Caribbean Scholars Renew Reparations Call to Compensate for Native Genocide and Enslavement

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Scholars from the Caribbean recently renewed their call for reparations in recompense for hundreds of years of native genocide and enslavement in the region. The calls were made during a recent virtual symposium to honour the life and work of Saint Lucian Nobel Laureate, Sir William Arthur Lewis.

The CARICOM Reparations Commission (CRC) hosted the symposium in collaboration with the Saint Lucia National Reparations Committee and the Nobel Laureates Festival Committee of Saint Lucia, on 15 June. The event included  prominent scholars, economists and public officials who paid tribute to Sir William Arthur Lewis, an economist.

Among the scholars were Professor Mark Figueroa, Honorary Research Fellow, The UWI Museum and Archives, Professor Paget Henry, Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies, Brown University, Professor Aldrie Henry-Lee, Director SALISES, The UWI Mona, and Dr. Michael Witter, retired Senior Lecturer in Economics. Contributions were also made by Dr. Patricia Northover Senior Fellow, SALISES, The UWI Mona and the feature address was given by Sir Hilary Beckles Vice Chancellor of the UWI and Chairman of the CARICOM Reparations Commission.

In his presentation, Dr. Witter explained that reparations were essentially repayment for deprivation of rights, services, cultural assets, and work done under the brutal conditions of slavery which, he said, was a situation of total human exploitation.

According to him, reparations were really necessary to address the social damage, the health problems, the abuse of culture, displacement of indigenous people and forced migration caused by slavery.

Dr. Witter called for more inclusivity in Caribbean economies and pointed out that “one of the challenges that comes out of the reparations movement is: what are the appropriate forms of labour regimes that would tap into the Caribbean peoples productivity and provide better returns for them in a relative sense vis-à-vis capital and property?” This, he felt, was key to promoting inclusiveness.  

He concluded that “there are two tracks we are suggesting – compensation for past exploitation. That should go to labour as capital whether it’s social, cultural, or financial. But we need to also work on the piece of the share of labour – of non-labour income for labourers in the future because this will be the basis for an inclusive society.”

In underscoring the importance of the call for reparations, Prof. Figueroa said Lewis’s abiding passion was with the struggle for racial justice.  He also noted that Lewis’ work centred on the creation of the sociocultural and economic basis for the creation of an economy, which had in it’s main focus, the betterment of the majority of its peoples.

“He was a Caribbean patriot and in his own words spent all his adult life in black power movements, but he was reluctant to engage in partisan advocacy.” Lewis, he said, “had a view on the debt that the British owed the Caribbean and as to what the countries of the developed world ought to do to assist the most vulnerable.”

Figueroa concluded that “we must struggle against racism, demand reparations, and take advantage of financial flows, which it suits us to attract.” In relation to foreign capital, we need to overcome the mistakes of the past and ensure that the region advances as the Asian countries did – having successfully followed several elements of the Lewis model.

Professor Henry-Lee, in her discussion, focused on the role of women in the reparations movement. According to her, their role was very important in any discussion about reparations. She said it would not be possible to attain sustainable development without focusing on women and children.

Zeroing in on Lewis’ work, she noted that he mentioned women frequently, and quoted him as saying: “One of the surest ways of increasing the national income is therefore to create new sources of employment for women outside the home… When we take account of all the sources we have now listed – the farmers, the casuals, the petty traders, the retailers (domestic and commercial), women in the household, and population growth – it is clear enough that women play a key role in any economy.”

She closed with a quote from Lewis, stating that “the rich countries will find it increasingly uncomfortable, if not also dangerous, to live as an island of wealth in a sea of poverty and political turbulence.” I think this captures what we are going through right now in the US and elsewhere,” she said.

Professor Paget Henry, in his presentation, examined Lewis’ work in relation to what he called four major turns, which he said were shifts in perspectives from which Lewis examined different aspects of basic economic problems. The turns he referenced were ‘a labourist’ turn, a ‘Fabian Socialist” turn, a turn to economic growth and a final turn towards developing a model of the global economy and international trade. The latter, he said, had not received as much attention as it deserved. Henry concluded that these were ideas worth revisiting, particularly in the context of what he called this neoliberal era.

 In his closing remarks, Sir Hilary Beckles spoke about COVID-19 and linked it to the reparations movement.  He said the pandemic had revealed the proliferation and the scope of inner-city poverty, and it had raised questions such as, how do you police people who really are in need of empowerment? How do you rule out a public policy of equality and justice with people who are living in a reality where to comply and be compliant with public policy is so horrendously difficult?

He was also emphatic about Lewis’ view on the subject of reparations saying, “We are putting back on the agenda the Lewis proposal that Britain owes a debt to this region. It deliberately pushed that debt aside using their superior political diplomacy and power in the international community. The time has come for reparatory justice.”

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