In the Eye of Hurricane History

With a worldwide news and social media following, Irma has moved northeast after having shown no mercy in the Caribbean. The poor Caribbean — bloodied and with massive destruction once again. Irma left death, hopelessness and uncertainty in her wake — the same terrifying picture that has been repeated time and again throughout our history. And now, José is coming next, then Katia. The alphabet of storms continues to thrash the region violently, and the storms’ only silver lining is the gender equality shown in their naming.

The enormous storm hasn’t lost strength. If that happened, Irma would lose the public’s interest. No, rather it has taken a new course, slowly but uncompromisingly. It is moving toward the developed lands of the first world, where wealth and multinational interests are concentrated. The storm is simultaneously becoming more attractive for the media and singularly dangerous. Irma is no idiot: She is competing with North Korea, South Korea, China and Japan for the attention of the great North American power, and for the attention of the whole world. After all, distance and proximity are relative in these days of globalization.

When Donald Trump was asked about this historic hurricane, he began his description talking about its effects in Puerto Rico. Next, he eluded to our geographic zone as “other islands,” ending with a dignified mention of Florida.

Although I’m agnostic, I say: Free us, Lord, from the temptation to say that surely this time nature will be a wandering avenger. A stroke of the Trumpian pen could mean that 3,115 “Dreamers” risk being expelled from the United States, Dominicans among them. Yet, two properties owned by the current resident of the White House could be damaged or destroyed by nature’s fury — not the man-made fury promised by Kim Jong Un. The first, Le Château des Palmiers, is a princely mansion in the French part of St. Martin, where up to 70 percent of the structures were affected, some reduced to rubble. Irma is also threatening to take over Mar-a-Lago, another fantasy property along the Florida coast in Palm Beach.

Climate change and concern about our environment, the focus of the Paris climate accord last year but denied by the Republican administration, are no longer issues of importance in Washington. Rather, they’ve been thrown out because of unscientific doubters and revisionist media sources. Still, Irma’s storm predecessor, Harvey, reduced south-central Texas to chaos with unprecedented flooding that still covers great expanses weeks later. Houston, the petroleum capital of the world, endured a pounding accompanied by material and human losses that will take years to recover. Add to that the temporary closure of important refineries, as well as of a vital oil pipeline for fuel supplies, and it should be clear why fuel costs are rising here.

Summer and fall hurricanes aren’t the only disasters that have arrived in the Caribbean from across the Atlantic. Numerous historic events have taken the same route as the hurricanes. Strong, infelicitous winds of hate and personal gain stirred up endless wars in the Old World, refracting equal amounts of violence in the imperial frontier. Both Trinidadian intellectual Eric Williams and Dominican intellectual Juan Bosch refer to this phenomenon in their most important works.

From the African coast, whose warm waters mutate into terrific catastrophes (the science of which some find difficult to believe), came the ships filled with cargos of slaves who populated the Caribbean plantations. The mix of color and humanity, accompanied by all their cultural expectations, characterize these islands, which have been once again dominated by tragedy. Nobody knows the number of lives lost in the long journey from freedom to slavery. They were cheap lives that produced fortunes, fortunes that in turn financed expeditions, conquests, and more abject poverty and violent domination.

Sometimes uncontrollable nature punishes us mercilessly, without discriminating between humanity: the humble worker, the runaway slave, Trump, Dominicans in Nagua, our neighbors in Antigua, Barbuda and St. Martin. But destructive fury also comes from humanity with our capacity to sort through the ruins of destruction selfishly, taking advantage of moments of suffering. In nature, we humans are the only species who kill for reasons other than nutritional urgency. As if the slave ships that were contracted in Bristol and other European ports didn’t already bring a strong enough torrent of tragedy, other more powerful ships unleashed downpours of gunpowder and steel — hurricanes of suffering and death. And then there were the pirates and privateers who moved around the maritime channels that connected us with the north and, like Irma, left trails of disasters, shed blood, destruction and torment.

These islands are places that, as Irma has reminded us, still maintain the footprints of metropoles: Many are not independent countries but overseas territories. For example, the Netherlands and France — good friends now and neighbors forever — are receiving bad news from St. Martin, whose dividing line between the two colonies disappeared long before the arrival of Schengen.* In a little less than 40 square kilometers, two European countries have reproduced themselves in the Caribbean. St. Martin is close to us in sentiment because over the years they have taken in dozens of Dominican families, reflecting that interchange of populations among the Caribbean islands that has taken place since the beginning of history. Like hurricanes, the indigenous people of the islands moved freely. Movement around the islands obeyed the law of survival, as well as of the hatred and fear that engender war.

The United Kingdom also mourns because of Irma. The British Virgin Islands were the first to feel the ferocity of the historic hurricane, sending news of the calamity to the metropolis. Fated to be the victims of Irma’s second day of destructive and cruel work were the islands of Turks and Caicos. Although it’s early for full reports, nothing good can come from being contemplated from above by the eye of a hurricane.

Paradoxically, the country that started it all now governs none of the many Caribbean holdings it once possessed. Though, theirs is still Florida, where Irma is headed with lethal arrogance and where Ponce de Leon — memorialized by the main boulevard in San Juan, Puerto Rico as well as another city named for him, Ponce — never found his fountain of youth. Puerto Rico and Cuba were the last important Spanish colonies in the so-called New World. Or, from the opposite perspective, they were the last islands to gain their independence from that Iberian power. The Caribbean, flogged by pirates, cyclones, earthquakes, unscrupulous and cruel conquistadors, privateers, imperial armies, plagues and imprisoned African souls, folded up and put away the flags of the country that gave Europe access to a surprising source of riches, social experiments and new battlefields.

Then there’s France, which, though it lost our neighbor Haiti in events that were catastrophic to France’s economy, continues to be the European country with the most territories in the Americas. Almost all France’s American territories are in the Caribbean. This could be for better or for worse, since recently in French Guyana a social hurricane blasted through, closing airports and paralyzing the economy. Their demand: more attention from Paris.

The Caribbean’s fate is to be in the news.

*Editor’s Note: Schengen refers to the Schengen Agreement, wherein 26 European states officially abolished passports and all other types of border control at their mutual borders so that the area functions as a single country for travel purposes.

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