Developing the Caribbean through Black Consciousness

The Repair Campaign interviewed Tony Regisford, Executive Director of St. Vincent and the Grenadines Chamber of Industry and Commerce to get his perspective on Caribbean development.

February 28, 2024

Tony Regisford, Executive Director of the St Vincent and the Grenadines Chamber of Industry and Commerce

Tell us about yourself.

I can start out by placing myself geographically in the Caribbean, specifically, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, which is one of the southern islands of this archipelago. I am from St. Vincent and the Grenadines – born and raised here – but consider myself well-travelled, having had the opportunity to experience diverse cultures.

What do I do? I wear several hats. My profession has been in telecommunications, both the technical and commercial management side, which gave me a good set up for business.

But at heart, my interest lies in socioeconomic development. I have always been interested in how we can advance the human quality of living and improve the human condition. That has always been my area of interest and I consider myself well read on the topic.

I am currently the Executive Director of the Chamber of Industry and Commerce, and I also have the good fortune of being on the board of certain institutions that deal with aspects of the national development agenda.

What makes you proud to be from the Caribbean, and specifically, a proud Vincentian?

I consider St. Vincent and the Grenadines an integral part of the Caribbean – islands that share a common experience.

We were very much part of the Atlantic slave trade, and our population now is comprised of people that were related to that activity, primarily African descendants and people who came here as indentured workers, the Indo-Caribbeans, the Portuguese, etc.

The islands are populated by indigenous people and immigrants who came by force or by will, and now we are an interesting mix of people, which makes our lives and culture extraordinarily rich. And because we are still seeking to define who we are, we are in interesting times.

Because of who we are, I am proud to be Vincentian and part of the Caribbean. We are resilient people with a rich, diverse culture. We are talented, intelligent and possess good human traits, making us a valuable part of the world’s population.

I am happy to be part of this moment and proud to be involved in initiatives like this “Repair Campaign” that seeks not only reparations for native genocide and slavery but also to build consciousness and to help us better understand who we are as a people. We have got social and economic issues to overcome and that makes life remarkably interesting and challenging. That is not to say that the persons who were responsible for putting those challenges before us should be let off the hook.

How has the legacy of colonialism affected the development of St. Vincent and the Grenadines and the wider Caribbean?

After slavery was abolished, we lived as subjects of various European countries for a significant period. We were not the masters of our destiny, and we were largely used as tools for the development of the “Mother Country.” If you were colonised by the British, your sweat and your labour was to build Britain, and likewise, if you were colonised by the French or the Dutch.  A continuation of what obtained during slavery.

Our development as a people was not a priority, not even a consideration. We were deprived of many basic things that made for aspirational living. And although we are now free and self-determining, we are scarred, and the removal of that scar is a major challenge. Any government responsible for the administration of these islands must face that development challenge. We are starting from very little and playing catch up.

What are some of these challenges that you see St. Vincent and the Grenadines or the wider Caribbean facing that you would like to see improve?

One of the big challenges is that our people had extremely limited access to education, primary and secondary healthcare, and there were not a lot of development opportunities for individuals, and economic opportunities for the country. The majority did not own material assets such as land and houses. Today’s development challenge is to change that and while noteworthy progress has been made in that regard, there is still much to be done.

We find ourselves having to deal with these development issues while also having to deal with the psychological damage (the scar) from our legacy of enslavement and colonisation. Issues of self-worth, understanding that we are equal (not better) to everyone else in the world, and Issues of self-loathing. We were taught not to like ourselves, to believe that we were ugly because we did not match up to the Eurocentric idea of what a human being should look like.

Economic challenges abound. The plantation model on which our economy is built is not viable. We are tasked to build an economy of diverse economic streams. Tourism has been identified as one such major stream, but it is a complex industry and if not managed properly can perpetuate a plantation-type economic model (one which bears bountiful for a few and meagre for the masses). A famous, now deceased Bajan author once told me that the tourism industry was just like the plantation system all over again – this time not played out in the fields but in the hotels. That notwithstanding it is an industry we must pursue and manage adroitly.

We have limited resources, and we must be creative in building a viable economy with the hand we were dealt. Those that dealt us a hand of underdevelopment and exploitation cannot escape their moral and ethical responsibility of putting to right this historic wrong.

We must not blindly follow the development narrative and dictates of our former colonisers who may still only be interested in extracting our wealth in whichever form or shape. This calls for brave, strong and focused political leadership. We must not fall for windfall schemes that undermine the integrity of the very identity we are trying to build. Our economic development path must be one of total meaningful and beneficial inclusion and must also remove and not perpetuate the psychological scars of slavery.

CARICOM’s Ten-Point Plan for Reparatory Justice outlines similar areas in need of intervention. Do you think reparatory justice is an essential part of addressing some of these issues that have been left behind from colonialism?

Yes, it is a concept of fairness and fairness defines us as civilised beings – not barbarians or savages.

If you (the enslaver and coloniser) over centuries built your wealth from my sweat and my blood, and then you extricate yourself when the spoils are over, simply leaving me to “carry on” with nothing, then that’s not fair.

If you are decent human beings, then together let us quantify in monetary terms today’s value of what you took from us yesterday. What do you have today and what have you left us with? Let us talk about how we can repair this. How can you help to fix the health issues of high blood pressure and diabetes? – non-communicable diseases that we are particularly susceptible to because of the diet we were subjected to during the centuries of enslavement.

Shoulder your ethical responsibility and help us repair the generational trauma that you have inflicted on us.

To simply answer your question, I fully endorse and embrace Caricom’s plan for Reparatory Justice.

Can you expand on the psychological impacts of colonialism in need of repair?

I am not saying that this occupies the thoughts of every Black person, but speaking generally, self -loathing is one of the things we still suffer from. As Black people, we ascribe certain derogatory traits to ourselves simply because we think we are “less than.” We often see ourselves as being on an inexorable path to failure because we are Black. We do it to ourselves because we have been taught so to do. 

We spend a lifetime trying to alter our physical features because we do not like them. We use creams to lighten our skin and chemicals to straighten our hair. We are embarrassed by the broadness of our nose and the thickness of our lips. Our physical appearance is a factor driving social stratification. The closer one’s features aligns to the Eurocentric standard then the higher one is on the social strata.

We are not proud of our ancestry because we were taught to believe that the Europeans went to Africa and met very primitive, uncivilised people.

What kind of Black Consciousness do you hope to see in the Caribbean?

A black consciousness renaissance. I want to see as normal discourse, similar conversations to what defined the eras of persons like Marcus Garvey, Ivy Ralph, Eric Williams, C.L.R James, George Lamming, Walter Rodney, Bob Marley – the list of black consciousness activists is long, but you get the point. Black consciousness must not be swept under the carpet, must not be muted. Understanding ourselves and being proud of who we are, having self-belief, grit and determination is essential to advance our social and economic development.

The Rastafarian movement has and continues to be an advocate of black consciousness.

What is your hope for the future?

I would like to see our younger generation – primary and secondary school students taught self-pride and dignity. To love and respect themselves and others. I am not saying that this is not an entirely absent initiative, but they must be taught it with the deliberate intention of addressing the events of the past. The fact that we were taught not to love and think mush of ourselves. Do not dance around the issue. Do not act as if it never existed. “Teach the children the truth.”

I would like to see our students being able to travel throughout the Caribbean, frequently and inexpensively. Let them learn firsthand about our shared history. Let them get to understand and identify with the richness and depth of our culture.

I would like to see bold brave and strong Caribbean leadership. Not the kind that follows blindly the development narrative of our former colonisers. A leadership that puts the dignity and pride of our people at the centre. A leadership that does not create a population of servile people and does not pursue economic development that simply perpetuates the characteristics of the Plantation Economy. Not an easy task by any means. I applaud the efforts in this regard of many of our current Caribbean leaders including my current Prime Minister, Dr. the Hon Ralph Gonsalves. He has helped to bring the issue of reparatory justice to the front burner and for this he must be commended.

I would like to see more attention paid to the creative industries because it is the output from our creatives that occasions us to be reflective.

I could produce a long shopping list of hopeful items, but I hope you get the point. Reparatory Justice and black consciousness should be top items on the Caribbean development agenda.