Over the last 10 years, the Caribbean has been the site of many demographic and democratic changes. These shifts have been earth-shattering for some, and life-changing for others. One of the shifts has been the economic meltdown that resulted after the United States-based mortgage crisis of 2008. The second change has been the ferocity and frequency of natural disasters. This article will explore the confluence of events between the economic meltdown of Caribbean countries, met with Chinese investment, and the concomitant infrastructural disintegration from hurricanes that came after governmental withdrawal from responsive upkeep and maintenance to public works. This has also resulted in a move toward the downsizing and privatization of the public service sector in hopes that it will work more effectively; but actually the true cost of financial and political mismanagement has been the loss of human capital and the collapse of many public services. The focus here is on Puerto Rico and how it can be seen as a precursor of what seems to be progressing in The Bahamas.
Most of the design in both spaces has been aligned in their move toward almost exclusive reliance on free zones and foreign direct investment. Both Puerto Rico and The Bahamas adopted this model in the 1950s; Puerto Rico did so through offering U.S. companies tax-free status if they set up factories on the island, and The Bahamas, through the creation of Freeport, an early free port. Both have spaces where companies function as if they existed in a non-national international space that locals have no access to.
The Bahamas has signaled that it is following the Puerto Rican model of designing for foreign investment. Puerto Rico has fashioned itself as the next best place for foreign investment and cryptocurrency. It has decided to pave its way out of debt and hurricane disaster by investing in tax breaks, non-taxing industry policies and new, high-end gated communities designed for high-net-worth crypto experts. This builds after a New York Times article as well as an article in GQ explore how Puerto Rico refashioned itself through Laws 20 and 22 of 2012 that make it a tax-exempt haven for any U.S. citizens moving to the island. They can get away with private planes and helicopters being tax-free and living lavishly, notwithstanding the crumbling infrastructure of the country they reside in but are not a part of.
ABC News Foreign Correspondent Eric Campbell cites Brock Pierce as wanting to turn Puerto Rico into a ‘crypto Paradise’. This happens as the government of The Bahamas claims it is moving toward making Freeport (an already privately owned and operated port that is not a part of The Bahamas where goods can enter and leave without touching The Bahamas), the next tech hub.
It seems that other regional governments are doing similar things and they are beating us to the table. It is also coincidental, perhaps, that all or many of these governments operate in war-torn or disaster-ravaged areas that need a whole lot of help to recover from the recent slate of disasters. This, much like the islands in the southern Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, British Virgin Islands and Antigua and Barbuda are being remapped or rezoned as green areas for foreign investors ready to create crypto, blockchain or green-paradise enclaves, where private investors can own their own piece of paradise and government will not interfere. This comes as locals are moved off their land in order to recover from natural disasters and government misspending.
The backdrop to this is the Naomi Klein-termed “shock doctrine”; that is, governments taking advantage of shock to inflict savage economic and rezoning policies on their citizens, effectively moving them off their land, as was the case in parts of Asia after the 2006 tsunami.
Meanwhile, Puerto Rico struggles to recover from Hurricanes Maria and Irma. Reuters News reporter Carlos Garcia Rawlins observes that the death toll is higher than officially stated. In Barbuda, people have been removed from their land, according to The Guardian’s “The night Barbuda died”.
Piecing together different stories, we see how many parts of the Caribbean are falling to the desire of privatization and foreign giants are swooping in and buying up land for private enclaves. There is a combination of disaster capitalism and green gentrification at play.
As we look to the southern islands, from Acklins to Ragged Island, government has done little except declare that these will be rebuilt and that Ragged Island will be a green island; yet the latter remains deeply unaffected by this apparent policy.
As The Bahamas approaches yet another hurricane season, what plans are enacted, aside from telling residents, ‘There is no money to rebuild; your home is uninhabitable?’ It seems that, like Puerto Rico and Barbuda, the islands of The Bahamas are being put up for international auction or out to tender; and as some people, not affected by climate-change refugeeism, claim government should no longer be responsible for these islands, why not allow the residents to develop strategies that might make it possible for them to redevelop their own island? It seems that government, as in Puerto Rico, has designs on people’s homes. Joaquin, Matthew, Irma and Maria have revealed deep cracks in the façade of nationalist development in island nations. We must design our lives as we wish them to be.
• Ian Bethell-Bennett is a professor at the University of The Bahamas.