The Caribbean island of Barbuda was a paradise before hurricane Irma struck in September. Not only was it a place of scenic beauty but the system of government for its 1,800 people gave it a measure of equality that is rare in the world. There is no private land ownership in Barbuda. All property is held in common and one local leader explains the result. “There’s no great inequality in Barbuda.”
Of course, a natural disaster is a great opportunity to make changes, in this case changes that will not benefit the people. Barbuda is governed by the nearby island of Antigua, and prime minister Gaston Browne sees an opportunity to up-end a system that he and others have long wanted to do away with.
Browne describes Barbudans as “squatters” and their communal land system as “welfare.” He proposes giving them the right to purchase property for $1. This may sound like a good deal but Barbudans are rightly suspicious that ultimately their paradise of equality for all will be taken away in favor of capitalist predation. They see no reason to live under the system that makes life precarious for people all over the world.
Barbudans are to be commended for defending their rights and for not being easily fooled. The seemingly good deal of cheap private ownership will eventually lead to a system of haves and have nots. As of now “A cleaner and a doctor can both have ocean front property” but that would end with the establishment of private property.
The island has already been targeted for private development. The government in Antigua gave a consortium run by actor Robert DeNiro and an Australian billionaire the rights to lease land for a resort. Called Paradise Found, it was destroyed along with every other structure on Barbuda but the precedent it set was not a good one.
The entire island’s population was evacuated to Antigua in the wake of the hurricane and infrastructure such as schools are still unrepaired. Antigua claims that it cannot rebuild unless Barbudans accept the proposal for private ownership. The cost of rebuilding is estimated to be $250 million. Browne dangles the offer of $1 property to convince Barbudans to accept disaster capitalism as the only way to restore their homeland.
Barbudans have only to look at New Orleans and Puerto Rico to see their fate. There is nothing like literal displacement to whet the capitalist appetite. A devastating blow from nature can accomplish in one fell swoop what they scheme to do over a period of years.
Paradise has a literal meaning of a beautiful location. But Barbuda is also a haven of equality and the people’s resolve is proof that most of humanity do not want to live amid dog eat dog competition. Most of the world would look like Barbuda if more of us had the good fortune to live under such a system.
Prime Minister Browne exhorts Barbudans to accept cruise ships and airports as an inevitability that will benefit them. The development that is offered to them is of dubious benefit. Some of them will win and some of them will lose. They are right to be skeptical.
The system they are told to embrace has done precious little for other people in the region. The United States colonies of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands also sit unrepaired and devastated. Private property does little to help people in a time of crisis.
It is simply untrue that capitalism is the only out for Barbuda and Puerto Rico and the Virgin Island and all of the other devastated Caribbean islands. The model for restoration is socialist Cuba, which not only cares for its people when disaster strikes but devotes its resources to return people to their homes and repair infrastructure.
Not many people even knew of Barbuda’s existence, much less the fact that it has such a successful system of governance. Throughout history there have been wars and revolutions waged in efforts to gain what people on this tiny island already have.
The prime minister may dismiss their devotion to their way of life as “foolishness” but Barbudans know better. They see the foolishness that controls the rest of their region and hold onto their system for a good reason. Their story should be better known and they must be supported in their efforts. They can clearly see the hand writing on the wall. “If we’re not careful, it’s going to be uninhabitable for us, but habitable for somebody else.”
Margaret Kimberley’s Freedom Rider column appears weekly in BAR, and is widely reprinted elsewhere. She maintains a frequently updated blog as well as at freedomrider.blogspot.com. Ms. Kimberley lives in New York City, and can be reached via e-Mail at Margaret.Kimberley(at)BlackAgendaReport.com.