Nope. On this score, America is not all that different from the Dominican Republic (or the Bahamas)

“‘I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go,’” is what the young white man who sat for an hour among those gathered for bible study said to his victims as he opened gunfire on them and reloaded his weapon five different times. These are the names and ages of the men and women who were killed: Cynthia Hurd, 54; Susie Jackson, 87; Ethel Lance, 70; Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, 49; Hon. Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41; Tywanza Sanders, 26; Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., 74; Rev. Sharonda Singleton, 45; and Myra Thompson, 59. Never mind that six of the nine people are women, the fear of collective black violence against exclusionary white supremacist imaginings of “our country” that he invokes here has haunted white America, and terrorized people of African descent in particular, since Jesus was in short pants. Against the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement, James Baldwin defined this fear in a 1964 interview. “There is no prospect of setting Negroes free, unless one is prepared to set the white people of American free,” he says. When asked from what do white Americans need to be set free, he answered, “free from their terrors, free from their ignorance, free from their prejudices, and free ultimately from the right to do wrong, knowing that it is wrong.” In qualifying this sense of the need for white people to be free, and characterizing it as a necessary part of the revolution hoped for by the Civil Rights movement — essentially saying this Civil Rights business is not just for black folk — Baldwin’s words show us that today’s white supremacist terrorist has not evolved far beyond that of yesteryear:

White southerners, I think are the most victimized, the saddest people of the Western world. They know it’s wrong – you can’t turn a dog on a child and not know that you are doing something wrong. You have to know it and nobody can deny it. And this is an extreme example of what I mean when I say that this revolution is not designed so much to change the Negro community as to change the American community, the American relationship to itself: Americans walking around with various uneasiness and terror, wondering what the negro is going to do next, especially since they invented him. You know what I mean?

I sure as hell do, James, but now you’ve gone and made me get ahead of myself. Before I can even begin to think about the chilling, wrongheaded, and hateful words the shooter uttered, and what they mean for America’s relationship to itself, I want to take us away from South Carolina, where the confederate flag still flies over the state house, to the Dominican Republic. There, in 1937, President Raphael Molina Trujillo ordered the massacre of ethnic Haitians living in the frontier region, close to the border between Hispañola’s forever-contentious sister nations. The orders he gave national troops and civilian reserves was to use machetes, because bullet riddled bodies would betray governmental involvement in an attempted genocide that was intended to look – in the interest of legality – like a civil uprising. Whether someone lived or died depended on how they pronounced the r in perejil, the Dominican word for parsley (thus the name Parsley Massacre). If you rolled the r you were Dominican and thus spared. If you pronounced it as a w sound, you were Haitian and thus chopped to death. Many weren’t even given the parsley test though, but rather summarily cut down because of the darkness of their skin.

I think it’s important to go on this particular trans-historical and transnational journey, with stops in 1937 at Trujillo’s El Corte in the DR, today’s impending mass deportation of ethnic Haitians from the Dominican Republic and the Bahamas, and the terrorist attack on the Emanuel AME church in Charleston, because the relationship between terror and citizenship in each instance is one we should think long and deeply about. Though separate and unique instances of violence against black communities, which should absolutely be considered and commented upon individually within their unique context and circumstances, they nonetheless collectively offer a singular and timely opportunity to think about why today – with all the good work folks like Rachel Dolezal do – we in our supposed progressive democratic societies continue to see daily racially-motivated violence committed against people of color by perpetrators whose actions are facilitated and protected by the laws of the land.

If you know what happened at La Frontera in ’37, you cannot help but watch the events that have unfolded since a 2013 Constitutional Court decision to strip generations of Dominicans of Haitian descent of their citizenship, with the unnerving horror at history repeating itself. The decision stipulates that Dominicans born after 1929 to parents who are not of Dominican descent will have their citizenship revoked. It’s worth noting that the date of retroactive revocation chillingly and even mockingly predates that of the 1937 massacre. Where anywhere between 15,000 to 35,000 people of and believed to be of Haitian descent were chopped to death by state order in 1937, today, we are talking about an estimated 500, 000 Dominicans of Haitian descent who have been sentenced to a civic death or sorts. Many of them have no connections, familial or otherwise, to Haiti.

After an initial international outcry over the possibility of rendering stateless almost half a million people, the government of the DR launched a program that would consider granting legal residency to non-citizens who could establish their identity and prove they arrived in the DR before 2011. That is, they have to prove they were not a part of the the post-earthquake surge of Haitians into the DR. Nonetheless, the disingenuousness of what appears to be a diplomatic and generous program is revealed in its requirements and its approval rate. The thing is, you don’t ever really have to think about the paperwork that allows you to traverse the world until you need to do just that—say if you’ve never left your country of birth to make a life in another one. Today, on paper, I am a copiously documented non-resident alien who has resided in the US since 2001; my existence in this country has been documented by four different resident programs that we can think about as similar to the one proposed by the government of the Dominican Republic. The volume of documentation I have needed over the years to legitimize my presence is astonishing. The most basic of these is a birth certificate, which in the case of those subject to the ruling in the DR is among the necessary documents when filing for legal residency. Today, officials estimate that there are 500, 000 people who might be eligible for this legal residency, but as the Miami Herald notes,

employers in the Dominican Republic are not providing workers with documentation to prove they have been in the country long enough to qualify. Another hurdle has been the Haitian government, which despite pledges to improve the process has been slow to provide birth certificates and other forms of identification to its citizens and has charged more than many people can afford to pay.

Today, only 300 of the 250,000 who have applied for these permits have received them. When the security of your existence in a particular place is contingent on your ability to produce corroborating paperwork, your inability to do so devalues your existence in that place, reducing your humanity to the papers that justify your presence, and makes you vulnerable to the kinds of violence that we see all over the media if we look closely enough. Here. Here. And here. Moreover, the state essentially denies you its protections and leaves you vulnerable to those it charges with enforcing the security of the homeland, on behalf of those citizens it claims, against the ones it does not. If you are me, it is at this juncture that what is happening in the Dominican Republic today meets the delusions of the white terrorist who murdered nine black people in a South Carolina church last night.

Of course, you are well within your rights to say no one in the US lives under the threat of deportation in quite this way, but that would be a stupid thing to say. What happens to Haitians in particular in detention centers in Santa Domingo, Nassau, or South Florida resoundingly resonates with the more opaque corralling and terrorizing of brown and black people who might as well be locked away in Krome for all the state sanctioned terror they confront walking down the street, listening to loud music, hanging out at a pool party, or at church. At least the Dominican constitution is transparent about what it is up to. We in the United States have yet to begin to acknowledge, understand, and do something about the ways our legislative framework also sanctions the right of some citizens to terrorize others, on the basis of race, under the corrupted logic of protecting a white supremacist imagining of the homeland from black and brown outsiders.

The white supremacist logic that underlies both the past and present relationship between Haitians and Dominicans in the Dominican Republic is the same one that underlies the shooter’s delusional version of what constitutes “our country,” the things from which it needs to be protected, and whom it needs to exclude. To understand this, we need to remember that the Haitian Revolution was the only successful slave rebellion in the Western hemisphere. It resulted in the establishment of the world’s first black nation at a time when European colonial domination of the region was supreme and the newly minted United States was only just testing her own imperialist chops. Haiti as a nation has continued to pay for this since. The Haitian Revolution in many ways is the specter of imagined retaliatory black violence realized, and laws all over the region since then have sought, often violently, to guard against the violent resistance from the subjugated that subjugators often fear and can vividly imagine. The Dominican Republic’s historical memory of itself as a colony of Haiti obviously stokes this fear in ways that have become normalized within its national fabric. It celebrates, for example, its independence from Haiti, but not from Spain.

The US on the other hand, did not really need the threat of another Haitian Revolution to amp up its own strategies of protection against black rebellion and overthrow. Indeed the strategies geared towards protecting those legitimized as American citizens from those categorized as laboring chattel dates back to the 1600s, and work to inscribe within the national imagination who is a person/citizen with protections under the law, and who is property and thus bereft of protection. As Ta-Nehisi Coates notes,

In 1650, Virginia mandated that “all persons except Negroes” were to carry arms. In 1664, Maryland mandated that any Englishwoman who married a slave must live as a slave of her husband’s master. In 1705, the Virginia assembly passed a law allowing for the dismemberment of unruly slaves—but forbidding masters from whipping “a Christian white servant naked, without an order from a justice of the peace.” In that same law, the colony mandated that “all horses, cattle, and hogs, now belonging, or that hereafter shall belong to any slave” be seized and sold off by the local church, the profits used to support “the poor of the said parish.”

Let’s not let that first provision escape us. The right to protect oneself and one’s property with arms is definitive of who a citizen is in the United States. It is a notion as old as time. Moreover, the right to bear arms defines citizenship at the same time that it decides who is denied that protection and thus barred from citizenship. A bag of Skittles and a bottle of iced tea in the hands of a young black man can be mistaken for weapons and he can be summarily and extrajudicially executed for just that mistaken imagining. The rest speaks for itself, to the extent that the latter are incorporated into the dehumanizing fabric that continues to this day to marginalize and wreak violence against black lives.

If the Haitian Revolution presents a too-close-to-home reminder of the possibility of black retaliatory violence, the black church historically is also a powerful symbol of black organization and resistance. This is a part—perhaps the biggest part—of why its literal structure and members have been subject to violence since the Jim Crow era. We can also understand the attack on members of this particular church, more specifically, because of its history as the spiritual home of Denmark Vesey, a former slave who bought his freedom after he won the lottery and fomented a failed insurrection among 9000 of Charleston’s slaves. Emanuel AME was burned to the ground back in 1822 because of its association with Vesey, but once rebuilt, it later housed audiences for civil rights speeches given by Booker T. Washington, Martin Luther King Jr, and Coretta Scott King. Last night’s murders there was a calculated hate crime, meant to strike a blow to a generations old symbol of black community and resistance.

Church, I’m so tired of coming up in here and talking all the time about race, but I will not risk the wrongheadedness of those who want to displace race as a focus of our conversations, before we have fully come to terms with the ways we all live its implications no matter what color where we live says we are. To the extent that the government of the Dominican Republic and white supremacist networks in America continue to see race as a divisive marker that must be policed by white supremacist terror – aided and abetted by pro-pro gun legislation – it is unwise for us to shift our focus. Indeed, while I agree that perpetually parsing racial politics risks a form of essentialism that works to perpetuate rather than mitigate equitable equality, I also know the full story has yet to be told and understood about how race affects all our lives in life-and-death ways.

Globalism exacerbates the relationship between race and statelessness that has existed since Europeans discovered the Western hemisphere and began importing Africans to do the labor of extracting its wealth. Statelessness is a confounding mode of being not only because it leaves those subject to it without the protections and rights available to those imagined to be legitimate citizens, but also because the absence of the markers of legitimacy du jour is tantamount to a sentence of nonexistence and horrifying vulnerability. Here in the US, the vulnerable version of statelessness lived by black and brown people is not nearly as transparent as in the Dominican Republic. On that point alone, the country that brought us Trujillo appears to have the United States beat.

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Nope. Tidal is not what we have been waiting for.

What’s not to like about an artist owned streaming service? Why wouldn’t one support sticking it to “the man,” aka Spotify, iTunes, Amazon etc.? Shouldn’t artists be properly compensated for their work by streaming music services? Is it not a crying shame that Aloe Blacc had a song that was streamed 168 million times but got paid only $4,000? Nothing. Hells yeah. Yep. And it’s gahtdamb shame. But, to connect the contemporary civil rights movements such as #blacklivesmatter and the entrepreneurial energies of a streaming service, by artists for artists, is to build a bridge that takes you to nowhere else but delusion. In as much as Tidal represents revolutionizing potential for fairly compensating artists and everyone involved in producing music and music related products, in ways that other services have not, it does not hold similar potential for revolutionizing the material inequalities that ail society at large. Nope. Tidal’s success is not the force for making black lives matter. This is primarily because the logic of entrepreneurial fairness and profit generation, on which the success of Tidal relies, is the same logic that belies the systemic discrimination that present day civil rights movements are working to make more visible, so they can be dismantled. Today, this logic, boys and girls, is called neoliberalism.

But lemmie back it up a bit before I start laying down the heavy business of the relationship between contemporary economic theory and social justice and why we would need to think about these things alongside each other, when figuring out exactly what power something like Tidal possesses and for whom. Depending how far under a rock you may have been you may or may not know that Jay-Z launched a new music streaming service back in April called Tidal. Many of the biggest and most successful names in the music game, past and present, are stakeholders including Rihanna, Kanye West, Nicki Minaj, Jack White, Madonna, Arcade Fire, Usher, Chris Martin, Alicia Keys, Calvin Harris, Daft Punk, deadmau5, and Drake among others. It is billed as the first artist-owned streaming service and starting at $9.99 a month, the same price as Spotify’s Premium service, audiophiles can enjoy hi-fi music, videos, and exclusive curated content from some of the biggest names in the music industry. Exclusive content in particular is how Tidal is distinguishing itself from similar services, a marketing strategy that is drawing both excitement and criticism from music fans.

Take just this week, the video for “Feeling Myself” by Nikki Minaj featuring Beyoncé was exclusively released on Tidal, joining among others, Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money.” The much-anticipated video featuring two of the biggest performers in the game generated buzz aplenty all over the interwebs for Tidal, especially among those who had all but forgotten about it – like myself. You see, I follow both Queen Bey and Nikki Minaj on the Instagrams and Nikki had been posting shots from the video all day. Of course I had to see the video, but I am not among those who are currently spending $9.99 on any streaming service and as such waited patiently for someone to come through with the free albeit bootleg YouTube link. Yes. It does not escape me that such is precisely among the behaviors that the Tidal engineers endeavor to curtail, but I came up in a Napster world and while I do buy music, there are still vestiges of a freeness mentality at work in how I consume music. Explaining this further might take me down a path I don’t want to go right now because it will take me too far away from the whole economics and social justice thing that I’m building to, so suffice it to say that while I do buy the music I want to listen to over and over again, I am also quite alright streaming the deadmau5 I grade papers in my office to for free, with commercials via Spotify, and am disinclined to pay for a subscription to any streaming services.

And I am not the only one. One of my favorite bloggers Luvvie Ajayi echoes this sentiment about Tidal in particular.

Of course this did not go without criticism, because soon after, she posted this hilariousness:

Buy a T-shirt, y’all, because I respect Luvvie’s hustle and she should be rewarded for giving a girl life and laughter daily. Fun and jokes aside though, what was meant to be a crabs in a barrel reprimand for refusing to support a venture that should be supported for its underlying ethos of fair compensation for the work of artists, is what I want to hone in on here. This is because it is in this place of support that Tidal and its fans try to meet social justice. With Jay-Z as front man, we can think of Tidal as a black owned business. In the wake of the shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson last summer, consumerist activism was mobilized via #BlackLivesMatter and campaigns like #BoycottBlackFriday that advocated against spending money during the biggest shopping season of the year. According to the National Retail Federation, there was an 11% drop in spending. Whether or not this drop correlates to the social media generated protests is not an immutable fact, but it was significant enough to bring about the #BlackDecember and #NotOneDime campaigns that advocated for holiday shopping only at black owned businesses.

Against this politicized backdrop geared towards putting your money where your mouth is, it is easy to imagine why the refusal to buy into a service fronted by black faces and dollars would seem impolitic. Moreover, what this convergence between buying power and civil rights activism conveys is how easy it becomes to imagine a refusal to buy into Tidal as de facto support of the racially discriminatory power structure against which so many have been struggling over the last year.

Indeed, Jova himself says as much in a recent clip circulating on social media under the title “Jay-Z Slams White Supremacists.” I note the title here not because Jay-Z himself utters the phrase “white supremacists,” but rather that his performance is read as a response to this power structure.

In the freestyle/Tidal commercial, Jay-Z promotes the virtues of his streaming service by mixing the politics of business and civil rights activism. Entrepreneurial energy – “don’t ever go with the flow/be the flow” – is marshaled to advocate for striking it out on your own, against companies that refuse to compensate workers equally for their work. The flow that Jay-Z performs here is one that is poised to go against the likes of YouTube, which is identified as “the biggest culprit” because “Them niggas pay you a tenth of what you supposed to get.” Working for this tenth is likened to slave labor: “You know when I work I aint your slave right?” Tidal presents an alternative to artists like Jay-Z to own and receive full compensation for their work, and no longer be subject to exploitative arrangements in an already established system. Thus, “You know I aint shucking and jiving and high-fiving, and you know this aint back in the day right?” “Back in the day” harkens back perhaps, both to slavery and Jim Crow, presenting a lyrical opportunity for Jay-Z to merge his arguments for the necessity of launching his own streaming platform, outside of the established system, with a larger critique of the continued existence of institutionalized racially discriminative power structures. Thus though he may “know this aint back in the day,” he cant tell based on “the way they killed Freddie Gray right/ Shot down Mike Brown/ how they did Tray right?” He goes on to conflate Eric Garner’s death with the continued exploitative actions of existing distribution companies, “Let them continue choking niggas,” but positions Tidal as the embodiment of defiance: “We gon’ turn style, I aint your token nigga/ You know I came in this game independent, right?/Tidal, my own lane.”

In the freestyle, Jay-Z takes the racist injustices at the core of multiple killings of black men at the hands of law enforcement — and those like George Zimmerman who imagine themselves to be enforcers of the law — and positions them alongside the logic of working outside of the existing system through the establishment of a new system, in a manner that makes a streaming music company a beacon of political and civil rights resistance. I dunno about you, but that makes me a little bit uncomfortable, in part because what is being lost here, in favor of successful business promotion, is the systemic and material transformations that are necessary for freedom and justice to truly be equitable for all. Arguably, new equitable systems like Tidal are thusly positioned as potentially powerful alternative sources for the generation of systemic change, but the neoliberal ethos that belies such projects makes them more enabling of the systems they imagine themselves bypassing, than disabling and dismantling these same systems.

Now don’t get me wrong here, I’m not at all questioning Jay-Z’s political integrity, neither am I critiquing Tidal’s intentions. I think it is poised to do great things for artists and those who work in the production of music, so stand down, Beygency. Moreover, as far as politically minded super rich folk go, I am Team Jay and Bey, largely because their philanthropy and political activity is transnational and treated in much the same way that they do their private lives, with the utmost privacy. dream hampton, in her attempt to defend Jay-Z from critiques of his silence surrounding the events in Ferguson, New York, and more recently Baltimore, revealed in tweets that “when we needed money for bail for Baltimore protesters, I asked hit Jay up, as I had for Ferguson, wired tens of thousands in mins.” As NeNe Leakes criticized Kenya Moore on the most recent reunion of The Real Housewives of Atlanta, true charity is not about being seen on social media writing them checks. If NeNe is not your cup of tea for moral authority, hop on over to Matthew 6:1-4 for the stuff about hiding the things your right hand does from your left hand. As far as social justice is concerned the Carters often get it red-letter right. The Tidal business though, requires some careful decoupling – business from social justice – because really, it is in no way the revolution everyone who is for a more equitable and just society, including the Carters, hope for.

Why not though? This is largely because of its complicity with neoliberal values. Now that’s the third time I’ve used that particular troublesome n-word and this time I shall tell you what it means, at least in the context of what I am talking about here. Neoliberalism is both a set of economic logics and political rationales that promote free market competition as *the* optimal source for producing the best possible outcomes for everyone universally. Put another way, subscribing to and participating in free markets is the only way for all of us to be successful. Free market means everyone gets to compete in a variety of commercial markets on equal terms. This equal term is often tricky though, because equality does not mean sameness, and in a world where a variety of differences mediate in matters of equality – because history – justice becomes necessary for producing the mediating equitability (fair and impartial conditions) that can in turn deliver true equality, despite historically manufactured differences.

Free market competition considers itself equal in theory, but it isn’t equitable. Thus neoliberal values in many ways deploy logics of freedom and equality to obfuscate material differences that put some on a better footing towards economic success than other. Entrepreneurial innovation, individualism, and self-promotion are the hallmarks neoliberal values. We can be all that we can be if we just try super hard! Neoliberalism is at once a set of ideas, an over-arching ideology, and even governmental programs. It is in large part successful because of our relative unawareness of the ways it structures our everyday lives. Thus, according to David Harvey it is a “conceptual apparatus” that has “become so embedded in common sense” that it is “taken for granted and not open to question” (5). With this unconscious indoctrination in mind, the questions I began with about what could possibly be the problem with something like Tidal that has fair competition and entrepreneurial innovation at its center, merit revisiting.

Neoliberalism champions entrepreneurial innovation, individualism, and self-promotion under the aegis of free market competition at the same time that it dictates state divestment of public resources, deregulation of trade, finance and labor markets, and the withdrawal of state support and provisions for organized labor. At its simplest, at the same time it encourages you to pull yourself up by your own boot straps, it also removes all the protections and facilities that allow you to possess a pair of boots to stand on to begin with. Or better yet, shifts fiscal supports to corporations who in turn have the privatized responsibilities of attending to public welfare – if they feel like being charitable. What’s more, as far back as the nineteenth century, the rhetoric of personal responsibility held the promise of transformation from slave to agent, familiarizing us with a logic of self-reliance that licenses the state under neoliberalism to gradually relinquish all its responsibilities to its citizens, relegating social welfare instead to the charity of private corporate institutions. You ever wonder why collective bargaining is always on the chopping block whenever new corporation comes to town with promises of social sponsorship and recreational facilities? You ever wonder why corporate sponsorship is just about everywhere, but schools are under-funded and under-reseourced?

We see this at work in Baltimore, where the city supported the development of Under Armor’s downtown headquarters through $35 million in tax incremental financing at the same time that it divested itself of city run recreational facilities. Thus, “while the city ran seventy-six recreation centers twenty years ago, it now only operates only forty-one (another ten are privatized). City officials credit the reduction to a lack of resources.” Ironically, at the same time that it enables corporations to function profitably, neoliberal logic encourages bodies electorally charged with the social welfare of citizens to delegate this responsibility to private entities. We could also talk about the financial predation on the citizens who live in Ferguson Missouri, by the city. A condition that, according to the DOJ report on the Ferguson Police Department, contributed to the circumstances that led to Mike Brown’s death. Thus:

Rather than facilitate conditions that are beneficial for all, free market policies encourage such predatory approaches within municipal governance, disproportionately benefits those already in the material position to compete, and disadvantages those who are not. We see the effects of this most clearly in the US’s wealth gap

The bottom 90% of American families holds 25% of the country’s wealth. Sobering, no? No? Let me try again. The wealth gap in the America is also divided along racial lines. Surprise!

According to The Pew Research Center the median wealth of white households was thirteen times (13 times!) more than black households in 2013. But what about folks like Jay-Z and Beyoncé or even the Obama’s who have achieved places in the highest echelons of all the land? Their success means that the possibility for material equitability under neoliberalism exists, right? Sure, if you only want it among an exceptional cohort rather than universally.

So herein lies the problem of Tidal: it participates in a larger pervasive structure of free market governance that celebrates entrepreneurship at the same time that it shirks larger material social responsibility, and perpetuates the success of an advantaged few while continuing to deny the same from the many. What’s more in its subscription to neoliberal values, it is also predicated upon a system of racial discrimination and disenfranchisement. If we are more attentive to our own individual efforts towards profit generation, who is paying attention to how material inequality is built into the very system that organizes and structures all our lives? The same system that created the need for things like #BlackLivesMatter ?

Can a person live though? I mean, can a person make some paper and live? I’ma hit up the OG Black Atlantic scholar, Paul Gilroy for this one:

The continuing effects of systematic racism on black life cannot be dismissed and there are instances where that very impact seems – perhaps even where racism is to be sacrificed in capital’s interests – to have inclined people towards the solutions proffered by neoliberal styles of thought which can be taken over, possessed and made one’s own. In other words, the history of being denied recognition as an individual has actually enhanced the appeal of particular varieties of extreme individualism.

In other words, the desire to live, to eat, to make good, even obscene paper – to be successful according to the measure of neoliberal norms and values – is all the more attractive to those subject to historic discrimination and disenfranchisement. At the end of the day though, this is a catch 22. Nonetheless, here is what I think is true: Tidal does not offer the possibility for making material realities more equitable for everyone. To see it as a force for universal civil rights transformations, particularly ones that will bring equitable value for black lives, is to miss its reliance on the same economic power that continues to devalue black lives for its own success.

Nope. This is not about who wins in 2016 or finally going on that (second) Cuban vacay. (I’m from Jamaica, remember?)

puerto-marielCuba

Mariel Port, Cuba

So, I have one more class to finish grading before I can lay fall 2014 to rest, but the news about the US finally calling time out on Cold War diplomatic and trade relations with Cuba just dropped, and I find myself both in need of a reason to procrastinate and a measured sense of pause in the elation I should be experiencing about Cuba (finally) being opened to US markets. I figure it could be productive to put the two to work together and rectify this whole month since I’ve posted business.

Here’s the thing about this historic and long overdue reversal in a half-century-old policy that has crippled Cuba in significant ways: it smacks too much to me of history repeating itself. Much as it can be argued that the emancipation of slaves came came about largely for economic rather than humanitarian reasons, I cannot yet think about this as uncomplicated good news. Why? I know too much about the history of US intervention in the Caribbean. I’m about to try to write a second book about it. Watch out for it in another um, many years.

post-116-0-26909200-1384890121In the meantime, let’s glance back to 1823 as a defining moment in US foreign policy in the Caribbean, to help explain why I’m giving today’s announcement about relations with Cuba major ambivalent side-eye. If you were paying attention in your history classes, you’d remember that in 1823, President James Monroe stuck a little tidbit in an address to the nation that would fundamentally change US relations with the Caribbean, or more specifically, US relations with other global powers who had interests in the Caribbean. This is the part that frustrates me whenever one of these historical moments in capitalist relations between the US and the Caribbean region occur: it is hardly ever about the nations themselves, but rather about the US responding to another global power exerting influence in what it sees as its hemisphere.

But I digress with the quibbling over who/what this is really about and this whole interests protecting business. I’ll get back to that, but first a refresher on the Monroe Doctrine:

With the existing colonies or dependencies of any European Power we have not interfered, and shall not interfere. But with the governments who have declared their independence, and maintained it, and whose independence we have on great consideration and on just principles acknowledged, we could not view any interposition for the purpose of oppressing them, or controlling in any other manner their destiny, by any European Power, in any other light than as a manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States.

The generous reading of what would become know as the Monroe Doctrine is that the US assumed a fraternal interest in its closest southern neighbors, warning European nations that it would not tolerate anymore colonization or puppet monarchs in its hemisphere. I don’t know about you, but I live in the America whose justice system enables the summary execution of some citizens, and as such, I do not have time or patience for that kind of Pollyanna generosity. President Monroe, in the above, begins by acknowledging the sovereign right of Europeans over existing colonies, vowing not to interfere with those territories, but he then defends the sovereignty of independent nations by ironically asserting the United States’ sovereignty in a paternalistic gesture that replaces the individual sovereignty of independent nations of the western side of the Atlantic – in particular where matters of outside influence are concerned.

monroe-doctrine-1896So in this context, when France invaded Mexico in 1865 (with Spain and England on a joint militarized debt collecting expedition) and remained after the other two powers had left, the Monroe Doctrine was invoked to exert diplomatic and military pressure in support of Mexican President Benito Juárez. This support enabled Juárez to lead a successful revolt against the Emperor Maximilian, who had been placed on the throne by the French government. Because, given colonial history – Napoleonic wars and wot not – who wants those particular European colonial powers all up in the region where you are trying to establish an imperialistic hegemony of your own? Yay protecting Mexican sovereignty! Or, yay, keeping those European competitors out of the Western Hemisphere!

Almost 40 years later, European creditors started to threaten armed debt collection in the region again, and whoop whoop! Monroe Doctrine. President Roosevelt declared the right of the US to use an “international police power” to curb such “chronic wrongdoing.” Marines were sent to Santa Domingo in 1904, Nicaragua in 1911, and Haiti in 1915. Occupying troops remained in Haiti for fourteen years, all to resoundingly declare, “Back off Europe. We run dis!” Or alternately, “Mine! Mine! Mine!” Isn’t it great how well things turned out in Haiti?

I would like to think these interventions – easily read as protective gestures in the name of national sovereignty – ultimately created stable, truly sovereign, and autonomous Caribbean nations, rather than simply rewriting colonial scripts to install the US firmly as the region’s imperial overlord. What they reveal, however, is a pattern of US interest in Caribbean nations whenever another power begins to exert influence that poses challenges to its own hegemony the region.2-monroe-doctrine-cartoon-granger

Today, there are three such nations at work in the Caribbean: Venezuela, Brazil, and China. I’ll talk about the latter two specifically, because they are the most obviously connected to today’s announcement about Cuba. Brazil and China have invested significant amounts of capital across the Caribbean region in infrastructure, like highways and deep-water ports. At the beginning of 2014, Brazil began financing a $957m overhaul of the Mariel port in Cuba. The deep-water port is part of a larger plan that involves opening free trade zones in Cuba to attract foreign investment. When I first heard this story in January, I thought to myself, with Brazil getting a jump on investments and trade in Cuba, the days of the US embargo are numbered. The Mariel port and accompanying free zone projects aim to take advantage of the planned expansion of the Panama Canal, by providing the best facilities in the region for giant vessels. According to María Vitória Bernase of the Havana-based Latin American and Caribbean Economic Association,

The United States has no bays in the south that are so deep, so this will be good for them. Cuba is the key to the Gulf [of Mexico]. There is no other bay in the region with the depth of Mariel. We will develop it as a transport hub and a warehouse centre.

Good for the US with its no deep southern bays. Right. The role played by Mariel in Cuba’s modern history is a truly interesting one that makes it particularly apropos that this is the site for these contemporary economic developments and the parallel role they have played in forcing US foreign policy. Mariel was where Russian naval vessels docked to unload the nuclear warheads that led to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. In 1980, the port gave its name to the Mariel Boatlift – an exodus of 120,000 Cubans to the US. But again, I digress.

Manatee-Bay_PBPAThe Brazilians aren’t the only ones who want to get in on this particular shipping game in the northern Caribbean. Also early this year, the Jamaican government embarked on an immensely unpopular and secretive deal for the China Harbor Engineering Company to build a mega-freighter seaport and accompanying logistics hub right in the middle of one of the island’s largest natural protected areas. The area was deemed so special that it was under consideration as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, until last year when the government backtracked on the proposal, signifying a shady change of plans. I don’t want to minimize the impact of the environmental devastation that will result once this deal is done. Neither do I want to proceed without mentioning that the China Harbor Engineering Company is a part of an international conglomerate blacklisted by the World Bank under its fraud and corruption sanctioning policy. Read about the environmental implications of this horrendous deal here and the sins of this shady-ass conglomerate as condemned by the World Bank here.

For my purposes now, though, what I want to do is put the announcement of new diplomatic and trade relations with Cuba in the context of a history of US foreign policy in the Caribbean that is more often than not enacted in response to the presence of competing powers within a geographical space whose nations have long been treated as US “protectorates.” I also want to put this history in context with other contemporary events occurring in the region–with regard to international shipping, in particular — with what it will mean to US control of trade corridors in the Western Hemisphere if Brazilian and Chinese companies set up mega-freight outposts designed to facilitate the reconfiguring of licit and illicit shipping routes.

To be clear, I am all for lifting the trade embargo with Cuba, but I know too much history to view this as simply an altruistic gesture on the part of the Obama administration. While I know I am in the United States and should expect coverage from a US perspective, I am bothered that so much of the early coverage is, shortsightedly, only about this as early campaign fodder for the 2016 election. I am suspicious of what the US wants from Cuba now and what it will cost Cubans in the long and short term. I am also watching the developments in the shipping world, because as Jamaica Kincaid says in A Small Place, “there is a world of something in this. But I can’t go into it right now.”