Paradise Lost: Social Unrest in Guadeloupe & Martinique

Social Unrest in Guadeloupe, AFP images
Social Unrest in Guadeloupe, AFP images

My partner missed a call on Sunday from a dear friend of hers who lives in Guadeloupe, one of the Francophone islands southeast of Puerto Rico. Her friend left a voicemail describing the heightening political-economic crisis on the island, which we later learned was also happening in Martinique, another Francophone island south of Dominica. Folks on both islands have staged a general strike for the past four weeks protesting the rising cost of living, which outstrips the meager wages they are paid, and to denounce the ongoing racial stratification of wealth and resources between black Guadeloupians/Martiniquans, and the 1% of the population that controls the wealth, businesses and resources on the islands.

While there is nonstop media coverage of “the worst economic crisis” since the Great Depression from the perspective of people in the global north, it is rare that we hear about the impact of this economic meltdown on those situated on the margins of global capitalism. For instance, many news sources covered the social unrest in France proper, where somewhere between 1 million and 2.5 million people protested the deteriorating state of French infrastructure on January 29. Yet, little was said about the concurrent protests going on in the French territories, which are, by any sane account, infinitely worse off than people living in the industrialized center.

Martiniquans listen to Union leaders negotiate lower grocery prices. Fort-de-France, Martinique, Feb 10 2009
Martiniquans listen to Union leaders negotiate lower grocery prices. Fort-de-France, Martinique, Feb 10 2009

Life on the island is one of dependence: 80% of Guadeloupe’s food is imported, making the island deeply vulnerable to price fluctuations in the global market. When the French economy flutters, stutters, and then takes a nose dive, the French islands go along with it. Such is the nature of neocolonial entanglement.

But, one might ask, if neocolonial populations are so marginal to the global economy, why does France continue to hold on to the territories at all? What’s in it for them? Why not let the remaining territories go the way of Haiti, (but without the bloody revolution) if they are marginal and insignificant?

Good question.

The first thing I’d say is that unlike our colloquial use of the word, “marginal,” in this context it doesn’t quite equal insignificance – more on this below. Secondly, there’s good reason for France to be in the (neo)colonial racket. Traditionally, colonies had two important functions: first, early colonies were overflowing with slave laborers, whose descendants became low wage laborers working the land to extract raw materials and crops that were exported to European countries. Secondly, the colonies provided much needed markets for the circulation of the processed and manufactured goods produced in the metropole from the raw materials harvested in the colony.

Sugar cane cultivators in Guadeloupe
Sugar cane cultivators in Guadeloupe

So, the circular economic logic goes like this: the cost of production is kept low because labor and land are exploited. The profit margin is ridiculously high because the manufactured goods are sold in a consumer market that is virtually closed to other products, particularly products grown locally. Despite the “end of colonialism” such political-economic relations persist between France and its “territories” because it is economically advantageous for France. (Nevermind all that “civilizing mission” crap. The crass money incentive is clear to everyone by now.)  Given that colonial administration of the land meant the land was parceled out to French companies, little land was available for the cultivation of crops grown by black Guadeloupians, and meant to circulate in local markets. This continues to be the case. As such, the development of a market for local, fresh, hopefully non-GMO, whole foods that would nourish our friend and her family far better than any of the processed foods could, is highly unlikely without a radical redistribution of land and wealth on the island as well as the safeguarding of farmer’s rights, wages and the integrity of their seeds in the face of monster companies like Monsanto. (There’s a hyperlink there in case you want to know who/what Monsanto is.)

(By the way, the issue of sustainable farming also has implications for the preservation of local biodiversity, which impacts climate change. Furthermore, it has implications for the reduction of food-related chronic illnesses like heart disease, diabetes, and hypertension, which are often outcomes of a diet high in processed foods and low in whole foods. Thus, in this ostensibly isolated issue of worker’s rights, we see environmental and health issues unfold as well. This is yet another lesson in the basic interconnectedness of our shared problems.)

So, returning to my use of the word “marginal,” I hope it is clear that Afro-diasporic peoples in the West, be they in Anglophone nations like my own, or Francophone territories like our friend, are not marginal to global-capitalism as such. Quite the contrary is true. Without the exploitation of low, or no-wage, black laborers, and the expropriation of Caribbean lands, its agriculture, and other natural resources, capitalism as we know it in the West would not exist. So in this sense, our friend and the people on her island are absolutely central to global capitalism. Yet, they are marginal insofar as they do not reap the benefits of the system. They work daily, typically under union loathing French business-owners, and are paid measly wages in return; wages that are insufficiently calibrated toward meeting the exorbitant costs of living in the contemporary world.

The idea of economic sovereignty, that is, cultivating local economies in Martinique and Guadeloupe that actually sustain the people living on the islands, and in the region more broadly, would send a big “Fuck You” message to the French government. France would be cut out of the equation, thereby losing a market for their goods, which would adversely impact its national economy. Seems like a good reason for the French to hold on to their territories, right? (I’m assuming it is the market incentive and the nasty habit of racist paternalism that renders relinquishing the territories unthinkable.)

Haitians wade through a flooded town in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike, September 2008
Haitians wade through a flooded town in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike, September 2008

Going the route of Haiti, that is, seeking independence from France, would require an enormous regional alliance between other Caribbean islands, Latin American countries, and friendly countries in the global north (if such a thing exists). We should remember that Haiti was the first black republic in the West, and continues to be one of a kind. Historical hindsight allows us to see that such an anomaly was not taken lightly, as the United States and Britain did everything they could, from the early nineteenth century onward, to cripple the new republic and effectively cut it off from the global economy. (Cuba’s situation is another example.) The longstanding effects of internaitonal isolation, foreign infiltration, weapons trafficking, and internal political instability has rendered Haiti the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere, and led to unspeakable human suffering. We need only look to the food crisis in 2008 and the impact of Hurricane Ike to get a glimpse of Haiti’s struggle.

I typically try to tie up my posts with some insight into the possibility of cultivating loving-kindness and compassion in the face of such suffering. But today, I’m so in the pain that it’s difficult to say something hopeful. I pray that our friends in Guadeloupe fight for their right to exist and flourish, just as much as I pray, think, and argue for a way out of the international juggernaut of suffering wrought by our current way of life. By now it is painfully clear that the social order brought into being by the expansion of European capitalism into all areas of the world is woefully unsustainable. As I have said elsewhere, bailing out this system is not the answer. It may be a temporary pain reliever akin to popping an Advil for a headache born of dehydration, but the painkiller won’t hydrate the areas of the body that need water the most.

*UPDATE

As of February 19, the French government has conceded to demands that they increase wages 200 euros a month. See the BBC article, “France Meets Guadeloupe Demands” for a few more details.

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