Pirating the Caribbean: Are New Media a New Colonialism?


This article originally appeared in Issue# 32

"A velvet silence calms the tropical night – a silence so profound that it can be felt. As the sea murmurs outside and f lowers perfume the air, the tense circles of exultant spectators wait in eager anticipation. Very soon they will learn the answer to a mystery that's been troubling them for a very long time. When the suspense is lifted, they'll know – Who Shot J.R."

When diverse representatives from the United States and Caribbean-based church groups met in the Caribbean late in 1983 to study local media they had shows like Dallas in the back of their minds. Like other developing regions, the Caribbean is increasingly overwhelmed by newer forms of U.S. media. Government-controlled stations on most islands have carried U.S. shows since they began broadcasting in the 1960's. But their programming was limited to a few hours a day.

Now the islands are being saturated with a flood of video cassette tapes of U.S. movies and television shows. Computerization is coming. Satellite downlinks can pull whole U.S. stations off the air from as far away as Chicago. The situation is complicated by closeness to the U.S.–geographically, economically and politically. The British-influenced Eastern Caribbean speaks English, so language is no barrier. Many West Indian governments are recipients of the U.S. Caribbean Basin Initiative aid program. To U.S. advertisers the Caribbean represents a "local" market.

People are beginning to ask the question: 'Isn't it time we took control of things?'

All these factors made the study team feel that the islands were a logical place to gauge the impact of U.S. media on Third World cultures. Team members from Intermedia, a U.S.-based interdenominational communications and education group and the Caribbean Conference of Churches (CCC) hoped to ask some crucial questions with worldwide relevance:

    • Can the Caribbean (or any culture) maintain traditional values while concentrating on social, political and economic development?
    • How can consciousness about the effects of media be raised in areas facing other pressing economic and social challenges?
    • Are there ways in which the technology itself can be used positively for cultural development?
    • Can traditional forms of media (folk art, music, theatre, storytelling) be used to form a cultural counterweight that will prevent indigenous cultures from disappearing?
    • How can a country's leadership establish guidelines for new media technologies?
    • What role should the churches and other socially oriented activist groups play in this process?

A Closer Look

The study team attempted to explore these questions by focusing on island residents with some specialized knowledge of media, education, development or government policies. As special research consultant Stewart Hoover pointed out, "We were aiming at a slice of information in between the purely statistical and the citizen-in-the-street survey interview. We wanted to talk to people who not only understand the effect of media on the average home but who also knew the pressures affecting the overall picture."

Team members conducted intensive interviews with more than 50 people from government, industry, media education and cultural interests in five Caribbean islands: Barbados, Trinidad, St. Vincent. St. Lucia and Jamaica. Following an orientation in Barbados, where the CCC is headquartered, team members visited islands in pairs (except for Jamaica, which Hoover visited separately). In general, West Indian participants were paired with U.S. team members, resulting in a more balanced perspective. Team members were:

    • Stewart Hoover, Annenberg School of Communications, consultant for North America;
    • David Briddell, Director, Intermedia;
    • Rudolph Hinds, Coordinator, Communications Unit, Caribbean Conference of Churches;
    • Janis Clark, Caribbean Conference of Churches;
    • Janice Engaberg, United Church of Christ;
    • Roy Lloyd, Lutheran Church in America;
    • Trevor Marshall, University of the West Indies in Barbados.

Special consultants from the Caribbean were:

    • Fr. Patrick Anthony, cathedral administrator in Castries, St. Lucia;
    • Marlene Cuthbert, University of the West Indies in Jamaica.

Team members hoped that their observations and the information they gathered would provide the philosophical underpinning for a series of steps that would help church and media professionals in both the U.S. and the Caribbean deal with what was viewed as a common problem.

As Intermedia director David Briddell put it, the ultimate aim was to begin to right one of the wrongs perpetrated by Western and U.S. culture. "It is simply unjust for people anywhere to be oppressed or stultified because of the power of another people, no matter how it happens. As Christians and human beings we felt it was important to do everything we could to help the people of the Caribbean control their own media development."

Although expecting a considerable degree of influence, U.S. team members were still surprised by the degree of incursion they found. As Briddell pointed out; "There are more outlets for VCR rental and sales in Bridgetown, Barbados (33), than where I live in Englewood, New Jersey."

Although many West Indians have been very familiar with U.S. programs over a long period, evaluating their reality is more difficult, according to Ben Logan, a United Methodist Communications producer who recently presented seminars on Television Awareness Training (T-A-T) in the Caribbean.

"I was surprised how many characters from even 1950's television they recognized. But it was hard for them to understand that U.S. television doesn't represent me and my total values either. When I explained that there was an 'island' called Hollywood that was creating my TV values as well, it made sense to them. This kind of basic consciousness-raising is what's required." (Note: Television Awareness Training was a pioneering media education project of the Media Action Research Center)

Roy Lloyd, in the telecommunications department of the Lutheran Church in America at the time of the survey and currently a communications consultant, commented that satellite programming makes borders "almost irrelevant." "Solid ingrained sensitivities about what's proper and improper are being subverted. For example, I was told on Trinidad it's still illegal to swear publicly– those laws are still on the books. Yet look what's coming in on videotape and off the satellite."

Caribbean governments have found that heavy use of U.S. canned programs is the easiest, simplest way for local television stations to make money.

Thanks to cable, television is penetrating even the most remote areas. Some Caribbean islands now receive satellite programs 24 hours a day. However, as Hoover pointed out, the influence of outside media is still nothing new to most West Indians.

"For example, after a radio service called Rediffusion went on the air on Barbados in 1935, you could depend on everybody in the country getting up at the same time. That was because you never turned the set off. When programming went on in the morning everybody woke up. So they've had a long history of external media that were uniform. Now we see the reaction to media that involve choices– after all, you do have to choose your video program. People are beginning to ask the question: 'Isn't it time we took control of things?'"

To Rudolph Hinds, CCC Communications Coordinator, this remains one of the most crucial questions, particularly in light of the region's cultural and economic dependence on the United States. "I was one of those responsible for bringing television to Barbados in 1963. I can still imagine many ways it can be used positively. But instead of local programming and teaching aids we get too much of this cheap, canned stuff."

Looking North

To most Americans, the Caribbean region is still a little-known island paradise– a tourist destination whose history and culture are hardly taken seriously. Yet to most people in the Caribbean, the power and influence of the United States is an ever-present fact of existence. The hundreds of thousands of tourists who flock to the islands each year are a staple of the Caribbean economies.

Many Caribbeans are also bound up with the U.S. through a network of family ties. One of four Barbadian families has a family member or close relative in North America. Some go north for their formal education and then return home. Others move north for employment opportunities and to join their families. Many people in the Caribbean have an interest in understanding the U.S., and their main source of information is news and entertainment received from U.S. cable, broadcast television and video cassettes.

Ironically, U.S. policymakers may not appreciate their power. Witness reactions to the sudden availability of U.S. cable programming through pirated satellite downlinks. The United States government is officially unhappy about such piracy– so unhappy that it has threatened to make substantial penalty cuts in the 4-year, $365-million Caribbean aid package if piracy is not controlled. Entrepreneurs, on the other hand, believe the signal is available pending comprehensive copyright agreements.

However, many media commentators feel that U.S. policymakers may be missing a bet. In any event, the U.S. lifestyles, values and attitudes that pour off the television sets into Caribbean homes infuse viewers with a form of propaganda that is all the more effective for being subtle.

Creating a Market

The situation is complicated by economic factors. To begin with, Caribbean governments have found that heavy use of U.S. canned programs is the easiest, simplest way for local television stations to make money. Such local programming that exists is limited primarily to news and some broadcasting of occasional specials related to festivals, sports or other events. Larger islands with more resources have a higher level of local programming.

As in the U.S., broadcasters go for the mass audience. Caribbean advertising agencies use U.S. research because they tend to assume that Caribbean tastes are similar to those of U.S. consumers. U.S. commercials also get a free ride because they appear on locally distributed unedited versions of U.S. programs. The familiarity of U.S. advertising makes local advertising harder to sell. It also tends to increase the U.S. orientation.

When Barbados' 40,000 television sets are tuned to the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation's seven hours of afternoon and evening programming, nine of the 10 most popular programs originate in the U.S. Smaller, less developed islands like St. Vincent and St. Lucia are subjected to a kind of dual colonialism– they get programs that are "canned from both ends"– programs that originate in the U.S., Barbados, or Trinidad.

Looking Back

How do West Indians view these programs? Are they really changing their way of life? These questions need to be viewed against the background of Caribbean history, which in many ways represents a cultural survival from the African forebears of the slaves who were brought to work the sugar plantations in the centuries before emancipation in 1834. Black slaves and white masters also mingled– racially and culturally– with workers from Europe, South America, Asia and the Orient who were brought in to provide labor in the years that followed.

Since most Caribbean countries didn't win independence or self-government until the 1960's and 1970's, their cultural mix was developed in the shadow of their masters and colonizers. Individual national and cultural identity is still a central problem. Many West Indians must continually ask themselves a dual question. "What does it mean to be a resident of my island (a Barbadian, Trinidadian, Vincentian and so on)? What does it mean to be a Caribbean?"

Although in many ways rich and varied – African influence has survived in several patois and dialects, in storytelling, dance and especially music– a certain sense of inferiority remains. As one resident put it, "imperialism may have decreased, but it is still a fact of life. Anything that is local is not good, that's the idea. The materialism we see (on television) causes us to spend indiscriminately. It's like the cocoa we ship outside after growing it here. If we want cocoa, we have to bring it back in."

Against this background, West Indians are all too apt to become passive recipients, "even negative performers, in a communications system programmed elsewhere," says Hinds. "As a communicator who has used most of the tools– music, song, drama, writing and broadcasting – I've seen collective efforts for sustaining, reinforcing and preserving our culture despised and rejected," Hinds laments.

"Village, community, and national heroes fade before the images of Hollywood stars. People are being taught that it is more blessed to give blows than to receive counsel, that the inevitable way out of an argument is through violence or physical and verbal abuse. Fast food is imported to meet the supposed needs of tourists who were anxious to taste local cuisine. In Barbados the media has destroyed such instruments for community involvement as the village choirs association. It has killed the service-of-song and tea meetings (musical gatherings in which the whole community joined)."

Preserving Culture

Indigenous programming is more widespread on radio. In fact, some programming modes on radio might serve as models for local television. For example, Radio St. Vincent, a station with a strong signal which reaches a number of other islands, uses Caribbean music for the majority of its programming. However, it has also broadcast a local play and has run a bi-weekly locally written serial. Roy Lloyd believes the colonial mind-set is still a substantial problem in getting all types of local programming off the ground." Broadcasters are searching for an appropriate model. Unfortunately, it's become natural to expect communications from other places."

Lloyd believes that people need to be made aware that sophisticated new broadcasting systems are actually much simpler to operate than they used to be. "Once people see it's not technically beyond them they can begin to act."

The project also investigated non-broadcast methods of developing a positive outlook on local culture. According to study team member Janice Engsberg, a St. Vincent organization called the New Artists' Movement (NAM) was one of the most creative attempts to promote local culture. A grassroots movement that resists attempts to control it – it wouldn't even go on television during a local festival because pre-approval of programming would have been required – NAM uses locally written dramatic programs to present a native theatre.

Biannual plays feature improvisation and humor. Spontaneous, open-air productions throughout the year attempt to invoke spiritual values and involve everyone present. Engsberg believes that "national self confidence is one of the products of NAM's song, dance and drama."

"Focusing entirely on media is like the man with a tiger outside the room. The man may think the tiger is the problem, but the real problem is HIM and what he's going to do about the tiger."

Jamaica and Trinidad also have had some success at organized efforts to preserve local culture. Hoover mentioned that the Jamaican "Memory Bank" program which records local culture has been positively commented on by residents of other islands. Although reggae and calypso are viewed with justifiable pride as examples of successful cultural exports, their status as commercial ventures has introduced some changes, Lloyd pointed out.

"Many recordings are now made in New York, and the higher costs make it necessary to aim at a broader audience. Topicality and a local viewpoint tend to get lost in the process."

Appropriate Technology

As in the example cited, technology and culture will inevitably affect each other. Yet true development in the long run will depend on appropriate use of technology. As Hinds put it, "Our definition of development suggests an enhancement of human personality. Technology can be a part of this process, but it is only appropriate if the users have control over it. They must themselves be able to adapt and develop it. Where the license to use the technology is the gift of an outside body or agency, which controls the rules for its use; where it is owned in the First World for use in the Third World, the technology may not be appropriate."

How to do this in the context of a free society of course is a continuing problem. So far, most West Indian governments do not seem disposed to regulate media flow. And of course, extensive censorship seldom works outside of the context of a totalitarian society.

As the final study report put it, Caribbean local interests must "take control of their own cultural destinies and use whatever means ("high-tech," "old," or "traditional") necessary to do so." As one resident commented; "If we opt for the lifestyle of U.S. television we have made a choice. But making real choices is an indication of the maturity of a society. You are then commanding things, otherwise you don't know that decisions are being made for you. Sure, these media are problematic, but focusing on them is like a man in the room with a tiger outside the door. He may think that the tiger is the problem, but the problem is him and what he's going to do about that tiger."

Author Bio: 

Rosalind Silver, who started as a volunteer writer for Media&Values magazine in 1983, was named editor in 1989 and continued on staff until the magazine ceased publication in 1993. She holds an MA in Journalism from the University of Southern California. She is a copy editor on the Press Telegram, Long Beach, California.