On Our 56th Independence Day
Socially-conscious Jamaicans of all ages tend to have mixed feelings on Independence Day, and with good reason. Jamaica's independence was not something that was fought for like many national liberation struggles in the Third World; it was granted to us by the British. Our "independence" was on their terms, and this detail has some relevance to how we experience it today. If we are to celebrate the fact that we are no longer a colony, we should look at what that means.
In the past, our government was subordinate the British government. Independence means that our government does not have to answer to the British government, and we can make our own decisions now. Of course, this is really only on paper.
While we are no longer officially a colony, we do not really make our own decisions. We are at the mercy of the global economy, and this has a serious impact on how our political institutions function. Our lack of capital means that we find ourselves bowing down to foreign investors; our subservient attitude towards foreign investors influences our legislation and policy. For example, we are discouraged from raising minimum wage or other labour protections too highly, because we will be considered a "bad business environment" if we do.
We can't lie to ourselves; we are not a wealthy country. Colonialism left us underdeveloped; the British used the land and our labour to generate profits for themselves until they could no longer do so, and then they left. We were like a gold mine; they came, they extracted as much wealth from us as possible, then they left.
Since the 1970s, about 10 years after we became independent, our governments have been spending a lot of money on social services like education and healthcare. Sometimes, our governments' expenses have exceeded their ability to generate revenue, and this has caused it to have to turn to loans to fund the budget. One such time was the financial crisis in the US in 2008; our economy is vulnerable to the economy of the US, so we were hit hard. We end up in a situation called a debt crisis.
We became reliant on the help of the IMF to fix our debt crisis, and that gave them influence over our domestic policies. If we want to access loans, the IMF has to approve of the way we do things. If the IMF disapproves of how we do things, we will be seen as untrustworthy and unable to repay our debt, we will have to pay higher interest rates when we want more loans, and it would become generally harder for us to access capital. To please the IMF, we have had to devalue our currency, keep wages low, tax the sweat off our people's backs, and limit public spending. This doesn't really feel like independence.
Nation and Culture
One topic has been coming up repeatedly over the years; Queen Elizabeth II, who isn't Jamaican, is our ceremonial head of state. Despite being independent from Britain, we still have the same monarch. Our government is independent so we do not take orders from the British government; the Queen of England is our monarch, as a separate role from being the monarch of the United Kingdom. It is as if someone is the Chairman of 2 different boards for 2 different companies; this does not mean that one company owns the other.
If we want to abolish the monarchy, we have to pass a referendum. It's easier for the British to abolish the monarchy than it is for us; the British can abolish the monarchy through a parliamentary vote.
Even after abolishing the monarchy, we have a far way to go before we can decolonise our society. Most Latin American countries had become republics from as early as the 1800s; they kicked the European monarchies out of their countries, but colonialism still dominated their societies because it was white descendants of European settlers who had most of the land, wealth, and positions of political leadership. The main official languages in most Latin American countries are European languages.
It is the same story in the USA; the USA became independent from Britain, but the independence was for white Americans, and they independently continued to murder indigenous people, steal indigenous people's land, and enslave Black people. Decolonising America must involve return of land to indigenous people, and respect for their self-determination (including their ability to preserve their languages and traditions). In South Africa and Namibia, descendants of European settlers still own most of the valuable land; we can't say that they are decolonised.
This is a tough and tricky topic to discuss for the Caribbean, because our societies are a product of colonialism in the first place. Our Jamaican society, for example, did not exist before the British colonised the island we live on. The indigenous people who originally lived on this island were subject to genocide; while a few individuals of indigenous descent remain, we have no significant indigenous communities.
We can't reverse colonialism completely; it is a sad part of this island's history that we can't change, and therefore have to accept. Most of our ancestors did not choose to come here; most of them were brought here by force as enslaved people, others later came here as immigrants to do manual labour. We did not steal the indigenous people's land, so we don't really have anything to give back. Unlike in the larger countries in the Western hemisphere, most of our people aren't settlers. So what, then, does decolonisation mean for us? Does it mean we jump on boats and go back to the places our ancestors came from? No.
It's not a realistic expectation for us to decolonise the land. As established, most of our ancestors did not choose to come here; the theft of land and the murder of indigenous people was done by the colonisers, not us. We can, however, work towards decolonising our society.
The history of our peoples did not start with colonisation; we have heritage that existed before our ancestors were enslaved. The colonisers attempted to erase our history and our very human identity, but we still retained some bits of our cultures through language, dance, and music.
Separate from the task of abolishing the monarchy, we need to take the idea of culture and national identity seriously. Our own Jamaican language is still not yet recognised as an official language, and many young creatives who want to go into music and dance are discouraged from doing so because those aren't traditional jobs. The mark of great societies has always been the production of culture. It is sad that the creative work of our artists is more appreciated abroad than at home.
In the first 10 years of our independence, our government didn't even like the idea of Jamaica being a Black nation; it actively repressed Black Nationalists and the Black Power movements, including banning music and books that were seen as promoting Blackness. Thankfully, those days are officially over; we are now known for the music produced by Black musicians. We still need to have conversations about what our national identity is or should be.
In our newly-independent state, was power intended to be for all Jamaicans, or just a particular class? Have we overcome racial divisions? Have we solved racial problems? There is much to celebrate; we are surely in a better position than we were 6 decades ago when we lacked some basic rights, but we have much to fight for. We have internal issues to fix, the British owe us reparations, and we need to be careful in how we navigate the global economy.
Realising that we have much to fight for shouldn't make us apathetic towards independence; rather, it should encourage us to continue our struggle for justice as a nation.