First black woman VP in Latin America – Jamaican audacity in Costa Rica

Friday, April 06, 2018

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The audacity of Jamaicans to believe that wherever we are in the world, we must somehow be in the forefront — in other words, 'we run things, things nuh run we' — is clearly not restricted to our sportsmen and women or our entertainers.

Perhaps it was inevitable that someone of Jamaican descent would become the history-making first Afro-Costa Rican woman to be elected vice-president of that majority white Spanish-speaking Central American country.

Economist Epsy Campbell Barr, who has a Jamaican grandmother by her father's side, on Sunday also became the first black woman to be elected to such a high political office in all of Latin America, after twice trying for the presidency of Costa Rica.

The pride expressed by Opposition Leader Dr Peter Phillips and Foreign Minister Kamina Johnson Smith, in their congratulatory messages to Ms Campbell Barr, would no doubt resonate especially with those familiar with the history of Costa Rica and its deep ties with Jamaica.

Puerto Limon on Costa Rica's Caribbean coast is a virtual enclave of Jamaicans whose ancestors migrated there in the latter half of the 1880s, primarily to work on the railroad to carry the country's lucrative coffee yields.

The highly respected American newspaper Huffington Post described best the context in which the Jamaicans arrived in Costa Rica on board the vessel, Lizzie, in graphic detail, noting that the railroad project was bedevilled by “inept planning, contractor bankruptcies, financing frauds, rampant bribery, bureaucratic fumbling and political shenanigans… natural disasters like earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, rainstorms, mudslides, floods, bridge collapses, and road washouts”.

Few wanted to brave the dysentery, malaria, yellow fever and poisonous snakes of the country's sweltering jungles and swamps.

So the railroad's builders had to import workers, including a few from neighbouring countries, but mainly from Asia and Europe and latterly from the US, who died by the thousands.

“Finally, after similar disasters with shiploads of Chinese, Italian, and Belgian workers, the builders hit pay dirt: on Jamaica, where they found a plentiful supply of jungle-savvy labourers.

“Fast-forward to 1890, and the end of construction. A hefty number of the Jamaicans opt to stay in Costa Rica. Many set up fishing communities on the Caribbean coast along a 55-mile-long strip running south of Limon down to the Panama border. Their descendants are still there… No wonder the coast is known as 'Little Jamaica'.”

Afro-Costa Ricans, of which Jamaicans are in the majority, make up roughly eight per cent of the total population. Until 1948 they were racially separated from the rest of the population. It is out of that context that Ms Campbell Barr emerged to be vice-president on Sunday.

But her qualification went far beyond overcoming racial barriers. She has a Master's degree in international co-operation and development and advanced management techniques and political decision. She has also published books and articles on economic participation, democracy, sexism, racism, and people of African descent, among other topics.

Ms Campbell Barr has served as head of the Center for Women of African Descent, the Alliance of Leaders of African descent in Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Black Parliament of the Americas.

We congratulate her on her latest achievement and wish her well.

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