The panel was composed of US-based academics working on an anthology of Caribbean military encounters, and did not include any Caribbean-based scholars also doing this sort of research. This is not to discredit the quality of each presentation but rather to note something about who has the visible power to describe and present Caribbean lives.
The papers were diverse and touched on music and militarisation, states of emergency in West Kingston, small acts of resistance by local populations in Vieques, and the English speaking Caribbean experience of military base life in Guantanamo, Cuba.
One of the main arguments behind the anthology and panel was that simple opposition to militarisation in the region is not sufficient if we are to understand how important and diverse the ways of militarisation has been and that it is part of our Caribbean cultural heritage.
In Cuba we learned from Andrea Queeley about families in the early 20th century who worked on and around the US base in Guantanamo. Ethnographic data showed militarisation isn’t always about occupation but also influences the mundane and everyday lives of individuals such as in romances, parties and quinceañeras.
The paper discussed how some who had contacts to get work at the base were able to achieve social mobility, while their local peers without jobs on the base were not. Their living standards transformed almost overnight. They dressed better, their morals changed, and the social status of their families was altered, hence the better parties.
This increased the distance between those who worked on the base and those who did not. And this distance was further stretched culturally because those who worked on the base were also inserted into a transnational cultural field of black American culture through the soldiers, US TV stations and American music.
On Vieques, a small island off the coast of Costa Rica, Daniel Arbino described how between 1941 and 2003 the US expropriated most of the island for bomb testing. The Marines’ relationship with the island was always contentious. Acts of violence by the Marines against locals was common and led to large forms of resistance as well as small acts too, culminating in the US leaving in 2003.
The small acts of resistance described included everyday techniques such as folk literature and folk art. Amidst 60 years of bomb practice and ecological destruction by the US forces these cultural forms of resistance often reacted to and creatively narrated the impact the military violence had on the environment and local lives.
The violence included the after effects of the remnants of exploded and unexploded ordinance including mercury, lead, copper, magnesium, lithium, napalm and depleted uranium. We glimpsed how well known local folk tales about the land emerged and their role in producing a local mindset that reduced military power and authority by embarrassing the military colonisers.
In the context of music and militarisation Jocelyne Guibault spoke of how the two are related through ethnographic contextualisation in Trinidad and in particular by studying fete culture and soca through ideas of armed violence.
The suggestion was that since the 1990s altercations in fetes or outside them, which once involved cutlasses, can now involve guns, and with this new more dangerous reality patrons and fetes are now policed in new ways and by much larger numbers. In some fetes today, promoters spend up to 40 per cent of their budget on private security.
Anthropologist Deborah Thomas spoke about the day the military went into Tivoli Gardens to arrest Dudus Coke. Her questions included how can we talk about events we are not witness to? One answer was using “public secrets” as archives through which to understand them. Archives of public secrets include personal narratives and public commissions. These narratives and commissions produce emotional responses from locals that make doubt and fear visible.
Doubt, fear and terror then become elements of everyday life where local residents of certain under siege areas fear for their lives based on the visibility, threats and actions of soldiers, police and militarisation. The exposure of public secrets brings to light what many know but is not spoken. For example, the Dudus case showed how sovereignty in the Caribbean is not really what we think it is, and it is imperative to understand what this means for the Caribbean.
Each of the papers on the panel provided imaginative ways to think about militarisation as more than something to be against, but more importantly they understood militarisation as one element in the messy social, cultural and economic process that produced the modern Caribbean in its many different island and continental spaces.