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San Andres: identity and development in the Caribbean

Turismo, desarrollo e identidad en el Caribe

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Key words:  Africa, Colombia, religion, politics, indigenous, identity, society, ideas, nature.

Cristina is a 28-year-old with light colored skin and incredibly green eyes. This would not be exceptional if we were not on a Caribbean island where white skinned people are usually identified as tourists. After having spent years away from San Andres, Cristina is back to positively impact this small territory which is suffering from an environmental crisis and disappearing resources.


Cristina was born in a privileged area of the island but she remembers the poor quality of the water, the high prices of electricity, and the many times the island would flood during the rainy seasons. Even though San Andrés is the second most popular Colombian tourist destination, with 678,000 visitors in 2013, many inhabitants live with an ineffective solid waste system, and without clean drinking water or a sewage system.


Since the 90’s, the island-dwelling population has duplicated and in 2005 the native community of only 23,000 people became a minority. San Andrés is one of the most populated islands of the Caribbean: there are more than 100,000 inhabitants within 27 square kilometers. While the Office for Control of Circulation and Residency (OCCRE), an institution dedicated to population control, operates on the island it does not seem to be serving a purpose. There are at least 20,000 people on the island with an irregular residency status.


Today, different sectors of the island are looking for solutions to many problems they are facing through more autonomy with regards to the central government in Bogotá. Autonomy would allow them to control the island’s development, instead of allowing continental Colombians to continue with political control.



The history of the natives of the archipelago of San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina begins in the early 18th century when Anglo-Saxon immigrants began to arrive, accompanied by their African slaves. Even though the Spanish crown decided to reconquer the territory at the end of the same century, the English and Jamaicans continued arriving on the islands. It was during this time that Cristina’s family began their San Andres story, when the Jamaican immigrant and son of Irishmen, Jeremiah Lynton (Cristina’s great great grandfather) married Rebecca Bowie, a San Andres resident and heiress to plantations and slaves.


In 1853, the reverend Philip B. Livingston abolished slavery on the islands. “When my grandmother was a young girl she attended to the slaves who had at one point been part of the family. They had become old and were hardly able to move,” Cristina recounts. The big cotton plantations were substituted for coconut plantations, and land was divided among inhabitants who worked in agriculture. This was done in order to create an egalitarian society, free of salaries and wages. 


At the same time, Livingston founded the First Baptist Church which then began to characterize the way natives interacted and related with one another. Anglo-Saxon culture was transmitted for generations. Standard English became the cultured language of their society. Cristina recalls how her grandmother always makes a point to distinguish her English from Creole, which was always looked upon with contempt because of its African roots, and remembers the English of her Irish and English ancestors. 



After the 1886 Constitution, the State became centralized and began to promote this model through policies called “Colombianizacion.” Such policies allowed the first wave of immigrants to arrive on San Andres with the objective of exercising the principal public service positions even though they were completely disconnected from the social and cultural reality of the territory.


With the fall of coconut cultivation and sales, the islands’ directive body, which was wholly unprepared for the changes this would generate, proposed a new economic model. In 1953, San Andrés became a Free Port. Continental Colombians and those of Arabic descent were the ones who really began to take advantage of these policies by beginning to populate and found businesses on the island. This gave way to a huge wave of immigration and subsequent massive investment from continentals, until the first bank branch opened on the island. Even though he was a continental Colombian, Cristina’s uncle, Manuel Angarita, was the first manager of the Banco de Bogotà and that is how her maternal side of the family was integrated into the island population. 

Daniel Bent, a retired man who spent his life as a guard for certain terrains, is critical, “For a few pesos we have given our lands away.” Others have rented out their land with informal contracts which, according to Colombian law, in the long run led to a transfer of ownership to the immigrants. At the same time, some territory was lost due to expropriation processes carried out by the State. The sensation that many islanders have is that they were extremely naive. Orma Wilson, also retired, remembers: “Before, we had plenty of land to produce sweet potato, yuca, coconut, plantain, avocado...” It was in this way that the society went from making a living from agriculture and fishing to depending on imported products and being unable to effectively integrate themselves into a new economy based on tourism and commerce. 



Meanwhile, Colombianización policies enforced learning Spanish in schools and converting to Catholicism in order to keep in line with national identity. In 1933, the Bogotanian Alberto Munévar, who ended up becoming the husband of Cristina’s great grandmother, Rosylda Lynton Bowie, founded El Bolivariano, the first primary school in San Andres under Bogota’s direction. “My grandmother always says she remembers when she lived on the land where the school is today until her father took her to Barranquilla in search of a better quality of life.”


“At recess, they told us not to speak that ‘mumbo jumbo,’” an ex student remembers. "You couldn’t get scholarships if you didn’t become what they wanted you to become,” she points out. Mariano Gómez, ex Principal of the Bolivariano School affirms that in 1984 they were expecting to receive 60 children for the sixth grade course but overnight 120 showed up to enroll. “I don’t know where they all came from!” he exclaims.

A native recounts, “Years ago I saw a novel by Irvin Wallace in English and in Spanish. I bought the Spanish version and after having walked a block, I said to myself: ‘My God! What is happening to me?’” The situation was such that the continentals “were changing the worldview and life of the islanders,” and so the islanders began to segregate themselves into two sectors. On La Loma and San Luis, “Baptist churches preserved identity elements” and promoted anti-Colombian sentiments.



In light of their marginalization, the raizales (as the original islanders of the archipelago are called) began to identify themselves as a different group and highlight their ethnic particularities. Upon analyzing their discourse, however, to a certain extent the authenticity of certain characteristics of their cultural identity has been lost. Throughout the decades, many raizales have converted to Catholicism even though leaders of the movement see Protestantism as a fundamental element of their raizal identity.


Creole, which was denigrated by the elite, has been promoted again as a native language in order to give legitimacy to the natives’ identity struggle with the Colombian state. Furthermore, in order to avoid confusions with other Afro-communities which generally do not benefit from a particular status, they prefer to highlight their British ancestry. 

The progress of the indigenous cause in Colombia has given way to political strategies for the raizals, who are now in the position of demanding certain particular rights from the Government. Recognized as an ethnic minority, the raizals can expose their problems to international organizations like the UN or Unesco. ​



The raizal movement is made up of various groups with different objectives. Their origin may be related to the political group Sons of the Soil (SOS), which in the 80’s sought a positive differentiation for the natives.


With the 1991 Constitution, cultural differences were recognized and this allowed islanders to fight for their rights. Article 310 established the need to create a special legislation for the islands. Due to the issues of overpopulation and decreasing resources, OCCRE was created. In the same way, SOS achieved the recognition of the islanders as an ethnic minority, thus legitimizing the name raizal, which allowed them to elaborate the Raizal Statute.


However, those achievements were not enough to improve the island’s situation. In 1999, with the help of various Baptist pastors, a major civic strike was held by the raizal movement in which they declared an environmental crisis due to overpopulation, and demanded the government expulse illegal immigrants and give the raizal community more autonomy.


Within this framework, the group Archipelago Movement for Ethnic Native Self-Determination for the Archipelago of San Andres, Providence and Saint Kathleen (AMEN-SD) was born, and today it is headed up by Raymond Howard, the pastor of the First Baptist Church. He assures, “We are not Colombians. Our culture is not their culture, our language is not theirs. Our territory is different. They don’t know us and they’ve shown us.” According to his exclusive interpretation, even though Cristina’s ancestors were within the first generation of islanders, she cannot be considered raizal because she does not speak Creole nor is she a Baptist.

Due to this radicalization, in 2007 the Colombian government organized the National Independence Day celebration on the islands. Now, many islanders have the idea that Bolivar freed them. However, as of a few years ago, islanders have begun to celebrate August 1st again, the day the slaves were emancipated thanks to Mr. Livingston, and a fundamental date for the native community.


Although AMEN-SD continues to be the main political reference for the raizal movement, R-Youth is growing to become a movement which aims to heighten the raizal discourse. When she arrived in San Andres, Cristina bumped into the leaders of the movement by coincidence. “We did an x-ray, so to speak, of our struggle and we realized it made more sense to talk about raizal identity. It’s about a sense of rootedness. After having lived here some time, other Colombians have generated a sense of belonging in regards to the island. If you really love and care for the archipelago, you defend it.” 

Marco Fides, born in Barranquilla but an inhabitant of the island for forty years, declares, “The situation on the island hurts me just like it does any raizal. The Occre is allowing lots of people to stay illegally, more than the island can really receive. And we, the residents and raizals, are left without work.” Franklin, in a sarcastic tone, adds, “I wish Nicolás Maduro could be the director of Occre and expulse all the illegal Colombians.”


The particularity of some could benefit all residents. Obviously, in order to achieve the statute of autonomy the consensus of the majority is indispensable. For R-Youth, autonomy is not independence. “We want the raizal community to be recognized as the owner of this territory. With political power, we intend to make this island better.” In 2016, the Colombian Congress will make a decision regarding the raizal statute. “I feel that we are at a turning point,” Cristina reflects, “If we unite and reconcile, we could all live together in the paradise of these islands.” 

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