The Making of an Unequal Caribbean

Jeb Sprague, Globalizing the Caribbean: Political Economy, Social Change, and the Transnational Capitalist Class (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2019); 346 pages; ISBN 978-1439916544 (hardback)

• October 2020

The Caribbean region is filled with visible artefacts of beauty and pain. It is imagined as a tropical paradise associated with sandy white beaches, carnival, or goat curry, and yet it also has a history of (un)natural disasters and varying colonial and financial scars. The Caribbean is a space of experimentation, and its particularity as a cosmopolitan space is what Jeb Sprague sets out to highlight in Globalizing the Caribbean: Political Economy, Social Change, and the Transnational Capitalist Class

Globalizing the Caribbean starts off by narrating the history of the Caribbean not as disconnected nation-states but as a zone that serves as a looking glass for world events. For Sprague, the Caribbean is an ethnolinguistic environment interwoven into alternating modes of power and privilege within each country and between countries. Thus, he argues, political dominions that exist in the Caribbean cannot be separated from the legacy of slavery and colonialism. In seven chapters, each of which unpacks the term global by firmly orienting the reader to its connection to capitalism in the first part of the book and specific economic sectors in the second half, Sprague makes clear that transnationalism is the major political force shaping social relations in the Caribbean and globally. In part, his intervention is making a case to underline the significance of the global because “the nation-state scope can also blind us to many of the fundamental ways in which we exist” (35).

Internationalism has been a central feature of the work of Caribbean activists and writers such as Claudia Jones, C. L. R. James, and Walter Rodney. The importance of circuits of mobility within and outside of the territory is not a new story to tell. However, Sprague is concerned about more than how Caribbean people or ideas traveled; he aims to examine how the Caribbean’s composition and political economic formation has transformed in relation to global space whether through the rise of telecommunications companies such as Digicel in Haiti or petrol investments by the Venezuelan government in Jamaica.

For Sprague, the Caribbean is a sundry of ethnic identities, violent histories of genocide, and forced migration during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He begins his account in the nineteenth century, when Caribbean society was mostly agricultural slave economies. While Haiti was politically independent by 1804, during this stage, many Caribbean islands were under direct British, French, Dutch, or Spanish colonial power. The Caribbean was not insulated; it influenced regions beyond the sea, while itself being transformed by an influx of Asian indentured laborers into many territories once the slave trade, or slavery itself, was abolished and long after, through different waves of Asian migration to the region. Sprague argues that new political—and sometimes, wholly new religious—formations and practices are intensified by new forms of exploitation and experimentation in the Caribbean.

Sprague uses the first four chapters to outline how the Caribbean’s socioeconomic peculiarities are subjected to globalization. He shows not only how Europe underdeveloped the Caribbean (to paraphrase Walter Rodney) but also how a global ruling class—from Shanghai to Bogotá—has exploited the region.1 This has translated into exploiting Caribbean labor within the context of the tourism industry and export processing. In chapter 4, he outlines the emergence and development of the cruise ship economy, a notable vehicle that places a touristic upper class in the Caribbean. In the leisure economy, cruise ships and beach resorts are spaces where labor is flexible, racialized, and gendered: Caribbean women are often entertaining global North passengers, and “racialized women workers from the global south [sic] are most often tasked with cleaning cabins” (125). This happens, according to Sprague, because of the racialized division of labor and consumption overlaid on the former colonial hierarchies of local and transnational elites having lighter skin and the poorer working classes having darker skin. Globalizing the Caribbean demonstrates how heterogeneous and multinational the ruling class has been and continues to be and become. The text makes abundantly clear that the evolution of class formations and inequalities in the Caribbean not only were a by-product of the genocide of the indigenous peoples, the legacy of enslaved Africans, and the indentured servitude of Asians, but coincided with the ways “gendered labor, in both productive and reproductive processes, has thus been at the core of devalued labor in capitalist society” (28). 

The author defines and dissects the ways that globalization operates in the Caribbean today through capital, and more specifically from what Sprague refers to as the “superexploitation” of workers in the Caribbean who are paid extremely low wages (15). Using a historical materialist framework, he points out how globalization operates on the ground. However, there are moments when the author conflates globalization with other processes, such as the emergence of a transnational capitalist class in fields such as telecommunications and tourism. Altogether, one sees how the transnational dynamic of work and leisure in the Caribbean mirrors former colonial relations. 

Transnational elites and global North countries have played a key role in globalizing the Caribbean economy. Export processing in the Caribbean, Sprague argues, began during slavery, at a moment when sugar and tobacco were central to the economy (186). However, the intensification of globalization created new free-trade zones for exports, often facilitated through the manufacturing industry but also grounded in high-yielding agricultural production. Two other global processes that have shaped the Caribbean economy are the rise of the nongovernmental industrial complex and the surge in financial loans to the rural/working poor in the Caribbean. Concomitant with this phenomenon has been a sense that humanitarian aid and financial readjustment trickles down from transnational bodies such as the United Nations, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to the Caribbean working poor. For the Caribbean, the economy is not merely transformed by the introduction of new sectors; it is also shaped by institutions that mediate landless people into global networks. 

Globalizing the Caribbean is a book about how the global elite have experimented on the region. Experimentation, in a broad sense, is not solely reduced to laboratory, weapons testing, or human testing; it can be seen in the social hierarchies, the accumulation of wealth, and the implementation of new forms of technologies. The environmental crises in the Caribbean have produced a labyrinth of problems; they also reveal some of the processes of making an unequal Caribbean from which the transnational ruling class benefits. The region continues to bear the brunt of the climate crisis, with the increased number of hurricanes and rise in sea levels, and at the same time Puerto Rico and The Bahamas—two places that have been most devastated by recent hurricanes—have also been targeted by land grabs and property speculation (119). These disasters come with massive financial cuts, school closures, and dependence on fossil fuels. Under this situation of duress, natural disasters have become the justification for extreme privatization.

Another key point in the text is the complicated and uneven role that multinational companies have played in resource extraction. Like many other sectors, the mining and oil industries in the Caribbean went from semiforced labor in the late nineteenth century to globalized industries in the twenty-first. Industrial mining, according to Sprague, is possible because of landlessness among the Caribbean popular class (218). At the same time, the international interventions are not so neat. Between 2006 and 2019, Venezuela provided relief funds to the governments of Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Jamaica, which helped to lessen IMF international debt. Under the PetroCaribe funds, Venezuela distributed social and development investments in all three countries, and by 2018 “Venezuelan solidarity had dried up with the country facing an economic depression” (119). While the relationship between the countries is complicated, this hierarchy of power within the Caribbean matters because it highlights how poorer countries in the Caribbean often rely on proximate countries or former colonial powers for financial help. 

What one gathers from Globalizing the Caribbean is that the demographic, political, and economic relations in the region operate as a blueprint for what gets applied by transnational elites in other parts of the world. This is an interesting work that provides a materialist understanding of the region and makes new connections between distinct countries, trends, and social formations, while also illuminating how human relations are heavily marked by a contradictory past.

 

Edna Bonhomme is a historian and writer based in Berlin, Germany. Her work attends to the global archaeology of race, epidemics, and (post)colonial science throughout the African diaspora. As a researcher and writer, she examines the ways toxic and contagious spaces shape the modalities of care, especially with respect to modern epidemics and those who try to escape them. Edna earned a PhD in history of science at Princeton University.


1. See Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1981).