Calculating the Cost of Hurricanes in the Caribbean

Beach holiday vacation in the Caribbean (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

“The turquoise waters still glimmer in the bright sun, and the beaches remain breezy and alluring.” So begins a recent story in the Boston Globe reporting the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Irma on the US Virgin Islands. French authorities, including President Emmanuel Macron on a visit to the devastated island of Guadeloupe–one of France’s Caribbean territories–reassures swift rebuilding, signaling recovery in time for the December start of the winter tourist season. Listeners who have vacationed in the Caribbean, calling-in to such radio broadcasts as WBUR’s On Point, are further quick to comfort the anxious American public by sharing how they “feel good about the people…down there” whose resilient spirit will ensure they will return and rebuild.

These are only a few reports that frame the disaster the Caribbean faces in context of the  hurricanes’ impact on tourism. To be sure, some media outlets have focused on the human toll of the hurricanes, but the overwhelming concern has been on what the hurricanes mean for Caribbean tourism.

It is not coincidental that the Caribbean is synonymous with tourism, and that disrupted vacation plans would drive international conversations about Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. Since the Spanish invasion of the Caribbean in the 1490s, generations of Europeans have idealized the Caribbean as “‘paradise,” “heaven on earth,” and “a Garden of Eden.” They have framed their self-serving venture into the Caribbean as being for the good of the subjugated populations.

Mapping views of the Caribbean in the European imagination, sociology professor Mini Sheller illustrates centuries of the persistent, but dynamic myth of the Caribbean and Black and Brown people who came to synonymize Caribbeaness  – indigenous and later enslaved Africans and indentured Asian laborers – as “avatars of primitivism, luxuriant corruption, sensual stimulation, ease, and availability.”

The age of exploration and expansion during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries ushered in views of the Caribbean as a wild and savage paradise whose natural fecundity allowed it to bear fruit without much labor, and whose fruitfulness was ripe for picking. Imbued with theories of the Enlightenment, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries invaders traveled to the Caribbean to tame, subdue, and cultivate the wilderness. And by the nineteenth century, as reason became a straitjacket that constrained passions, European Romantics sought out the Caribbean as a tropical retreat; its primitiveness promised to liberate primal desires.

American intervention that accompanied the intrusion of its capital and racism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries reimagined, but reproduced what are now sustained images of the Caribbean and Caribbean people as a land of tranquil ease in service of Europeans and Americans.  The 1898 writings of Pulaski Hyatt, the US Consul in Cuba, summarized centuries-old European views of the Caribbean while justifying US occupation of the island:

On account of her wonderful garden, fruit, and agricultural resources – impossible of appreciation unless seen – which to the visitor from the unwilling soil and freezing North seem like a rapturous dream, Cuba has been proudly styled ‘The Pearl of the Antilles.’ Only the most positive indolence and shiftlessness, and the long-applied withering hand of an oppressive government, have prevented Cuba from being, because of these resources alone, one of the most, if not the most, prolific and profitable spots in the world.

In the twenty-first century, visitors continue to flock to the Caribbean for a taste of heaven on earth. As recent as 2002, an advertisement in the Financial Times for vacationing in Tobago and Dominica invited visitors to “see the islands as Columbus first saw them” and described Dominica as “still the primitive garden that Columbus first sighted in 1493. An area of tropical rain forests, flowers of incredible beauty and animals that exist nowhere else in the world.”1 While contemporary political correctness has somewhat dampened the vocalizing of Columbian framing, so-called cultural immersion visits still reinforce ideas of the Caribbean and Caribbean people as commodities for consumption. Cultural immersion, or as bell hooks calls it, “eat, pray, love imperialism” is akin to colonialism with its emphasis on consuming the other.

The fact that the Caribbean relies on tourism for much of its GDP is therefore not accidental. Europeans and Americans romanticizing the Caribbean for more than five hundred years ensures that despite the political independence of many Caribbean nations, the region’s relationship with the rest of the world remains cast in exotic terms. Viewing the Caribbean and the current crisis in context of the region’s history of genocide, slavery, and colonialism, including ongoing territorial and imperial claims held by Europe and America further illustrates how colonizers spent the last several centuries undermining the Caribbean.

Yamil Lage/AFP/Getty Images

Understanding how Europe and America underdeveloped the Caribbean, to rephrase the work of Caribbean thinker and activist Walter Rodney, is seminal to understanding the catastrophic impact of the hurricanes, the impossibility of re/building, and the region’s dependence on tourism. Of Europe’s role in the underdevelopment of Africa Rodney wrote, “In the first place, the wealth created by African labor and from African resources was grabbed by the capitalist countries of Europe; and in the second place, restrictions were placed upon the African capacity to make the maximum use of its economic potential.” The underdevelopment of the Caribbean mirrors the African experience.

Beginning with genocide against the Caribbean’s indigenous populations, the fifteenth century European presence in the Caribbean conscripted the resources of the region to serve Europe. Spanish imposition of the encomienda system, which enslaved the native population and demanded the payment of tributes to Spanish overlords, diverted local production and labor toward Spanish colonial enterprise. In the example of the British mercantile system, against which the colonists-cum-Americans rebelled, colonial laws and customs ensured that wealth cultivated in its American territories, including the Caribbean, circulated back to Britain. The navigational acts of the 1660s, for instance, a bitter point among American revolutionaries, required the shipping of colonial goods like sugar and tobacco in British vessels, captained by English men and passed through English ports. These regulations ensured that revenues raised from trade went directly into the crown’s coffers. And more in line with Rodney’s argument, the enslavement of millions of Africans in the Americas diverted the labor power of Africans away from their homeland, while ensuring that the wealth their labor generated in the land of their exile, the Americas, enriched Europe and America.

Unfair labor practices, Asian indentured labor schemes, and political disfranchisement after emancipation, as well as ongoing racial and economic inequality, unequal trade agreements and IMF and World Bank lending policies that privilege Europe and America, the refusal of colonizers to pay reparations, and limited political sovereignty continue to hamstring the Caribbean.2

Like colonialism and slavery, which were justified as Europeans bringing civilization and Christianity to so-called savages of Africa and the New World, tourism is also couched as serving the good of the region. Tourism is merely the recycling of old colonial relations that bind the region to foreign capital and requires the region to keep its borders open to foreigners who believe the Caribbean to be their playground. Much like colonial predecessors, visitors arrive in the Caribbean also expecting sexual escapades as part of their packaged holiday resulting in dense tourist traffic areas becoming epicenters of sexually transmitted infections and HIV/AIDS.

Further still, climate change resulting from Western industrialization and inextricably bound to colonialism and slavery worsens natural disasters and unevenly impacts poorer nations. The hurricanes have merely laid bare a protracted devastation long set in motion by European arrival in the region, which will likely worsen with the advent of ecotourism and the recent injection of Chinese capital. Efforts in places like Jamaica to protect endangered ecosystems such as the Cockpit County and Goat Islands are the beginnings of a new, but familiar struggle against foreign domination and consumption.

Paradise was not lost with the arrival of Hurricane Harvey, Irma, or Maria. If ever the Caribbean was paradise, it was lost with that infestation of “capitalist parasites,” to use Walter Rodney’s framing, which began with the European invasion during the fifteenth century.

  1.  Noble Caledonian Ltd., West Indies: Hidden Treasures’ 14-night-cruise on the Levant, February 8-23, 2002, advertised in the Financial Times, quoted in Mimi Sheller, “Natural Hedonism: The Invention of Caribbean Islands as Tropical Playgrounds” in Sandra Courtman ed. Beyond the Blood, the Beach, and the Banana: New Perspectives in Caribbean Studies, 170-185 ( Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle, 2004),170.
  2.  The hurricanes have revived public discussion of Caribbean debt relief from the IMF.
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Sasha Turner

Sasha Turner is Associate Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University. She is the author of Contested Bodies: Pregnancy, Childrearing, and Slavery in Jamaica (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017). Follow her on Twitter @drsashaturner.

Comments on “Calculating the Cost of Hurricanes in the Caribbean

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    Thanks to Professor Turner for this fine overview putting the recent hurricanes in the Caribbean in larger context, historical and contemporary. We had a combined consciousness-raising/fundraising event around the hurricanes at my institution two nights ago, which would have been the better if her piece had appeared two days ago. Or if our event was being held tonight. Professor Turner rightly highlights the work of that outstanding Caribbean organic intellectual, Walter Rodney. Alas, a conference on the life and work of Rodney, scheduled to held in Havana, Cuba this coming December, has become one of the casualties of these hurricanes.

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    Thank you for your comments. I am thrilled to hear about the events at your institution. From myths to historical amnesia there is much work to be done. We must continue our toil even as the media spotlight, dim and misguided as it has been, fades.

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