Shifting powers in the Caribbean emphasize the end of empire


“Britain needs to develop a more realistic, modest view of its role in the world if its foreign policy is to have any impact,” writes Gary Younge in London’s Telegraph newspaper. Writing on the day in which Dominica celebrates the 31st anniversary of its independence, Younge’s article takes the island as an example of the ways in which British influence is waning in the region in the wake of the arrival of other players (China and Venezuela among them) seeking a greater role in the economic and political developments of the Caribbean islands.

 From the building that houses the ministry for trade, industry, consumer and diaspora affairs in Dominica you can see the Windsor Park cricket stadium and Roseau’s grammar school. Take a short trip towards the West Coast Road and you’ll pass the Princess Margaret hospital. All the tropes of postcolonial nationhood are here. The Queen smiles from the notes while towns called Trafalgar and Portsmouth pepper the map.

But these historical markers belie a dramatic shift in allegiance in this Caribbean island, which only gained independence from Britain 31 years ago. While the place names bear the imprimatur of the British establishment, their provenance bears witness to new money. The stadium, grammar school and road were all built by the Chinese, who also refurbished the hospital. Locals with certain kinds of eye ailments are not treated on the island but taken to Cuba for surgery. The Venezuelans pay for this along with the massive oil subsidies. Meanwhile, many of the country’s brightest and best are heading to Beijing, Caracas and Havana for training. In the ministry’s anteroom a choice of two magazines is offered: The Beijing Review and Latin Trade.

“At one time England were the rulers,” explains the minister, Colin McIntyre. “We still have a good relationship with them through the Commonwealth. But increasingly our most important economic partners are China, Venezuela and Cuba.”

This is a regional rather than a national phenomenon. China’s trade with the Caribbean as a whole, including Cuba, more than doubled between 1991 and 2001 and has grown considerably since then. In 2007, China earmarked about $1.5bn for Chinese companies to invest in the region. Add this to Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian pretensions and Cuba’s social capital and you have a strong bloc of support for aid, trade and development in an area that has long felt neglected.

. . .

The nostalgia for the status of Britain’s imperial past is deeply ingrained. It is “a process driven by the need to get back to the place or moment before the country lost its moral and cultural bearing”, explains renowned academic Paul Gilroy in his book After Empire. Gilroy, who branded these sentiments, “postcolonial melancholia” argues that Britain settled upon the second world war and the defeat of Nazism as its basis for historical self-esteem. “Once the history of the empire became a source of discomfort, shame and perplexity, its complexities and ambiguities were readily set aside.”

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Cartoon above by Steve Bell from

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