Last night we attended the opening of "Keys to Memory-Step Back in Time" at The Historical Society of the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda. The evening, celebrating a new permanent history exhibit, featured a "moving cultural exhibition." This was a pageant dedicated to the history of the island from the time of the Amerindians. The theme was how over the years people from all over the world have come to Antigua. There was no shrinking from the slave period, which ended in the 1830s, and leaves its legacy today. Yet the overall message was positive, one of progress and a brighter future.
It was a wonderful show, part Christmas pantomime, part carnival (Antigua Carnival is in late July, a legacy of celebrations for the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953). People of all ages, from all sorts of different communities appeared in the parade. The evening brought elements from the whole island together; from the tony Mill Reef Club, where Jackie Onassis used to stay while visiting the Mellons to the smallest villages; to the expatriate communities from other CARICOM nations; to immigrants from Arabia, Portugal, and France.
Most striking to an American, was the American section of the pageant. Narrator Keva Margetson recalled the gratitude on the island when the American military bases opened in 1942, offering jobs with good salaries as an alternative to work on the plantations. Antiguans were grateful for the first competitive opportunities for their labor. This seemed to mesh with my recollection of Uzbekistan, how happy the Uzbeks were that there was an American base paying good wages in US dollars. Antiguans likewise appreciated the cash. An American Air Force officer, carrying a US flag, marched in the pageant, along with everyone else.
That element of American life--paying people a living wage--is an important one. American military aid is not only for the projection of force, it also helps lift up the population of countries by providing jobs to local inhabitants, and an alternative to existing social structures that gives individuals just one more choice than they had before.
In Antigua, the establishment of American sub-hunting bases during WWII, followed by satellite tracking stations during the Cold War, helped the island's transformation from an agrarian, underdeveloped economy to something more modern. Jet travel brought tourism. And over some 60 years turned this small island into a hub of high-tech--though not always legal--commerce.
Today, Antigua is a world center for internet gambling as well as money-laundering (there is a government money-laundering agency) and cruise ships dock regularly unloading thousands of visitors, who spend gobs of money on things like swimming with stingrays. There are more banks registered in Antigua than in my hometown of Washington, DC. Antigua just recently won a case before the WTO involving American attempts to shut down its offshore gaming industry.
Clearly modernity has its pluses and minuses, but for Antigua and the Antiguans, as demonstrated in "Key to Memory-Step Back in Time," the benefits have outweighed the costs.