Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Other Caribbean

How should we best live in a world with inequality?

I just went on a cruise in the Caribbean with my in-laws: a celebration of my wife's parents' birthdays. We celebrated on a large beautiful ship that carried us through the warm waters of the Caribbean. The ship was a floating pleasure palace taking us to private beaches with perfect turquoise water.

Perhaps I am already too disillusioned to enjoy this Caribbean, because I have seen the other side of these islands—the side hidden from vacationers. I lived a summer in Haiti eight years ago, so the warm blast of tropics brings to my mind suffering, disease, and death. Unlike our own sterilized tropics of Florida, the paradise of the Caribbean seems to me a bandage hiding a gaping wound of human suffering.

This place has become the perfect escape because here among the impoverished the American can live like a king. We are taught to imagine the poor people as living charmed idyllic lives. Their suffering and squalor is carefully hidden from tourists.

On this cruise another island people, Indonesians, did all the manual labor on the ship. They were hard working and kind to all of us over-eating vacationers. I asked one Indonesian man what he does on his days off, but he has no days off—not a single one in his 11 month work contract. I asked what he does when he goes ashore, but he isn't allowed off the ship. All this labor for what I'm sure I would find a shockingly small salary. This is certainly a job he chose of his own volition, but not in some fair system in which transactions are beneficial to all parties, rather out of desperation because his world contained no opportunities at all. It is his cheap labor that makes this pleasure cruise affordable to Americans.

I don't think all inequality is necessarily wrong, but it is not a thing to desired. It also seems obvious that inequalities easily become opportunity for exploitation of those less advantaged. Our use of the people of these islands for our enjoyment demonstrate a pattern of exploitation, both intentional and unconscious. These island are populated by the decedents of sugar plantation slaves—the sweet, fattening substance was produced by the most brutal form of slavery this continent ever saw. Are we so sure that now our behavior towards them in the tourism industry is not also exploitation? Do we not purchase the destitute of the world cheaply with our dollars?

When I was a boy I first saw third world poverty in Mexico on a vacation. We were American tourists on buses, being taken from a beautiful hotel to a scenic destination. Out the windows I couldn't help but see them, people dressed in rags living in tin shacks. My father saw me staring. He said, “A lot of people here have it very hard, but I am glad we came here. Being here on vacation means the money we spend goes to improve their economy here.” My father is a good man, who worked hard and saved to give his family a nice vacation. He was genuine in his belief that he was being socially responsible with his tourism, and I believed him then.

But I have since lost my confidence that trickle-down economics will save the destitute in a world that is stacked against them. I have also come to believe that coming here to celebrate our good fortune in front of those who have nothing is an unintended insult to them. Treating our fellow man with dignity requires we don't use him wrongly.

I'm not always sure how to live in a world with inequality, but I am certain this will be my last pleasure cruise in the Caribbean.

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