It is increasingly clear that we are entering a new era, a period of rapid change, of grave threats, and also of opportunities. As the historian T.W. Maitland once said, “We should always beware that what now lies in the past once lay in the future.” And, as Mark Twain said, “The art of prophesy is very difficult, especially with respect to the future.”
What follows is neither prophesy nor prediction, but a possible path to an uncertain future for the territory. In looking back, what happened often seems inevitable. It wasn’t. Choices were made, or, just as often, not made.
This is the second of two parts. In Part One, “We Did It!,” Virgin Islanders addressed big issues frontally and took advantage of the opportunities that presented themselves. They effectively managed change in the three decades between 2020 and 2050. In Part Two, this essay, “Dystopia,” they did not do any these things.
Dateline: April 5, 2050, Washington, D.C/St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands.As the forces of reaction, white supremacy and corporate power became firmly entrenched during the early decades of the 21st century, the Interior Department’s Office of Insular Affairs became a dumping ground for some of the worst elements in American public life. Some of these were racial bigots, but a larger group consisted of crooks and chiselers who saw the territories as fertile ground to make a fast buck.
This development had two dire consequences for the U.S. Virgin Islands. The first was that there would be little support in finding solutions to the territory’s pressing economic, environmental, governmental, social and fiscal problems. The second was that it gave Virgin Islands’ leaders all of the excuses they needed to not address these problems on their own. They would always have someone else to blame, notably the fascists and racists in Washington, and they never failed to avail themselves of these opportunities and invariably found themselves blameless. The results were catastrophic.
In the period from 2020 to 2050, the population of the Virgin Islands declined by almost 30%, matching the declines in places like Bulgaria, but also elsewhere in the Caribbean, as climate change, economic decline and a deteriorating social environment made life in the region more and more precarious.
Being a United States territory was both a blessing and a curse. It meant that, unlike others in the region, Virgin Islanders could go to the United States; but it also meant that the young, the talented and the ambitious were among the first to leave, even though the U.S. was hardly the land of opportunity that it had once been. In many instances, these young Virgin Islanders had returned home to help build a better future for the territory, but in the end, had been overwhelmed by negative forces and threw in the towel.
Not surprisingly for many Caribbean migrants, including those from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, rather than the United States, the dream was now to get into Canada, which had successfully resisted the tide of reaction, anti-immigrant scapegoating and racism.
Because the forces of reaction had triumphed, there had been little productive investment in the Virgin Islands in the three decades between 2020 and 2050. Instead, the federal government became the vehicle for the kind of predatory, exploitative and corrupt mainland activities that had long plagued the territory. Most notably, critical infrastructure contracts were granted to shady and incompetent firms, leaving the three major islands, as well as the smaller ones, largely unprotected from violent weather events, rising sea levels and the failure to provide routine maintenance.
Decaying and often impassible roads became the most visible barometer of the territory’s descent.
At a history conference in the year 2020, a local leader said, “My God, 1990 feels like just yesterday, not like 30 years ago.” Time flies. The same could be said for the year 2020 from the perspective of 2050, except that UVI didn’t bother to hold a history conference. Instead, older people now groused about the missed opportunities and about how they had gotten used to lives that had become more stressful, hostile and unpleasant by the year. Nobody needed a conference to reinforce those messages.
A zero-sum mentality, always a subtext in the Virgin Islands, was now the first rule of life. If anyone got anything, it must be coming out of someone else’s pocket. If St. Croix got something, it meant St. Thomas didn’t get it. And, rather than solving problems together, groups of Virgin Islanders had become experts at the American game of defining themselves as victims and designating scapegoats to blame for their misfortunes.
Politics and government were driven by factions, all trying to get their small slice of a shrinking pie. The idea of a vision for a better future was no longer even discussed. Increasingly, people dwelled in the past, ignoring the reality that in 2020, just three decades earlier, what was now the past lay in the future. Choices? We have no choices, was the standard response.
But, there were choices. They were choices at the local level that, regardless of what was happening on the mainland, could have built a better future for the Virgin Islands and its citizens. They were choices that involved pulling together, making real decisions, getting things done instead of posturing, facing the reality that “the way we do things here” didn’t really work, and that people needed to be held accountable for their actions.
Choices not made. And a 41-old-man, who had been 10 in 2020, asked himself, what will it be like here in 2080? He was a thoughtful and knowledgeable man. He realized that pessimism was always self-fulfilling. He knew that if you believe it can’t be done, you will always be right. He remarked to a friend, that, sad to say, one of the good things about living in the Virgin Islands is to know that you will never be disappointed. He added, “It didn’t have to be this way.”
Frank Schneiger was executive director of the Federal Region II Children’s Resource Center, which trained a generation of V.I. children’s services workers. He subsequently founded the St. Thomas/St. John Youth MultiService Center. In the past two decades, he has served as planning consultant for a range of Virgin Islands organizations and has been a columnist for the Virgin Islands Source. He is the author of two books, “The Arc,” under the pen name of Roberto Vincent, and “The Purge: The Future As History in the Age of Trump,” available on Amazon.