Fifty Years of Caribbean Independence: Real and Imagined

November 8, 2012

In August, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago commemorated their 50th anniversaries of independence. It was a time of celebration, the date marking the end of colonial British rule and the forging of proud national identities. During festivities on August 6, in Kingston, Jamaica, a sea of green, gold, and black swayed in the streets, and people cheered for the national sprint team that would dominate at the London Olympics later in the week. In Port of Spain, Trinidad, the sounds of steel pan and calypso music ushered in the independence celebrations on August 31, as Trinidadians waved red, white, and black banners.

Yet the celebrations took place amid a deep irony. In Jamaica, a significant portion of economic and social policy is not dictated by the government but by the Washington-based International Monetary Fund. Everywhere, the island’s public services are being scaled back, further reducing the possibility that most Jamaicans will lead healthy, safe, and productive lives. The further gutting of the few decent jobs left in the country in the name of economic austerity has no doubt continued to fuel the regional brain drain (an estimated 65% of university graduates emigrate).1

This erosion of opportunity only helps to fuel the drug trade, which has turned the Caribbean into one of the world’s most violent regions and degraded prospects for popular sovereignty.2 The Caribbean is a convenient transshipment point for South American narcotics, generating profits and power for the trafficking gangs whose resources often rival that of national governments. This became undeniably clear in May 2010, when the hunt for Jamaican drug don Christopher “Dudus” Coke resulted in the deaths of over 70 people. Coke was the infamous leader of the Shower Posse—an international criminal gang based in Kingston—and the son of Jamaican Labor Party (JLP) strongman Lester “Jim Brown” Coke. Dudus was regarded as much more than a gangster; he was a respected community leader, philanthropist, and businessman, with powerful political connections. In 2009 the JLP government denied a U.S. request to extradite him to face charges of conspiracy to traffic firearms and to distribute marijuana and cocaine. Instead the Jamaican government awarded Coke’s construction company, Incomparable Enterprise, with millions of dollars in government contracts, allowing him to distribute jobs and further consolidate his power.3

In June 2010, Coke was finally arrested and extradited after a bloody standoff between the Jamaican Defence Forces and Coke’s armed supporters. His arrest eventually led to the toppling of the JLP government, when it was revealed that then prime minister Bruce Golding—who owed his own political rise to power to the influential drug don—had made several efforts to block Coke’s arrest. It was an unfortunate example of how the neoliberal gutting of the Jamaican government created alternative networks of power and control, significantly undermining the country’s sovereignty.

Thus, if Jamaica is at a crucial “tipping point”—as Edward J. Wehrli, the former consul general of the U.S. Embassy in Jamaica, put it in a WikiLeaked cable—the international community bears great responsibility for generously pushing the country to the edge.4 A report from the Center for Economic Policy and Research was highly critical of the IMF’s role in Jamaica, where it virtually runs the national economy. “This exceedingly large debt burden,” the report notes, “has effectively displaced most other public expenditure; debt servicing has taken up nearly 50 percent of total budgeted expenditures over the last four fiscal years while health and education combined have only been around 20 percent.”5 As a result, Jamaica has one of the slowest-growing economies in the world.

The contradictions of democracy and development are also sharply pronounced in Trinidad and Tobago. Despite being blessed with deposits of oil and natural gas, the country faces issues of inequality, lack of opportunity, and socio-economic exclusion. In October 2011, for example, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) categorized Trinidad and Tobago as a developed country for the first time.6 Yet at the same moment, the country was enduring a state of emergency due to a significant spike in drug-related violence.

“Trinidad and Tobago now rivals Jamaica as the most violent country in the Caribbean, with the number of annual murders rising sharply from 98 to 550 over the last decade,” reported the Trinidad and Tobago Express in September 2011. “Some areas in the Port of Spain police division [are] being listed among the most dangerous in the world.”7

As a result of the escalating violence, the government of Kamla Persad-Bissessar imposed a four-month late-night curfew in August 2011 and increased the search and seizure powers of the police, allowing them to enter homes without a warrant, ban public strikes and demonstrations, and detain people without charge. These measures were implemented while public confidence in the police and security forces was already at an all-time low.

The U.S. State Department’s 2011 Human Rights Report on Trinidad and Tobago stated that during the state of emergency, authorities arrested and detained thousands of people, some without charges, and eventually released hundreds of them due to a lack of evidence. The report noted that, as in Jamaica, “the most serious human rights problems were police killings during apprehension or custody, as well as poor treatment of suspects, detainees, and prisoners.”8

This Caribbean’s problems are largely due to a lack of true autonomy and self-determination. While political independence might have come 50 years ago, it did not include a reorientation of economic relationships and a shattering of colonial mentalities. That does not mean no one tried. August also marked the 50th anniversary of the demise of the West Indian Federation—which would have integrated the Anglophone Caribbean into a cohesive political and economic union, perhaps leading to a radically different reality than the one faced by the region’s small island nations today.

The West Indian Federation lasted from January 1958 to May 1962 and included Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Antigua, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, St. Kitts, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, and Montserrat. Britain had created the original template for the federation in 1956 with the British Caribbean Federation Act, as a way to satisfy independence demands throughout the English-speaking Caribbean. Similar plans had been made by the British for federations in Central Africa and Malaya, all of which collapsed due to competing interests over who would hold power.

The islands hoped that through regional integration, they would successfully overcome the geopolitical constraints of their small territories, as well as the structural legacies of colonialism and underdevelopment. The West Indian Federation was expected to benefit its members by reducing government costs, securing better prices for primary commodity exports, and achieving economies of scale that would encourage intra-regional trade and economic diversification, thereby facilitating more inclusive and efficient economic and social planning. This, member nations hoped, would help to alleviate the grave problems of social inequality and reverse the legacy of economic dependency on England.

Although the member countries were still, at the time, colonies of Great Britain, the West Indian Federation was self-governing, with elected officials making the majority of political decisions without seeking acceptance from England. Each colony elected its own representatives to a federal parliament, where the largest member, Jamaica, held the most seats. Jamaica’s two most prominent politicians, the progressive pro-Federation Norman Manley and the conservative nationalist Alexander Bustamante, respectively led the two competing regional political parties—the West Indies Federal Labour Party (WIFLP) and the Democratic Labour Party (DLP). The WIFLP was largely an amalgamation of the member countries’ labour parties, which were more ideologically aligned with the left. It contained many of the Caribbean’s most prominent, progressive figures, with leadership positions held by Manley, Trinidad’s Eric Williams, and Barbados’s Grantley Adams. Renowned author and intellectual C.L.R. James acted as the party’s general secretary throughout the short life of the federation.

The WIFLP campaigned for social-democratic values, prioritizing full self-government for the respective provinces, diversifying domestic agriculture, and extending federation membership to British Guyana, British Honduras (Belize), and the Bahamas. The DLP, on the other hand, was more conservative. It sought to build a safe investment climate for private industry, developing tourism and strengthening relationships with the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada.

In the first West Indian Federation elections, on March 25, 1958, the WIFLP won a majority in parliament. However the victory was already accompanied by significant concern over the future of the federation. The bulk of the WILFP seats came from the smaller islands, while the DLP carried the majority of Jamaica and Trinidad—the two most importance countries in the federation because of their relatively large size. With their countries totaling roughly three quarters of the federation’s population and grossing on average, twice the domestic product of the smaller islands, many Jamaican and Trinidadian residents, politicians, and businessmen feared that they would be expected to subsidize the smaller islands in the federation.9

This sentiment was captured by the conservative DLP leader Bustamante, who, despite not running for office in the new Federation, had campaigned strongly for his regional party in Jamaica. He argued that the proposed political union was a burden on Jamaica’s financial resources—“a federation of paupers”—and he confirmed that he wanted nothing more than to see its demise. Bustamante promised to withdraw Jamaica from the federation if his Jamaican Labour Party won in the next Jamaican elections. At the time, WIFLP leader Manley was also the chief minister of Jamaica—the highest office in the colony before formal independence—and he subdued his support for the federation in order to stand a better chance of being re-elected in the national elections of 1959. As a result of these complicated and often contradictory political priorities, Barbados’s WIFLP representative was elected the federation’s prime minister. The election forecast the inevitable demise of the federation only four years later, as the region’s two largest and most populous islands had largely rejected the political union.

In September 1961, as Bustamante promised, Jamaicans voted in a popular referendum to withdraw from the union. Trinidad pulled out next, instead inviting the smaller islands to join it in a unitary state of Trinidad, led by Williams. The smaller islands rejected the proposal for fear of losing their unique identities. The federation of more than 3 million people was shattered. Jamaica, Trinidad, and the smaller Caribbean islands—most with populations of less than 100,000—opted for individual independence.

In The Growth of the Modern West Indies, Caribbean scholar Gordon K. Lewis remarked that the failure of the West Indian Federation was largely due to British colonial policy which “kept the islands unnaturally apart from each other for three centuries or more and then expected them to come together in less than fifteen years.”

Lewis continued: “Political imperialism, in brief, explains, more than any other single factor, the present disunity of the region, the aimlessness so distressingly apparent . . . with the resulting trend towards micro-nationalism.”10

With the demise of the federation, each member nation was left to brave the unforgiving global economy alone, in what Williams called a “disgraceful state of fragmentation,” as the islands were much weaker independently than in the proposed federation.11

In many ways, these words still haunt the Caribbean today. As insular independent political units, the West Indian countries have been unable to reorient the global terms of trade, while locked into a global economic system that has retarded their abilities to diversify their economies, develop indigenous institutions, and achieve a regional culture and identity. The demise of the federation hampered the region’s ability to overturn the entrenched structures of colonialism, and the era of neoliberal globalization significantly compounded the problems of dependency and underdevelopment, as witnessed by the cases of Jamaica and Trinidad.

The results of political independence have been less than impressive. Like many other Caribbean nations, the once safe and stable societies of Jamaica and Trinidad have been eroded, largely the result of transnational forces, such as the drug trade and inequalities in each country’s global bargaining power. The latter was a fundamental issue that the West Indian Federation hoped to resolve. While there is no crystal ball, it is hard to argue that if the West Indian Federation had survived, the region would not be in such a dire situation.

It would have been home to more than 6 million people, with reserves of oil, natural gas, precious metals, and bauxite, and extensive tourism, agricultural, and financial-service industries. Over the past 50 years, the Caribbean has produced world-class artists, authors, athletes, inventors, intellectuals, and visionaries far out of proportion to its size—a depth of talent in a region where opportunity remains a very scarce commodity.

This is why University of the West Indies sociology professor Tennyson Joseph has called for a “Second Independence Revolution,” where a West Indian Federation is the only way forward, with new and responsive institutions to reflect the region’s unique reality. The current state of affairs in much of the Caribbean has revealed that if the status quo continues, the region is certainly headed for a bleak and dangerous future. What if, instead, we took advantage of the 50th anniversary of the West Indian Federation to analyze what went wrong, and discuss it? The only other alternative is to continue in this “disgraceful state of fragmentation.” Truth be told, it isn’t much of a choice.



Kevin Edmonds, a St. Lucian, is a Ph.D. student at the University of Toronto, where he studies foreign intervention in the Caribbean and the impact of free trade on agriculture. His weekly NACLA blog on the Caribbean, The Other Side of Paradise, can be read at



1. Andrew Pienkos, Caribbean Labour Migration: Minimizing Losses and Optimizing Benefits (Port of Spain: International Labour Office, 2006), 3.

2. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Crime, Violence and Development: Trends, Costs, and Policy Options in the Caribbean, March 2007.

3. Tony Thompson, “Kingston Residents Fear Police More than Drugdealer Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke,” The Telegraph (London), May 30, 2010.

4. Edward J. Wehrli, ”Jamaica: Scene-Setter for Codel Engel,” Embassy Kingston cable, 09KINGSTON113, February 12, 2009, released by WikiLeaks.

5. Jake Johnson and Juan A. Monetecino, Update on the Jamaican Economy (Center for Economic Policy and Research, May 2012), available at

6. Arthur Snell, “TT Is a Developed Country,” Trinidad and Tobago Newsday (Port of Spain), October 31, 2011.

7. Carmini Maharaj, “POS the New Baghdad,” Trinidad and Tobago Express, September 10, 2011.

8. United States Department of State, “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2011: Trinidad,” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, available at

9. Amatai Etzioni, Political Unification Revisited: On Building Supranational Communities (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2001), 150.

10. Gordon K. Lewis, The Making of the Modern West Indies (Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers, 2004), 5.

11. Kaino Swamber, “Bittersweet Celebration for the Region,” Trinidad and Tobago Express, May 27, 2012.


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