Barack Obama Stumps in the Caribbean

Democratic candidate Senator Barack Obama came to visit and fundraise in the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico this week, raising hopes of increased Caribbean prominence in mainland politics.
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"The respect of the world, which we now lack, if you want it back, then vote Barack,"
The Mighty Sparrow - Calypso King of the World

Democratic candidate Senator Barack Obama came to visit the colonies, attending fundraising events in the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico this week. Starting Monday with a breakfast held at the Ritz Carlton Hotel, the candidate spoke to about 100 contributors and local pols that paid either $1000 or $2300 to attend. The candidate stopped by the VI Montessori School on his way to Puerto Rico, where Governor Anibal Avecedo-Vilá hosted a private reception for a similar number of donors. While Sen. Obama did insert comments about a few issues of local interest in his speech on St. Thomas, there was no mention of the broader issues facing the region.

It seems as though Caribbean colonies have been "discovered" by the candidates, even though residents of "America's Paradise" and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico are not eligible to vote in Presidential elections (delegates are sent to the nominating conventions). And while there are potential contributors in both territories, the actual monies raised have traditionally been hardly worth the expense and effort candidates are investing this year. Virgin Islanders' donations to all candidates of both parties in the 2004 election cycle totaled less than a half-million dollars.

Gov. Bill Richardson passed through the region earlier this year, raising $32,000 from St. Thomas donors in the second quarter. V.I. Democratic Chair Cecil Benjamin has been quoted in local papers saying that negotiations are underway with the Edwards Campaign. And the coconut grapevine is all atwitter with rumors that Hillary won't be far behind. The area is generally regarded as Clinton Country. Congressional Delegate Donna Christensen has lead the charge for Hillary and is reported to have done an effective job of lining up local pols behind the campaign. The former President and First Lady are no strangers to the region, having vacationed on St. Thomas twice during his terms in office.

Some Virgin Islanders have been encouraged by all the campaign excitement this time around, with an expectation in the air of more sensitivity to the problems of the region in the future. Other, more regionally minded pundits are skeptical, pointing out that no U.S. President since JFK has invested much more than military and anti-drug monies in the region. Popular regional commentator Sir Ronald Saunders has gone so far as to dismiss the current contenders from both parties as "abysmal" in their past records on Caribbean issues.

It's easy for continentals (as expats are called) on St. Thomas to ignore the regional woes of the Caribbean; as the perception prevails in both U.S. colonies is they are somehow not a really part of the area --except when it comes to tourism marketing. And the region is facing serious issues in its relationships with the mainland. Declining financial assistance from the United States is being replaced by infrastructure and social programs underwritten by China and Venezuela. Trade relations have soured over such issues as banana quotas/tariffs, bans on internet gambling and offshore financial transactions. The inherent racism of widely reported U.S. anti-immigration sentiment that seems to be on the rise is cause for great concern and fear.

The thirteen island nations of the Caribbean, with a combined population of 34 million people, over the last fifty years have experienced an unprecedented brain drain of their educated population to the U.S. mainland. Many countries have lost more than 70 percent of their labor force with more than 12 years of completed schooling. Migration rates among West Indian nations per thousand inhabitants are much higher than Lou Dobbs' favorite source of illegals, Mexico.

These West Indians on the mainland haven't cut their ties to their home islands. Remittances (monies sent back home by immigrants) were sent by 73% of Caribbean settlers in the United States, topping 8 billion dollars in 2006 , and representing a whopping 13% of the GNP of the region. Emotional and financial ties remain strong between the regions, even while there is a growing resentment towards the US government.

Then there is the 800 pound gorilla in the room, Cuba. Regarded by many as the logical focus for future regional political, trade and cultural connections--some call Havana the future capital of the Caribbean, its future remains clouded. The fear of Haitian-style civil unrest or an ongoing insurrection against American occupiers in the post-Castro era is all too real for island nations that have endured generations of military invasions, slavery, racism and colonial oppression. The relative de-colonization of the region in the twentieth century (most of the nations in region have elected governments, even as they are either financially or politically dependent on their former rulers) has not erased bitter memories.

Senator Obama's candidacy has given hope to many in the region that Caribbean matters will achieve prominence in mainland politics, and hope that their concerns will be some day be recognized by other candidates who have discovered a new source of campaign funding amongst the area's wealthy citizens. These hopes, often as not, have been dashed in the past.

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