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The Caribbean Diaspora

By October 26, 2013August 4th, 2017No Comments

By Alissa Trotz

In what ways might the Caribbean Diaspora engage with the regional integration project that can be of benefit to themselves and the region? What are some of the likely challenges in their engagement?

Part 1 of ‘Far from Home but Close at Heart’: Preliminary Considerations on Regional Integration, Deterritorialization and the Caribbean Diaspora”, Plenary Lecture Address by D. Alissa Trotz at Rethinking Regionalism: Beyond the CARICOM Integration Project; SALISES Regional Integration Conference, UWI; Kingston, Jamaica, October 7-9, 2013. Check other Plenary Addresses and join the discussion by going at

 1.  The Caribbean Diaspora

I would like to congratulate Dr. Terri-Ann Gilbert-Roberts on the publication of her important book on Sovereignty and Regional Integration, and to thank the integration research cluster, especially Professor Patsy Lewis, for the really generous invitation to join you for this conference. It’s wonderful to be home, among friends, and with so many familiar faces in the audience – this is what I miss most about living outside of the region. I’d like to dedicate today’s remarks to the memory of Ms. Maud Fuller, proud Jamaican, fiercely loyal to the University of the West Indies, and deeply Caribbean, who knowing her is keenly listening and will do her trademark hum whenever she does not agree with me. I would also like to take this opportunity to thank Dr. Jessica Byron, Member of the Regional Integration Research Cluster, for giving Beverley Mullings and me the opportunity to participate in the Structural Redistribution for Global Democracy Project. This talk draws on ongoing conversations with economic geographer, Jamaican and fellow Caribbeanist Beverley Mullings, including a just-published essay in Small Axe that we have co-authored, ‘Transnational Migration, the State and the Diaspora Option in the Caribbean.’

My presentation takes up one of the themes listed in the call for papers: “In what ways might the Caribbean Diaspora engage with the regional integration project that can be of benefit to themselves and the region? What are some of the likely challenges in their engagement?” Although, as we shall see, diaspora is a fairly slippery concept, I use it here as a broad reference to Caribbean peoples who reside outside of the region. It has become a way of marking oneself in relation to where one left, often detached from an earlier sense of displacement and eternal alienation from an originary homeland.



There are a number of reasons to take this matter seriously. The first relates to the sheer size of the Caribbean population living overseas; even Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller remarked in her address to the opening ceremony of the 5th Biennial Jamaica Diaspora Conference this past June, that she had been informed that “Our [island’s]…vibrant diaspora… is more than twice the home population.” It is not even clear how we might arrive at an accurate measure of the diaspora: How do we reckon with vast numbers of undocumented migrants? Through how many generations should the Caribbean persist as a meaningful category of identification?

The second has to do with my own social location, as someone who has lived outside of Guyana for well over two decades, but who considers the entire region to be her home. One of my students remarked to me that “Is only when you leave the Caribbean that you realize you from a region, not just a country.” While I don’t believe that migration is a prerequisite for moving past a narrow nationalism, it also works to deepen and extend, rather than sever a connection with the places left, not merely via the work of nostalgia but through the practices of daily living in new spaces. Our literature has given us evocative renderings of Caribbean-ness as a space of refuge and shared camaraderie in hostile cities in Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners or George Lamming’s The Pleasures of Exile; it has imagined the Caribbean from cities like Toronto in Shani Mootoo’s Cereus Blooms at Night and Dionne Brand’s In Another Place, Not Here. In Toronto, busloads of Caribbean women travel weekly to visit Caribbean places and Caribbean people in Brooklyn, producing a vernacular regionalism not unlike the forms of connectivity instantiated by the higgler, even if the maps drawn offer different diasporic geographies through which we might glimpse a region that many of them have never returned to. Bookstores provide a site for friendly but argumentative exchange about the state of the Caribbean or the challenges of living in foreign, while at churches, mosques and temples, congregations express faith in differently inflected Caribbean accents. I operate partly within the institutional framework of a Caribbean Studies undergraduate program, where the vast majority of our students describe themselves as Caribbean-Canadian, their enrolment disclosing the intertwining of intellectual interest and emotional investment in mapping relationships to places that many left as children, or never actually visited.

People also keep in touch with the communities they have left, at an individual level, but also through participation in organizations and groups, mobilizing relief aid in the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake, the hurricane in Grenada, adopting schools, refurbishing hospital wards. These cross-border webs are not particularly new, but what is different today is the intensity and speed of connection, and the new kinds of deterritorialized proximities it affords (Paypal and mobile money that enable almost instantaneous transactions, social media through which one can keep track of people and of events as they unfold. To my children’s horror, when I come to the Caribbean they can no longer fool me as I am now able, via skype, to actually see what mischief they are up to!!).

Finally, overseas communities have been increasingly capturing the attention of national governments. Examples abound: the explicit policy of the Philippine government to export its citizens to work as domestics and in the entertainment sector in other countries; the government of New Zealand’s efforts to attract its expatriate community; the introduction of new categories of overseas citizens (Non-Resident Indians) by the Indian government; passage of legislation in Italy that allowed the diaspora to elect members of parliament in the 2006 elections to represent their interests. Within the Caribbean, there has always been some kind of relationship to the diaspora (exemplified in former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s declaration that the diaspora constitutes the 10th department of Haiti), but it is only fairly recently (the last five to ten years at most) that we have seen governments initiate efforts to really reach out. This identification of the diaspora as a key development partner follows, indeed we might even say takes its cue, from the attention being paid in the twenty-first century by development agencies and international financial institutions to remittances and the investment possibilities that diaspora represents. Just on Sunday, the Jamaica Observer carried a report from the World Bank’s most recent brief on Migration and Development – tellingly, the accompanying image was of hands flipping through a stack of US hundred dollar bills – that remittances constitute triple the size of official development assistance flows to the global South, and also exceed “private debt and portfolio equity flows to developing countries.”

Today I invite you to reflect with me on the potential relationship between regional integration and the space inhabited by diaspora. I deliberately use the adjective potential for a couple of reasons. First, Caribbean discussions to cultivate diasporic affiliations that are regional in scope rather than singularly nation-bound are relatively unprecedented worldwide. Secondly, this is a topic that has yet to receive systematic attention at the level of the regional institutional machinery, despite being flagged as important over two decades ago by Time For Action, the 1992 Report of the West Indian Commission. In official communiqués from the Secretariat, we see occasional references, such as the 1991 Port of Spain Consensus of the Caribbean Regional Economic Conference that emphasized that “Policies and strategies to strengthen the links with our migrant communities and draw upon their potentials in the areas of finance, purchasing power, knowledge base, skills and experience, need to be put into place.”

In a 2005 publication of the Caricom Secretariat itself, Our Caribbean Community, notwithstanding early acknowledgement that “our diaspora therefore represents an important resource both in intellectual ability and other skills, on which we must draw to further our development,” the subject disappears from the remaining four hundred pages. In June 2007, a CARICOM US Summit included official discussions with members of the Caribbean diaspora. The consultations themselves produced a number of suggestions that ranged from transforming remittances into investment to involving diaspora youth in the region’s development, but the only evidence of these conversations in the official joint statement issued at the conclusion of the deliberations, was a vague sentence to the effect that “On the occasion of Caribbean-American Heritage Month, we pay tribute to the generations of Caribbean-Americans who have helped shape the spirit and character of the United States of America and who continue to contribute to the growth and development of the Caribbean.” Six years later, at a meeting on Caribbean integration also held in Washington this April under the auspices of the Caribbean Research and Policy Center, delegates noted that there had been no real follow up. There is not yet an established regional commitment to the issue, notwithstanding the 2003 Rose Hall Declaration that expressed a desire for “Member Governments and the Community Organs [to] work with the public and private sectors and with civil society to strengthen and broaden cultural, social and economic linkages with the West Indian diaspora, which is an integral part of the Caribbean Community.”

My intention today is neither to dwell on the reasons for this uneven attention to the diaspora in ongoing conversations about CARICOM, nor to be laboriously prescriptive. The goal is more modest, and it is to reflect on some key issues that appear to be framing the conversation when it does occur. To do this I will explore how the diaspora-regional relationship is imagined across two sites; a remarkable meeting that took place in Toronto a few years ago, and the comprehensive recommendations for CARICOM set out in the 1992 report of the West Indian Commission, Time For Action. Rather than take diaspora as a given, I want to explore how the idea of diaspora is being put to work by regional bureaucrats and state representatives. Who are the imagined subjects of such appeals, and what is the content of this summoning of a Caribbean extra-territorial population? Precisely because this relationship seems incipient, I imagine these encounters as alive with possibilities and challenges. It is in that spirit that I offer these tentative observations.


Dr. D. Alissa Trotz is Associate Professor of Women and Gender Studies,  and Head of the Centre for Caribbean Studies, University of Toronto. Part 2 follows next week.


IBW21 (The Institute of the Black World 21st Century) is committed to enhancing the capacity of Black communities in the U.S. and globally to achieve cultural, social, economic and political equality and an enhanced quality of life for all marginalized people.