Realizing that we are not American is the first step toward USVI integration into the Caribbean …

Commentary

One day while heading out of my apartment on an errand, I met a young lady seemingly out on a walk for exercise. We exchanged pleasantries and inquired about where we were both from.  She said she was from Guyana. I told her I was from the Virgin Islands.  She replied, “But you guys aren’t Caribbean.”  She was taken aback by my indignation. “Of course, we’re Caribbean!”, I said.  She quickly headed on her way with the clear message that I was insulted.  This was many years ago. After a couple decades of mellowing out (although I refuse to apologize for any passion I express regarding politics), I can see why West Indians, especially those residing in independent Caribbean island-nations, would take the position that the U.S. Virgin Islands is more American colony than Caribbean.

 All one has to do is to follow residents of the USVI on social media to realize how immersed Virgin Islanders are in American society and politics.  From American football (full disclosure. I am a 50-year Dallas Cowboys fan), baseball (you are either a Yankees or Dodgers fan), and partisan politics, Virgin Islanders have an opinion on all things American.  Peruse the local print media and you’d swear the rest of the West Indies did not exist, even with a significant portion of the territory’s population either hailing from or directly descended from parents who were born on other islands.

Virgin Islanders are not the only West Indians suffering from cultural cognitive dissonance. The people of Barbados have always been viewed as being more British than the British.  Guadeloupe is a French department, fully incorporated into France. You are in France when you visit Guadeloupe.  The British Virgin Islands and the Cayman Islands are still crown colonies of Great Britain. But just because other territories may suffer from dependency and cognitive dissonance issues doesn’t mean the Virgin Islands has to marinate in that infirmity.  Snapping ourselves out of this malaise is increasingly imperative given the cultural shifts I am seeing in the United States.

America is a divided nation.  According to data from Pew Research, approximately 77% of Americans believe the United States is more divided now than it was prior to the outbreak.  At the core of this division are differences over ideology, race, and religion.  The American Democratic Party is seen as tending toward more progressive or liberal views on ideology, race, and religion.  While the Democratic Party itself has its underlying fissures led by its distinct internal factions, its prevailing narrative is based on responsible and increasingly regulated capitalism, voting rights reform, racial equity and equality, and religious tolerance.  The Virgin Islands political landscape is dominated by the local Democratic Party, but other than the moniker “Democratic”, that is about where any serious similarities end.

The non-relatability of the vast majority of Virgin Islanders to the Republican Party is understandable.  I am to this today amazed that the Republican Party still exists in the USVI.  The narrative they have been painted with by the left—that they are racist and support corporate greed—has seeped in to the sub-conscious of a Virgin Islands with a population that is 79% Afro-Caribbean and is not a haven (yet) for corporate activity that has positively impacted USVI residents.

But the notion that USVI residents should latch on to the national Democratic Party is also puzzling. Having observed the national Democratic Party up close and personal here on the mainland, I can tell you that the national party and its ideology has nothing in common with the mores of the people of the USVI.  Virgin Islanders are, again, majority Afro peoples; they are religiously conservative; and, ironically, vehemently opposed to wasteful government spending, especially where benefits are not apparently flowing to the population. “Where deh money?” is still a refrain in VI politics, and vehemently so given the territory’s small and intimate population.

This unfounded allegiance, I believe, stems from the USVI not only appreciating its place in the Caribbean, but failing to establish a national identity of its own.  Since the territory officially transitioned on 31 March 1917 from the Danish West Indies to the Virgin Islands of the United States, it has gradually pursued Americanism.  As American ascendancy increased seemingly exponentially from World War I into the late 1960s, the Virgin Islands rode that wave.  Virgin Islanders, especially older ones, fail to see that the wave has long crested and that America’s place in the world is under severe challenge. 

The notion of democracy itself is under challenge globally.  China’s ascendance adds to skepticism that democracy must accompany capitalism in order for an economy to grow.  In addition, the likelihood of China and Russia aligning to create and deploy their own communications system for moving capital and currency is increasing.  And even in the Virgin Islands own Caribbean backyard, the idea of regional economic integration is moving from the backburner to the oven.

The Virgin Islands cannot take advantage of the shift in global economic, social, and cultural attitudes if it insists on maintaining ties with a giant sitting on its laurels.  The United States will be forced into isolationism either by its own choice or when the rest of the globe turns its back on America.  When that happens, it will be forced to cut costs and a territory that does not bring the US tax revenues and is no longer needed as a military deterrent to World War II German submarines will be on the chopping block.

To prepare for what I see as inevitable, the Virgin Islands of the United States will have to look within, create a national identity narrative, and use its labor talent and natural resources, and go its own way.  There is a waiting Caribbean region for us to integrate into.

Alton Drew

21.02.2022         

Would Virgin Islanders prefer to be an American outpost?

Growing up in the U.S. Virgin Islands I noticed the rift between those who considered themselves ancestral Virgin Islanders and those of us who were either born in or children of people born in the Eastern Caribbean.  This rift, in my opinion, was fueled by the native Virgin Islander belief that being citizens of the United States gave them a certain privilege or right to be condescending to anyone else from the Caribbean.  It was never surprising to hear a “local” refer to down-islanders as “garrot” or “islo” in reference to the fact that the person being persecuted came from further south and east in the Lesser Antilles.

It is no wonder so many of our families started separate civic organizations like the Nevis Benevolent Society or formed churches such as the Bethel Baptist Missionary Baptist Church whose membership was comprised mostly of individuals who hailed from the British Virgin Islands, St. Kitts, Nevis, Anguilla, and Antigua.

On the other hand, arguably this behavior from native-born Virgin Islanders, albeit condescending and disrespectful of those whose lineage did not historically run through the Virgin Islands from birth, may be part of a native attempt to maintain a Virgin Islands identity unique from other Caribbean nations and territories. 

Virgin Islanders have likely struggled with identity dualism since the territory was formally transferred to the United States from Denmark in March 1917.  The identity struggle likely intensified as the U.S. Virgin Islands found itself surrounded by a Caribbean tossing off governance from European powers and going their own way.  Jamaica gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1962.  Barbados and Guyana also broke from the United Kingdom in 1966.  St. Vincent and the Grenadines went their own way in 1979, while Antigua and Barbuda and St. Christopher (St. Kitts) and Nevis gained independence in 1981 and 1983, respectively.

The schizophrenia of being a Virgin Islander and an American tends to be received with more indifference and a smirk from Caribbean nations versus respect as a Caribbean neighbor.   

This schizophrenia apparently seeped into the constitutional politics of the Virgin Islands.  In its fifth attempt in 2010 to draft a constitution for the US Virgin Islands, the constitutional drafting committee ran afoul of the US Department of Justice by recommending tax exemptions for ancestral native Virgin Islanders and native Virgin Islanders.  A native Virgin Islander is defined as someone born in the Virgin Islands on or after 28 June 1932.  An ancestral native Virgin Islander is defined as someone born in the Virgin Islands prior to and including 28 June 1932 as well as descendants of such individuals whether residing in the territory or not.

Under the proposed constitution, ancestral native Virgin Islanders and their descendants would receive a tax exemption on ownership real property.  This exemption would not flow to native Virgin islanders or any non-Virgin Islander domiciled in the territory.  A law distinguishing who would receive and not receive a tax benefit based on place and timing of birth, in the opinion of the Justice Department, would create multiple tiers of citizens. These designations, apparently not tied to a legitimate governmental interest, would run afoul of the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The Department of Justice was also concerned with the drafting committee’s apparent attempt to usurp United States sovereignty over the coastal waters of the Virgin Islands.  In its constitutional proposal, the committee provided language that the Virgin Islands would exercise sovereignty over its inter-island waters and over waters extending twelve nautical miles from each island’s coast up to the borders with international waters.  The lack of mention of US sovereignty over this twelve-mile area, in the Justice Department’s opinion, raised the concern that such a measure, if enacted, would violate federal law.  

At the end of the day, the initiative to draft a constitution adds weight to what University of the Virgin Islands professor Paul Leary identified in a 2020 opinion piece discussing the feasibility of an independent U.S. Virgin Islands.  The Virgin Islands is experiencing “the absence of a clear national identity.”  His observation is a reminder that a national identity is the platform upon which a country must be built.  The Virgin Islands are way too small to play “nation-state” politics.  The size of the territory would only lead to more intense conflict among groups of native and non-native Virgin Islanders trying to divide up a near non-existent pie.

The cohesiveness necessary for nationhood in the U.S. Virgin Islands may be two to three generations away, but given the economic circumstances of the territory, where young people constantly move to the mainland for work and business opportunity, the development of a cohesive nation may experience unacceptable delay.  In the meantime, the Virgin Islands of the United States may have to optimize its status as an American outpost in the Caribbean; subject to scorn from its independent neighbors, relying on the United States for its identity, and pushing away its Caribbean brethren.