudi Robinson talks of the recent discovery or rediscovery of the active role of transnational migrants in creating a remittances market that little recognizes the role of migrants. They are the ones who produce — directly through their work and indirectly through the demand for services for sending remittances — a market valued in the billions of dollars that is an important piece in the global financial puzzle.

It is no less important to look at those who receive the remittances. Studies show that the recipients are low-income or middle-class families. Dr. Manuel Orozco highlights the impact on the ability to meet basic needs, as well as on other consumption habits and a reduction in public spending on welfare programs. Interestingly, the remittances that result from emigration contribute to the socio-economic stability of the countries they leave in search of better living conditions.

In summary, labor population movement or the exportation of labor, planned or otherwise, affects national and international economic indicators by having a bearing on personal and family lives. There is a participation in globalization by the migrants, or a “globalization from below” that calls for a critical examination that evaluates the magnitude of the problem and values the remittances as individual initiatives by the emigrants that are not a substitute for national plans for economic development or the support of international institutions.

International labor migration in the Caribbean islands has accelerated in the era of globalization. It has been preceded by a history of coming and going. Labor mobility and globalization come together now to create historic change and a predictable arrival: world economic integration. The variety of factors that encourage Caribbean migration point toward a transformation of economic conditions in the region and the opening of attractive opportunities in other countries, as well as new opportunities offered by technological development in the fields of communications and transportation.

Economic growth strategies based on low wages and labor costs encourage emigration, in particular “brain drain.” If the world economy bets on opening and integrating national markets into a single global project — it’s not clear that it is possible some day — those who promote it should press for changes in the pejorative views of immigrants that are part of the immigration policies of some receiving countries. In addition to encouraging a more rational and equitable distribution of the international centers of production and respect for immigrants, immigrants should not be seen as cogs in the machinery of production, but rather as human beings and active role-players in globalization itself.

The varied effects of the dizzying global scene are reflected in the Caribbean labor migration. It highlights the beneficial effects of the emigrants’ links to their communities of origin, not only due to remittances, but also because of their virtual presence or sporadic return through the use of new information technology and communications media, as well as rapid transportation. The human psyche that strains to adapt to a new cultural and work setting, and those who wait for the ones who have left, have different ways of lessening the time and distance that separate them. Finally, Caribbean labor migration is not directly caused by globalization, but it is influenced by this broad phenomenon, which we are just beginning to understand.




Author: Martín Cruz Santos
Published: January 09, 2012.

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