POINTE-A-PITRE, Guadeloupe – The Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe have seen turmoil in the past month due to protests over extremely low wages and high living costs. The weeks long protests are in response to the pervasive level of inequality in the economy of the islands with just one percent of the population, known as the bekes (the primarily white, elite slaveholder descendants), owning most of the industries and sources of economic clout in the islands. Many demonstrators, mostly afro-Caribbeans, believe that their current dire circumstances are a manifestation of the legacy of racism and slavery on the French colony islands.
France dispatched 450 riot police to tame the protests that have been characterized by gunfire, looting, arson, and the death of longtime activist and union member Jacques Bino, who was shot and killed in a housing project in Point-a-Pitre. Three police officers were also reported injured, one of whom was shot in the eye. Protest leader Domota said the violence was prompted by the police, who have been accused of harassing protestors with racist insults.
The social and economic disparities between the two groups runs deep according to recent statistics, with an unemployment rate of 23 percent and a poverty rate of 12 percent, compared to 8 percent and 6 percent, respectively, on the overseas mainland of France.
Serge Romana, president of an association commemorating the abolition of slavery in the French territories, has said that French President Nicholas Sarkozy “must absolutely abolish all traces of neocolonialism and vestiges of slavery in the overseas regions.” This call for respect and equality has barriers in systemic processes, however, as beke Jean-Luc de Laguarigue has said: “Tensions have festered over generations because France and its islands have not explored the painful past…The protests are not a call for war, but for dignity.” He noted there was no known slavery museum in France and the subject is pretty much taboo in the educational system.
On Sarkozy’s part, he promised a $250 monthly raise for low-income workers and a lowering of prices on 100 products by 20 percent. Protest leaders and government officials are currently negotiating for lower housing, gasoline, water and electricity costs.
For more information, please see:
Houston Chronicle – Unrest in France’s Carribbean Islands Claims 1 – 18 February 2009
Associated Press – Unrest in Carribbean Has Roots in Slavery Past – 22 February 2009
Star Tribune – On Martinique and Guadeloupe, Anger Over Soaring Living Costs Has Roots in Past Slavery – 22 February 2009