UNITED NATIONS -- There are no shortages of challenges facing sun-soaked Caribbean countries — burgeoning unemployment, high crime, a chronic health crisis.
But for almost every Caribbean leader who took the podium at the world’s leading global forum in New York last week, one issue came up time and again: compensating descendants of enslaved and oppressed Africans in Europe’s former colonies for the generational and, arguably, irreparable damage of slavery.
“The legacy of slavery and colonialism in the Caribbean has severely impaired our development options,” Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer told leaders at the United Nations General Assembly. “Reparations must be directed toward repairing the damage inflicted by slavery and racism.”
For decades, cultural leaders, black scholars and others across the United States, Caribbean and Africa have unsuccessfully sought reparations from Britain, France and the Netherlands for sponsoring and endorsing kidnapping, enslaving and selling Africans. But their calls have always lacked a groundswell of support from a majority of citizens, and political leaders — until now.
In recent weeks, the movement for reparations has been gaining momentum, occupying the attention of leaders of the 15-member Caribbean Community regional bloc, who have unanimously agreed to make a moral, ethical and — if necessary — legal case for the former colonial powers to pay up.
They have consulted with a British law firm, called for apologies and even talked of going to the International Court of Justice should efforts to bring their former colonizers to the negotiating table fail.
The leaders say their focus is funding for development programs.
“It has to go beyond an apology,” Spencer said in an interview. “We have to recognize this genocide.”
Ralph Gonsalves, prime minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, who earlier this month hosted a three-day, first-ever Regional Reparations Conference, is helping to lead the movement.
“It’s a historic wrong that has to be righted,” Gonsalves told the Miami Herald. “Look, the Germans paid the Jews. There were reparations for the Japanese and the Maori in New Zealand.”
A regional reparations commission was launched at the gathering. Sir Hilary Beckles, a leading historian on the issue of slavery and reparations and head of the University of West Indies at Cave Hill in Barbados, was selected as its chair.
It is Beckles’ recently published book, Britain’s Black Debt: Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide, from which the conference’s title was drawn and momentum is being generated across the region. The book argues that Britain built its economic empire on slave labor, and the legacy of slavery continues to play out in the region’s ongoing development challenges.
The conference, Gonsalves said, “is the first step in the Caribbean’s quest to address and redress a psychic, historical, socio-economic and development wound” that is 400 years deep and Caribbean-wide.
“It’s not a confrontation, it’s a conversation,” Gonsalves said the Caribbean is seeking. “It’s not a protest, it’s an engagement.”
It is unclear whether other nations will join the Caribbean’s call. On Monday, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and newly elected General Assembly President John William Ashe joined global leaders in a lounge for the unveiling of the winning design of a permanent memorial at U.N. headquarters to honor victims of slavery.
“By breaking the silence that has covered this bleak period of history, and by honoring the victims, the memorial will also serve as a call to action to ensure that this tragedy is never repeated,” Ban said. “And by teaching future generations to remember, we work to address the lingering consequences of slavery.”
Gonsalves and other leaders say they welcome the memorial and the U.N.’s efforts, but maintain that more action is needed to address the “native genocide and African slavery.”
“I saw the president of South Africa, the president of Ghana, the prime minister of Ethiopia, and they are all on board,” Gonsalves said. “We’re going to build the links. We have to build it inside of Europe, too, with ordinary Europeans.”
But even if ordinary Europeans are willing to listen, their governments might not be so inclined.
Earlier this year, French President François Hollande continued to resist demands on his nation to pay reparations for its role in Haiti’s independence and the slave trade.
His refusal was consistent with that of former French President Jacques Chirac who, on the eve of Haiti’s Jan. 1, 2004, bicentennial, quickly rejected a demand by then-Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide that France pay restitution to Haiti for the amount it was forced to pay for its freedom in 1804.
Aristide, who was forced into exile months later, had sent Paris a bill for the amount — down to the last penny: $21,685,135,571.48.
And despite former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s assertion in 2007 that slavery was “a crime against humanity,” Britain still has not apologized, activists say.
Meanwhile, blacks in America have had no more success than their counterparts. Attempts to have the courts force the United States to pay reparations or to cash in on the 40 acres and a mule promised to former slaves after the Civil War ended in 1865 have gone nowhere.
Still, Heather Russell, a professor of Caribbean and African-American literature at Florida International University, says she is “cautiously hopeful” by the Caribbean Community’s latest efforts.
“You have 15 heads of government who have signed on for this proposition,” said Russell, a native of Jamaica. “You have to make the moral stakes really high and so you do that through raising awareness. This issue has never been squarely put on the table.”
Dr. Verene Shepherd, a historian and longtime militant in the fight for reparations, said that unlike 20 years ago there is today “a heightened consciousness” on the impact of slavery and a widening movement to address its legacy and the ways colonizers can provide reparations beyond a dollar amount. Also, the circle of activists has grown beyond academics and the Rastafarians in Jamaica.
“We have more support now on the ground and in all sectors to carry the struggle,” she said.
That support was demonstrated earlier this month as the conference in St. Vincent opened, with Shepherd giving one of the key speeches.
As she looked out at the 4,000 faces, she said, she was “amazed.”
“People were attentive,” said Shepherd, chair of Jamaica’s National Commission on Reparation and director of the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at the University of the West Indies in Kingston.
“The cause is just. And whatever the outcome is going to be, we are going to press on,” she added. “Remember, slavery lasted 300 to 400 years. In the scheme of things, we have not been fighting a long time.”