Reflections on a Caribbean Assignment from an American Diplomat

Joaquin Monserrate, Deputy Chief of Mission U.S. Embassy to Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean
By Joaquin Monserrate, Deputy Chief of Mission U.S. Embassy to Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean

At the end of this month, my tour here will come to an end. As the juncture approaches, I’m full of memories, thoughts, and feelings. More than anything, I feel blessed and fortunate to have had the opportunity to serve in the Eastern Caribbean for the last three years. Professionally and personally, it exceeded the already high expectations I had upon arrival. I grew up in the northern reaches of the Caribbean and working and living here has been in so many ways just like being at home. The importance of community, respect for elders, and the easygoing and forgiving nature of people resonated with me and reminded me of my own hometown in Puerto Rico. In other ways I found it different. The Spanish and English colonial experiences are deeply imprinted in each other’s societies. Barbadians stand patiently in line, something we don’t do too well back home. And they give way to pedestrians and other cars, which we definitely don’t do. Bajans can be so polite that it took me a while to realize they were honking their horns in thanks rather than impatience. We have a lot to learn elsewhere too. Barbadians do wonderful things with breadfruit like bowls and coucou that we haven’t figured out how to do in Puerto Rico.

Growing up, I wish I had been taught a little less Napoleon and a little more West Indies. Despite the geographical proximity, I knew little about the uniqueness of each of the seven countries that make up our diplomatic district: Barbados, St. Lucia, Grenada, Dominica, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Antigua and Barbuda, and St. Kitts and Nevis. Coming face to face with the Kalinago people, hearing Kweyol for the first time, eating oildown, meeting a Jab Jab, or doing a foreday morning left indelible memories. Unfortunately, the links between the American Caribbean and the West Indies have become more tenuous, especially after the demise of the regional “island hoppers” that made travel so easy and affordable in the 70s and 80s. Travel is expensive, especially for young people, and many Caribbean youngsters have never had the opportunity to visit each other’s countries. Institutions like the West Indies cricket team and the University of the West Indies continue to soldier on to bridge Caribbeans across nations, and I really do hope Prime Minister Mottley succeeds at achieving greater integration in the region.

During my travels, I enjoyed meeting the civic, political and religious leaders in all seven countries. Everywhere I went, I met as wide a cross section as society as I could, from prime ministers to young activists. And, believe you me as they say here, there are remarkable thinkers everywhere, including at the very helm of government. There is an unshakable commitment to democracy, free speech and free and fair elections shared widely and broadly in this region.  That said, some

governments have been in power for a very long time. So long, in fact, that they feature among the top 25 longest serving in the world (and the only democracies to do so).  Checks and balances are indispensable for a healthy democracy, and for that countries need effective oppositions and press.

For all the commitment to democracy at home, I had trouble understanding when “non-interference” was invoked to turn away from Caribbean brothers and sisters in need of solidarity, in places like Venezuela and in Cuba. I worry too that China’s Communist Party is able to pay newspapers to run crude propaganda like “Survey Shows More Confidence in the Communist Party.” It’s hard to reconcile democratic countries celebrating ties with a brutal Communist dictatorship whose very actions as I write this meet the UN definition of genocide.  To me this was less a superpower confrontation than a test of values. That said, I was encouraged by how the Caribbean showed support for our Black Lives Matters movement, and for those in the United States who were advocating for equality and greater respect. I was also happy that most of the Caribbean got together last June to tell the Ortega regime in Nicaragua to abide by democratic norms.

I am also heartened by the close engagement we have with the Caribbean, at every level. Sure, we care about security –yours and ours– but it’s so much more than that. Our cooperation on issues like literacy, emergency management, investigative reporting, entrepreneurship, academic exchanges, tech and coding camps may not be flashy but it sure changes the lives of those who benefit. When middle and high income countries in the region needed access to conditional lending, we were there to support them. We also came through for St. Vincent at a time of critical need. It is also heartening to see us fully committed to arresting and reversing the environmental damage our civilization has caused the planet. The U.S. government is also mobilizing to share vaccines with the rest of the world. All that said, I regret we couldn’t mobilize faster at times.

The natural challenges to small island states can be daunting. To have a hurricane hit so early in the season or a volcano go off while fighting a pandemic was tragic and beyond unfair. And not too soon we’ll retake the yearly ritual of tracking the path of hurricanes through our region. The wise way in which the Caribbean has managed the pandemic gives one cause for hope.  The governments have followed the science, and everyone has pitched in to battle back against outbreaks and keep most people safe. Tourists, the economic lifeline for most of the Caribbean, are eager to return and in some cases returning already. I’m certain, without a doubt in fact, that the Caribbean will overcome this difficult chapter. Barbados and Grenada were well on their way to fixing their finances before the pandemic struck. St. Lucia had ambitious plans for tourism, as did Dominica, Antigua and Barbuda, and St. Kitts and Nevis. I’m sure those efforts will not have gone to waste and will enable them to rebound from the latest challenges. It will be a slog everywhere, and not just in the Caribbean. We should usher the second half of 2021 with renewed hopes, and certainly in much better shape than at the same time last year. But I do hope we see more (vaccinated) Americans on these shores this year and that, slowly, the prosperity ceded over the last two years will return.

People always ask you what will you miss most when you leave a post, and it’s always the people. Sure, not a day went by when I didn’t thank my lucky stars for being able to see the ocean from every angle. And I loved saltfish and plantains for breakfast, doubling up on doubles, the carnivals, and the lush landscapes of every country. But it’s the people I’ll miss the most. My friend’s Saturday afternoon pelau limes where I met so many wonderful and interesting people. The tennis chums who make fun of my backhand and call me by my childhood name. Our table companions at the Soca Monarch who took us to our first road tennis championship. The patience and candor of my counterparts at government when we would talk at all hours of the day about each other’s agenda items. After you’ve left a country and have set up a new home, are at a new job dealing with other countries, and you look back with nostalgia and happiness at what you left behind, what I will miss the most will be the wonderful, kind, funny, gracious, and generous Barbadians, Grenadians, Lucians, Antiguans and Barbudans, Kittitians and Nevisians, Dominicans, and Vincentians I had the good fortune to meet.

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