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Garifuna firestorm in St Vincent

Published: 
Tuesday, August 11, 2015
Garifuna activist Ifasina Efunyemi is disappointed with PM Ralph Gonsalves as he has in the past portrayed himself as a champion of the Garifuna.

A political firestorm sparked by a promise by the St Vincent and the Grenadines’ opposition to grant honorary citizenship to the Garifuna people of Central America is being met with a mixture of indignation and outrage by a group of long-exiled Caribbean people.

The Garinagu, or Black Caribs, are the genetic product of shipwrecked African slaves and Amerindians in the early 17th century and who were exiled from St Vincent by British colonial authorities following the defeat of joint French/Garinagu forces in the late 18th century. Their culture and language are referred to as “Garifuna” and St Vincent is still viewed by the Garinagu everywhere as the ancient “homeland”.

Left to fend for themselves on the island of Roatan off the coast of Honduras 200 years ago, the Garinagu eventually moved to the Central American mainland and from there to what was then known as British Honduras, now Belize. There are now significant Garifuna communities in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.

In a speech to New York based Belizeans in June, New Democratic Party (NDP) leader, Arnhim Eustace is quoted as saying should his party win upcoming elections in St Vincent and the Grenadines, his administration would award honorary citizenship to all people of Garifuna heritage.

Prime minister, Dr Ralph Gonsalves, wasted no time in criticising the proposed move saying it can have the effect of depriving Vincentians of jobs and land. He has called on Eustace to clarify whether he proposes to grant passports to the close to hundreds of thousands of Garinagu in Central America and the United States.

Reporting on a June press conference, I-Witness News quoted Gonsalves as asking: “When you give them honorary citizenship … they are coming out of those countries for jobs in St Vincent?” “They are coming for your houses?” Eustace had promised that following the awarding of honorary citizenship “over time … we can refine our programme to bring them even closer to St Vincent and the Grenadines.”

Gonsalves has been roundly criticised by the US-based Garifuna Coalition and Garinagus in Belize. During one talk show on Hamalali Radio , a community broadcaster in western Belize, on August 5 host Ifasina Efunyemi dismissed the prime minister’s concerns as “nonsense.”

The popular Garifuna activist said “what is strange to me is that in the recent past he (Gonsalves) has presented himself to be a champion of Garifuna,” she said, with reference to the fact that Gonsalves had been responsible for declaring March 14 National Heroes Day during which annual tribute is made to 18th century Garifuna leader Joseph Chatoyer. The ruling administration had also facilitated the establishment of Garifuna Radio on the island.

Gonsalves has been an advocate of reparations for descendants of the 5,000 Garifunas exiled in 1795 following the military conflict between the British and the French. “It is quite contradictory for him to now be saying they cannot offer something like honorary citizenship,” Efunyemi said.

Her radio co-host, Ajani Tafari, also scoffed at the thought of a mass exodus of Garifuna people from Central America to St Vincent. Citing a Marcus Garvey quip about abandoning the African continent, Tafari asked: “Who is going to give up a continent for an island?”

Efunyemi also argued that “the average Garifuna person cannot just pick his or herself up and travel to St Vincent … and who is going to uproot themselves and go to St Vincent and look for jobs and lands?” She added that Gonsalves’ fears were unfounded and that, in any event, under Caribbean Community (Caricom) arrangements, Belizeans can move freely throughout the region. Tafari responded that even so, air travel to the English-speaking Caribbean usually involves a stopover in the United States for which a visa would be required. “How are they getting a visa?”

Back in St Vincent, the issue is no longer dominating the headlines. But, with elections due by March next year and the possibility of an earlier poll, the debate is more likely than not to re-visit a centuries’ old wound and stir emotions across the Caribbean Sea.

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