Christmas 2013 was the best and worst of times for Ralph Gonsalves.
Gonsalves, Prime Minister of the Caribbean island nation of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, met with Pope Francis at the Vatican on Dec. 19. For Gonsalves, an outspoken populist who was about to take over as chairman of the Caribbean Community, or Caricom, it was a moment of valuable political cachet: Francis has proven a champion of poor global underdogs like the small republics of the Caribbean.
But days later on Christmas Eve, eastern Caribbean islands like St. Vincent and St. Lucia were hammered by more than a foot of freak torrential rains. The flooding and landslides killed at least 13 people and left widespread destruction that Gonsalves estimates in excess of $100 million. Gonsalves himself lost a cousin who was buried alive in a mudslide.
“It’s a terrible disaster, unprecedented in my lifetime,” Gonsalves told me by phone last week after touring ruined homes and roads.
The images of Francis and floods symbolize the hope and angst facing the Caribbean today. In fact, it’s difficult to tell whether the western hemisphere’s crossroads region is at a turning point or a tipping point.
Caribbean economic growth is forecast to rebound above 2 percent this year. But that won’t pull the basin out of its fiscal crises: about half a dozen Caribbean countries are among the world’s dozen most indebted. An added millstone are murder and other violent crime rates, which while improving are still among the world’s highest.
Meanwhile, scientists say climate change and sea-level rise are eroding the Caribbean’s idyllic beach resources – and could leave some smaller isles uninhabitable in 50 to 100 years.
Caricom, representing 15 Caribbean nations, is the organization that has to tackle these problems. Gonsalves, 67, who assumed its chairmanship this month, is determined to raise the group’s profile and clout.
Topping his list: convincing the developed world to prime the Caribbean’s development pump more generously – not just through restructured debt but via funds for efforts like climate-change mitigation and European reparations for the colonial-era slave trade.
“We have to make sure that the international community is more sensitive to our issues,” Gonsalves said.
The Christmas Eve disaster, he argues, makes the climate-change and sea-level rise issues more urgent.
“Look, in April 2011 we had horrific landslides and floods in the middle of the dry season,” he said. “Now, at the start of the dry season, you have another of these [events], but this one larger.
“We see the unseasonable weather in Britain, we see it in the Philippines – there’s a pattern,” he added. Countries like St. Vincent, he noted, “don’t contribute anything to global warming,” but they are “on the front line” of its effects. “So we need mitigation and adaptation resources,” which can also be parlayed into job creation.
“This is an existential matter for us,” Gonsalves said. “Take a disaster like [Christmas Eve] for St. Vincent – the equivalent in the United States would be Anderson Cooper on CNN every night focusing on the issue.”
Winning reparations for slavery and native genocide will be a harder haul, despite the horrors of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. “But it’s a fight worth waging,” Gonsalves insisted. Emboldened by a $33 million payment by Britain last year to victims of its forces in colonial Kenya, he’s hired a London law firm to represent Caricom in its own effort.
“We have international law on our side,” he argued. “So let us begin the dialogue between the Caribbean and Europe, and if we can’t come to a negotiated settlement, let the international courts address this matter.”
Also high on Gonsalves’ agenda is last September’s controversial high-court ruling in the Dominican Republic. That decision strips anyone born in the D.R. after 1929 of their citizenship if their parents were undocumented immigrants or non-Dominicans – and it affects more than a quarter million Dominicans of Haitian ancestry.
Dominican officials insist they’re not out to deport Haitians from the D.R. But around the world – especially inside Caricom, which has suspended the D.R.’s request for membership – they’re drawing charges of racism if not ethnic cleansing.
“The [ruling] is unacceptable,” said Gonsalves – who told me the Pope agreed with him when they discussed it last month. “They have to have that decision corrected, and the sooner the better, otherwise the Dominican Republic will become a pariah internationally.”
Still, the Caribbean has to prioritize its economic woes – especially if neighboring Venezuela’s own economic crises force it to stop delivering cut-rate oil to the region via the Petrocaribe program. Gonsalves acknowledges the Caribbean has to break its overreliance on low-wage tourism.
“That model,” he told me, “cannot survive.”
Not if the Caribbean wants to realize the kind of promise Gonsalves felt on Dec. 19 – instead of the kind of pain his country got on Dec. 24.
Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of this coverage here.