To an American unfamiliar with West Indian history, it seems strange that they aren’t one country. The cultural differences are relatively small, the economic advantages obvious, and the geographic distances (save isolated little Belize, and to a rather lesser extent Jamaica) easily manageable.
To an American unfamiliar with West Indian history, it seems equally strange that the islands aren’t part of the United Kingdom. After all, their inhabitants wouldn’t have been there at all without Britain, their political traditions and institutions stem from the U.K., and both France and the Netherlands integrated their Caribbean colonies. Hell, even the United States integrated its Caribbean colonies, giving Puerto Ricans citizenship in 1917 and Virgin Islanders the same thing in 1927.
(The singular shameful non-British exception is Suriname, which the Social Democrats gleefully shoved out of the Netherlands on the basis of a one vote margin in the Surinamese parliament, against the wishes of 74 percent of the population. A few violent strikes in Paramaribo provided a pretext, but the real reason was too many brown people moving to Holland. By that “logic,” Dwight Eisenhower would have been perfectly justified in throwing Alabama out of the Union. Ironically enough, foisting independence on the place managed to precipitate the very flood of migrants that the Dutch had hoped to avoid. But I digress.)
So what’s going on? And what’s it got to do with the picture of the flags and the pretty lady?
As with so many things, it turns out that it’s hard to say when the West Indies became independent. The superficial story goes like this: Great Britain created the West Indies Federation in 1958. In 1962 the Jamaicans voted to secede, for reasons which had little to do with the Federation and everything to do with internal island politics. After Jamaica pulled out, Chief Minister Eric Williams of Trinidad decided that he didn’t want a federation where Trinidad would pay more than two-thirds of the bills and possess more than two-thirds of the population but enjoy less than 40 percent of the seats. Since Eric Williams was, in fact, Eric Williams, he summed it up with far more pithy arithmetic: “Ten minus one equals zero.” As a result Trinidad and Jamaica received independence separately, with Barbados and the smaller islands following along later.
Except that the short version leaves out a key point: Barbados, Jamaica, and Trinidad all gained de facto independence in 1944-49. Britain kept some residual authority — although it’s not clear what — but in every way other than a seat at the U.N. all three islands (OK, Tobago makes four) were free countries by 1949.
In other words, Britain decolonized and then tried to federate islands that barely traded with each other, shared no political institutions, and were ethnically distinct. Political cultures also varied: Trinidad had been deeply influenced by an invasion of tens of thousands of Americans, whereas Barbados was very self-conciously British and Jamaica possessed a long history of popular rebellion.
Eric Williams wasn’t against Caribbean union; he was just against Caribbean federation. The reason was that a federation sans Jamaica would unacceptably compromise the rights of voters on Trinidad. A Caribbean unitary state, on the other hand, he thought would be a fine idea. To that end, Williams made an abortive attempt to annex Grenada in the late 1960s. The attempt failed because it took a ¾ths parliamentary supermajority to change the T&T constitution, and few Indo-Trinidadian MPs were prepared to vote more blacks into the polity.
Britain succeeded in shoving most of the smaller islands into independence under the rubric of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States, which took over such minor functions as foreign relations, trade policy, the currency, the judiciary, and most business regulation. (The OECS flag looks like a record cover from 1973.) About all the national governments retained was a seat at the U.N.—except for one brief inglorious flowering of left-wing Grenadian nationalism that ended in a somewhat urgent fury.
The scattered islands that remained "British Overseas Territories" in name gained independence in fact. Britain finally got around to granting its overseas subjects the right to U.K. citizenship in 2002, but in an ironic turnaround, that didn't work in reverse. Frex, the Caymans continue to restrict British immigration. Even more dramatically, Bermuda not only continues to restrict British immigration; it continues to maintain its own conscript army. It makes you wonder why any of the islands even bothered to declare independence, other than continual British nagging. (Did the British know that they would eventually have to extend the "right of abode" to the citizens of their dependencies, or was it some form of misplaced idealism?)
A broader Caribbean Community (Caricom) linked the islands in what they claimed to be a common market, except that it was so shot through with holes and exceptions to be meaningless.
And so, both the British Empire and Caribbean unity faded away. Except that they didn’t.
The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council remained the supreme court of appeals for all the West Indian nations. That is, a panel of British judges enjoyed the power to overturn local decisions, issue judicial orders to elected governments, and interpret constitutions.
I’ve never seen a study that tried to determine if the West Indies gained from this additional judicial certainty—I’m not sure how you could design such a study. (Ideas?) But it seems like it should matter, somehow.
For the longest time no one questioned the costs of keeping a supreme court in Britain. The Privy Council could adjudicate election disputes, pension problems, and key constitutional questions with nary a nationalist natter. Even when Trinidad got rid of the Queen in 1976, in the wake of the Black Power Revolution, it left the power of the Privy Council untouched.
That is, until 1999. In that year the Law Lords had the temerity to delay the execution of eight Trinidadian criminals convicted of massacring a family in their own home. That got people angry. Did Singapore put up with some bewigged British do-gooding liberals telling them who they could and could not flog? No! So why should Trinidad? Prime Minister Basdeo Panday (UNC) began campaigning to replace the Privy Council with a Caribbean Court of Justice.
In point of fact, the Privy Council did not abolish capital punishment. Rather, it ruled that Caribbean states must abide by their own constitutions, legal precedents, and international agreements—no more signing on to human-rights bodies because they sound nice, not in the Commonwealth Realms, not! The murderers of 1999 were, in fact, eventually executed. (Trinidadians will tell you — usually in a self-disparaging tone — that they were executed in defiance of the Privy Council’s orders, but that turns out not to be true.) But that didn’t stop PM Panday.
Which brings us to the flag-bedecked Caribbean Court of Justice building in the photograph. It’s quite ugly, actually, a carbuncle in the northeastern reaches of downtown Port-of-Spain. It’s ugliness is relieved only by its festive pink paintjob and the banners of the Caribbean states, plus Caricom’s colorful new flag.
The comatose chimera of Caribbean unity lurched upwards from its long slumber with the signing of the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas in 2001. The Revised Treaty transformed Caricom from a sentiment into a common market: the so-called Caribbean Single Market and Economy.
“So-called” because the CSME isn’t quite “Caribbean,” even if you accept that Caribbean = Caricom: the Bahamas stayed out and Haiti was kept out. It’s also not quite a single market: unskilled labor cannot move freely. Nor is it really a single economy: the 12 members retain 7 different currencies, three of which float against the U.S. dollar and one of which (Trinidad’s) is pegged only informally.
The above aside, the degree of economic integration mandated by the CSME is nonetheless impressive: free mobility of skilled labor, capital, goods, and services. A common market, unlike a customs union, can’t work without some sort of judicial process. It requires common rules on product standards, bank transfers, educational and professional qualifications, and a range of other issues. Common rules, however, are only really common rules when they’re judged in a common way.
Thus, Panday’s dream of a Caribbean Court of Justice manifested in 2005. The CCJ’s first function, however, was not to replace the Privy Council. Rather, it was to adjudicate and enforce the CSME.
That is not to say that the goal of replacing those crazy liberal judges in London with a panel of good God(s)-fearing Caribbeans was forgotten. It wasn’t. In fact, the reason that Amma and I ran into a group of young American lawyers eating mariscos and fliring with each other at a roadside restaurant out past Arima, almost all the way to Toco, is that they were in Trinidad working to broaden the CCJ’s remit and turn it into the Caribbean’s supreme court of appeals.
The catch is that uniting the West Indies is a bit like herding cats. The CSME and common passport may be up-and-running, but the CCJ shows no sign of replacing the Privy Council. Only Barbados and Guyana have passed legislation making it their supreme court.
There is a pattern here. Barbados has possibly the strongest rule-of-law in the region: it doesn’t need a right of appeal to a British court. Guyana, conversely, is so screwed up on so many levels that the Privy Council probably provides about as much extra confidence as a rubber duckie on the Titanic. It’s the intermediate countries, the ones that maybe gain from having ties to Britain but maybe don’t, that seem to be holding back on severing the last concrete imperial link.
Jamaica provides an example. Its former prime minister, Edward Seaga, went so far as to call the Privy Council “the best court in the world.” Seaga’s party, the Jamaican Labour Party, remains opposed to ending its jurisdiction. The JLP, I should add, narrowly won the 2007 election.
Ironically, the Privy Council struck down a Jamaican bill in 2005 that would have transfered the power of the Privy Council to the CCJ—the Council ruled that the change required a constitutional amendment. That puts a big hurdle on any government wanting to junk the Council in favor of the CCJ: it’ll need either a two-thirds supermajority in Parliament or it will need to call a popular referendum.
Even more ironically, Basdeo Panday — the fellow who got the ball rolling — now screamingly opposes the elimination of the right of appeal to London. Why? He faces corruption charges in T&T over an undeclared British bank account, and he thinks he’ll get a fairer hearing in
Brooklyn London. All of a sudden the imperial link doesn’t seem so bad.
I’m undecided. On the one hand, why mess with success? On the other hand, there’s something strange about needing a visa to visit your nation’s supreme judicial authority.
I’m also undecided about Caricom. Caribbean unity is a good idea — but I’m not sure that there are that many benefits to be had from economic unity without political unity in the context of such small countries. They’re all far more tied to the United States than they are to each other.
I don’t really expect much commentary here; there aren’t a lot of West Indians in our readership, and I’m not sure any of this is interesting. Still if anyone has any thoughts on the Commonwealth formerly known as British, or the odd phenomenon euphemistically called “regional integration,” I’d like to read them . . . and I’d still like somebody to explain to me how Trinidadian courts can read American cases as precedent.
P.S. I really did accidently write "Brooklyn" instead of "London" the first time I posted this and none of my West Indian draft-readers noticed. (Neither did I.) I’m sure there’s some sort of deeper significance to that.