Foreign policy lessons from the resistance of Rastafarians

Sir Ronald Sanders

Sunday, May 20, 2018

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The use of force is still very much a part of the foreign policy and diplomatic considerations of all states, even small ones. In the latter case, what they consider is not using force themselves, but force being used against them.

Force is seldom military in today's world; it is more often economic. The wide and liberal use of sanctions, particularly by member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), is ample evidence of how other nations are coerced into submitting to the will of the powerful.

The OECD's actions against Caribbean countries in relation to taxation and the provision of financial services are good examples of the use of economic force by powerful countries to get their own way.

If small countries could individually resist these coercive economic measures, they would. But since each of them is powerless to do so on their own, each surrenders its sovereignty — believing that resistance would lead to unbearable consequences.

The notion that they might substantially overcome their powerlessness by joining together to resist coercion is hardly entertained by many developing countries, small ones in particular. Driven by a lack of faith in alliances among themselves — and practical experience of betrayal and disunity within their own ranks — each small country surrenders to the demands of the powerful. The result is that the powerful succeed in their policies by the threat of economic coercion. Representatives of some small countries even brazenly trumpet their surrender as a victory, fooling no one, including themselves.

The role of power and fear in the colonial history of the Caribbean came into sharp focus at the Organization of American States (OAS) on May 14. The occasion was a historic one at which I and my ambassadorial colleague, Franki Tafari, a leading representative of the Rastafarian community in Antigua and Barbuda and the wider Caribbean, reported to the OAS Permanent Council on the apology made by the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda Gaston Browne for the ancient wrongs done to Rastafarians.

Resisting the economic and military power of the British colonial Administration in the Caribbean, the Rastafarian community refused to relinquish their African culture and heritage. They were also obstinate in rejecting every attempt by the British Administration to coerce them into giving up their identity by adopting European values and traditions. For sure, others did — not because they desired it, but because the use of force overwhelmed them. The many slave rebellions and pre-independence movements were met with violent oppression that wore down resistance.

Regrettably, as Prime Minister Browne pointed out in his public apology, “Even as the colonial establishment retreated from whence they came, and people born in Caribbean countries replaced them in authority, the Rastafari continued to be marginalised. That discrimination went on for decades; preventing the Rastafarian community from escaping the confines of poverty, and denying them the right to explain who they are, what they believe, and what part they wish to play in the homelands that are now our collective heritage.”

This historical reality is all the more reason for admiring and respecting the Rastafarian community. They were strong in their resistance — preferring poverty, marginalisation and discrimination to losing their identity, their culture, and their religious beliefs.

Out of a dark colonial past of their forebears, and the indignities they endured, Rastas have risen up to affirm their self-dignity, their African heritage, and their worth as human beings. Today, they are the best-known Caribbean figures, internationally, in the performing arts. They also occupy respected positions in medicine, law and academia, while retaining their pioneering role in healthy eating habits and in farming. The Rastafari are living testimony to the value of unity in the preservation of identity.

Diplomacy is bargaining. It seeks outcomes which might not be ideal for either party but are better for both. If Caribbean countries could bargain together on all external matters they might not get everything they want in their dealing with the powerful, but they would get more than they do individually.

Regrettably, that sense of justice and willingness to sacrifice for its preservation, which characterises the Rastafarians, is not alive in the broad political and economic leadership of Caribbean countries today. There is also no trust in unified action. Fear of betrayal from amongst their own ranks, coupled with a perception of their powerlessness to stand up to the mighty, paralyses representatives of Caribbean governments.

In their struggle with the OECD in the financial services sector, the political elite of Caribbean states, who treasure and proclaim their sovereignty in relation to each other, compromise that sovereignty so regularly with powerful countries that it is now an expectation. Yet, it is only by pooling their individual sovereignties to bargain with the powerful that they have a ghost of a chance to preserve any semblance of independence.

Troublingly, there appears to be little willingness for such collective bargaining. The dangerous and unrealistic notion by some countries in the region that they can go it alone and get what they want from the powerful has infected policymaking. Thus, in the international community, some Caribbean countries forego the utility of their collective strength for transient individual gain.

The trials of the Rastas in their resistance, and the triumph of their success, despite their marginalisation, should teach all Caribbean countries a lesson. The song of the iconic Bob Marley has long summoned the Caribbean, but while it is heard, it appears not to be absorbed:

“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery;

None but ourselves can free our minds.

Have no fear for atomic energy,

'Cause none of them can stop the time.

How long shall they kill our prophets

While we stand aside and look?

Some say it's just a part of it:

We've got to fulfil the book.

Won't you help to sing

This song of freedom.”

Sir Ronald Sanders is Antigua and Barbuda's ambassador to the US, Organization of American States, and high commissioner to Canada; an international affairs consultant; as well as senior fellow at Massey College, University of Toronto, and the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He previously served as ambassador to the European Union and the World Trade Organization and as high commissioner to the UK. The views expressed are his own. For responses and to view previous commentaries:

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