Caribbean islands must join as one

A federation of all Caribbean islands is an absolute necessity

I have been back to the Caribbean for four days, there to attend a funeral of a dear friend "hid in death's dateless night". In the short time since I was last there (May/June), so much has changed socially and economically. There has been the explosion on to the international stage of Usain Bolt and the other sprinters from Jamaica and Trinidad who stormed the Beijing Olympics. Their successes have lifted confidence among Caribbean people everywhere. And yet, there is also a social crisis on the agenda.

A one-day national strike has been called by trades unions in Trinidad because of the huge gap between rich and poor, rising prices of goods and services, and the failure of the government of the day to offer any release in difficult times. It promises to be a huge success. The economic crisis is further illustrated by the recently elected government in Grenada announcing that there is no money in the treasury to pay public servants. Other islands may well be sailing in the same boat.

Out of this mess, an economic and political union of the eastern Caribbean islands was declared by Patrick Manning, the prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago. Some commentators have been saying that he appears to have gone to bed of an evening and woken up the following morning having seen an apparition in his sleep.

This idea of federation has never been discussed in Manning's political party, or at least not in public. The people of these tiny islands know not how such a union will affect them. Voices have been raised for a referendum. Manning replies, in one sentence: "We don't believe in referenda here." He has gone ahead, signing a declaration with Grenada, St Vincent and the Grenadines and St Lucia. These islands, he says, will establish a single economy by 2011 and political union by 2013. All these announcements and declarations serve only to whip up Caribbean islanders into a frenzy.

But, of all these statements, or the lack of them, the most important, in my view, was a speech delivered by Peter Millington, a member of the Barbadian senate, who spoke about the rising materialistic culture in Barbados and the new trend whereby Barbadians happily state that they are not their brother's keepers. As he said: "You cannot see the price of oil go up one day and the next day go to the supermarket and see the price of cheese has gone up by four dollars. You would know that something is wrong. "

The senator concluded: "There is something coming to Barbados. People are picking up something. They are saying, 'I feel something but I do not know what it is.'"

Senator Millington was obviously pointing to the fact that mass disorder threatens, and yet not a single politician or commentator has dissented. Violence lies just beneath the surface of Caribbean society. A modern people will not be contained within a petty authoritarian culture. We have demonstrated this time and again in our history. We know that since our athletic success at the Olympics the eyes of the world are on us as never before. We will respond as modern people do when the grip of authority tightens around the neck. This is not merely an issue of high prices, of fuel, or of food. This is about freedom in the broadest sense to develop our creative powers.

In order to do this, a federation of all Caribbean islands is an absolute necessity - and this includes the Caribbean communities in the world's major cities. When the idea bit the dust once before, in 1961, hundreds of thousands migrated. I was one of the skilled professionals leaving the islands, one of those who could have started the task we now approach again.

There exists a huge instinct for democracy, at home and abroad, ready, willing and able to join together in order to lay new foundations. Any half-bred federation founded from top down is bound to undermine these possibilities.