Hilbourne A. Watson

Hilbourne WatsonQuestions for CSA Past Presidents

Responses by Hilbourne A. Watson
CSA President 1993-1994

1. How did you come to specialize in Caribbean Studies?

My fields of concentration in graduate school were International Relations, Comparative Politics (Africa), Political Theory, and International Political Economy. I did not complete any formal study of the Caribbean as a college student. I came to Caribbean Studies in an indirect way, when I decided to conduct doctoral dissertation research on the Political Economy of Foreign Direct Investment in the Commonwealth Caribbean since World War II.

2. How did your interest in and commitment to Caribbean Studies evolve?

My interest in Caribbean Studies began with studying the Caribbean from the angle of foreign investment and international migration, and it expanded as I introduced new areas of emphasis including U.S.-Caribbean relations, social and political thought, globalization and issues about the State. It became clear to me that no single academic discipline could be adequate for making sense of the complex reality of the Caribbean which is why I have stressed multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary strategies. Through the years I have made a conscious decision to retool in order to educate myself about the Caribbean Region.

3. When did you first join CSA and what did it mean to you then?

The first CSA conference I attended was held in Castries, St. Lucia in January 1976. I joined the CSA in 1979 at the Martinique conference, which I thought was well organized: the panels were stimulating and I was impressed, so I decided to make the CSA the academic association around which I would try to cultivate my core intellectual relationships and interests. I had a perfect attendance and participation record at the CSA from 1979 to 2002. I served on the CSA Executive Council for several consecutive years, became Vice President (1993) and President (1994). Clearly, my involvement meant a lot to me. The only CSA conferences I missed since 1979 were in 2003-2005 and 2007.

4. What were your goals for CSA the year of your presidency?

I worked with the Executive Council to promote outreach, cultural and intellectual expansion and growth, and to deepen the institutionalization of the CSA administrative culture. During my membership on the CSA Executive Council it seemed that the organization tended to reinvent much about its institutional practices each year. Apart from certain routine work the Executive council carried out from year to year it seemed that there was little to connect the leadership with the membership which is why it appeared that the transition from year to year involved reinventing the process. The Executive Council tried to build on initiatives that had originated in the 1992-93 year in order to introduce a number of outreach activities with other academic associations organizations such as the International Studies Association (ISA) and the Latin American Studies Association (LASA). Not much was accomplished in terms of solidifying the outreach activities along those lines.

5. What did you recognize to be the greatest obstacles facing CSA and Caribbean Studies during your presidency?

I think we saw the issues in terms of challenges rather than obstacles. We worked hard to attract new funding. I approached the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Inter-American Foundation (I-AF). The OSA and the I-AF provided small grants to support special projects that targeted special events that were limited to the 1994 Conference, with special reference to environmental and broader ecological issues within the Yucatan Peninsula. Our outreach, effort was reasonably successful in that we attracted a number of scholars from Mexico, for example. We worked also at increasing membership and attendance and we were pleased with the level of attendance and participation at the level of wider Caribbean. I think it is reasonable to say that we helped to attract a growing number of younger scholars and graduate students. Two other challenges the CSA had been dealing with for a number of years were finding a ‘stable’ home for the CSA Newsletter and stabilizing our relationship with an academic institution at which to house the CSA Secretariat. We made very good progress on both fronts. The financial health of the CSA continued to be a matter for concern. The Ford Foundation (FF) had been a very important source of funding for the Annual CSA Conference, and the resources the FF provided were instrumental in helping the CSA to stay alive.

6. What did you consider to be the greatest accomplishment of CSA that year?

Holding the CSA in the Merida, Yucatan, Mexico was an important accomplishment. We had a very enthusiastic response and a high level of participation and involvement by academics and scholars from across the CSA communities and from the university community at the University of Merida and other academic institutions in Mexico including, for example, the National Autonomous University of Mexico (Mexico City) and the University of Quintana Roo (Mexico). We were excited about broadening the reach of the CSA beyond the insular Caribbean. For the second year we were successful in receiving funding from the OAS.

7. Why did you choose the location you did for the CSA annual conference that year?

The Executive Council was also eager to broaden the geographical-cultural reach of the CSA, hence the decision to take the CSA to Merida (Yucatan) Mexico. During the year I served as CSA Vice President, members of the CSA from the University of Quintana Roo (Mexico) approached me with an offer to host the CSA at their institution in 1994. When that option failed to materialize we approached a few faculty members from the University of Merida and they were enthusiastic and very professional in their response to us. We had a successful CSA in Merida with a large and diverse group of participants and impressive sponsorship and funding for the conference. The cultural exposure to the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico was rewarding and memorable. Funding provided by the OAS and the I-AF allowed us to explore important historic sites, address environmental and ecological issues, savor the cultural life in Merida and initiate contacts with scholars at the University of Merida.

8. Where do you hope to see CSA in the next ten years?

The idea of the Caribbean as an ‘autochthonous’ civilization makes sense not as a validation or authentication of ethnocentrism and preoccupation with insularity and difference but rather as a validation of our appreciation that the progress of civilization comes from recognizing and celebrating mutuality, interdependence and commensurability which are indispensable for discovering and celebrating our universal humanity. We are caught in the vortex of an unusual global crisis that is affecting all aspects of our diverse CSA reality education, study, research, organizing, publishing, travel, building and strengthening cultural networks, exploring new avenues of knowledge, renewing ideas and reinventing our cultural existence. The CSA must continue to be innovative in order to overcome the hurdles we must face. The CSA will have to manage its affairs and limited resources with great care, considering that we depend on membership dues and external funding to stay afloat. In order to keep philanthropic bodies interested in us we must continue to reinvent our self-image and be visionary. I hope that membership will increase, leading to an improvement in revenues to strengthen the association’s financial base. There is room to build networks with other academic associations in the region and beyond in order to make our diverseness a defining marker of what we are and do. I would like to see the CSA become much more proactive than reactive making change rather than reacting to change. The current crisis also suggests that the “Anglo-Saxon business model” which nurtured the global neoliberal order have been discredited, if not dead. How are we going to draw on our multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary strengths to help reshape the models and strategies that will help to restructure and redefine who we are in the global arena? Are we in a position to make an imaginative, creative and durable imprint in how we address the multifaceted challenges that are already facing state-civil society relations across the Caribbean Region?

9. What is one of your fondest CSA memories?

We took the CSA to Mexico (Merida, Yucatan) in 1994 and achieved an impressive level of participation.

10. What are you doing now in terms of the Caribbean?

I am researching several articles on a range of issues about the Caribbean and the disintegration of the global neoliberal model. I am also revising a number of articles and conducting research for a book on Errol Barrow and the postwar transformation of Barbados.

11. Where do see the future of Caribbean Studies?

I think there can be a bright future for Caribbean Studies. CSA membership has expanded; many younger academics and graduate students have joined the CSA because they recognize its achievements and are enthusiastic about contributing to its ongoing development which is a positive sign. There has been a remarkable growth of research and scholarship by many members including the younger persons. I think it is imperative that we address the major human, environmental and ecological challenges facing the region and its peoples; face more squarely challenges of the process of global transformation and determine how to respond to the local, regional and global forces that are reshaping the entire Caribbean Region. We should acknowledge that the only real inside-outside dichotomies about Caribbean identity are in our minds rather than in the real world. I would hope to see Caribbean Studies reflect emphases that help us advance the quest for our universal humanity.

12. What would you recommend to a young scholar starting in Caribbean Studies?

I would recommend that young scholars starting in Caribbean Studies consider acquiring a working knowledge of more than one of the languages of the region. I would also suggest that acquiring a serious grounding in the critical scholarship in a number of academic disciplines would also be essential. It is regrettable that, in spite of a high volume of valuable scholarship in translation about the region, there remains a deeply entrenched degree of insularity in much of the scholarship. Perhaps young scholars starting out will find ways to bridge the gaps that persist and help to overcome this durable weakness in the intellectual culture of the Caribbean.

Professor of International Relations
Bucknell University
Lewisburg, PA 17837