While the future of Caneel Bay is currently undecided, there is a pathway forward that deserves greater consideration – Virgin Islanders should own a cooperative resort at Caneel Bay. The long-term closure of a hotel that was once the largest employer on St. John and a cornerstone in the Virgin Islands’ economy lays bare the instability of tourism-dependent economies that are rooted in the exploitation of predominantly Afro-Caribbean communities. The broken structures of Caneel Bay, the plantation turned resort, raise haunting questions about power, economic justice and the possibilities of freedom in Caribbean islands that are still colonies.
Caneel Bay Resort did not reopen after hurricanes Irma and Maria battered St. John and other Caribbean islands in 2017. Instead, the owner, CBI Acquisitions LLC, sought to negotiate an extension of a 40-year retained use estate (RUE) that was created in 1983 when the 150-acre property was donated to the National Park Service from the Rockefeller family’s Jackson Hole Preserve. The RUE is due to expire in September of 2023. Negotiations between the National Park Service, the Department of the Interior and CBI Acquisitions, LLC and its affiliates fuel fervent disputes over Caneel’s fate. Specifically, the Afro-Caribbean community of St. John, who have long struggled with the Virgin Islands National Park over racist and colonial models of environmental conservation, are left feeling unheard and powerless in the face of the looming Caneel deal. These tensions exacerbate preexisting concerns regarding environmental stewardship and workers’ rights at Caneel.
There are conversations that must be had. What, for example, should be done with places like Caneel Bay, remnants of plantations? Who, if anyone, should profit from this sordid history of exploitation? How can we mitigate the displacement of our vulnerable community in the aftermath of devastating climate-induced storms? These questions, which reverberate across the African Diaspora, are relevant also to the time-sensitive decisions that need to be made about Caneel Bay’s future. Also of concern is that, right now, the existing Caneel Bay Resort is a beneficiary of Virgin Islands Economic Development Commission (EDC) tax incentives while sitting on public lands. As such, CBI Acquisitions LLC does not pay rent for the coveted property and they reap the benefits offered by the EDC’s tax incentives. Caneel Bay’s owners profit from the remnants of the plantation system, which include the sugar mill ruins, the neoliberal economic policies and the environmental injustices that continue to uphold white supremacy, colonial dependency and extractive logic. The Caneel Bay Resort exemplifies the enduring links between the past and today’s systems of oppression. We see the echoes across time in the sugar mills and the guest rooms, the white absentee plantation owners and the similarly absentee white American EDC beneficiaries and the enslaved and their descendants as an exploited workforce. Here on this luxury eco-resort, the nexus of past and present colonial relations is made visible. Critiques of Gary Engle and CBI Acquisitions, LLC, the current RUE holder, abound.
Yet, it is important to note that while CBI Acquisitions LLC has seemingly prioritized profit over workers’ rights, environmental stewardship and good community relations, there is a deeper problem with the larger political and economic system that must be addressed. As Virgin Islanders, we face many injustices that are at once racist, colonial, economic, political and environmental. As one illustration, our colonial economy is structured in a manner that allows for dollars to remain in the territory for a short while before circulating back to the United States, the territory’s metropole. This form of underdevelopment leaves us open to economic exploitation. As another, the resort is shuttered as a result of extensive damage caused by hurricanes Irma and Maria, two extreme hurricanes likely driven by climate change. Our precarity in the face of natural, colonial and environmental disasters provides CBI Acquisitions LLC with the additional leverage that they need to extend an unfavorable RUE agreement. Therefore, making this a climate justice issue that is exacerbated by colonialism. Future plans for Caneel Bay should address climate injustice and other root causes. The colonial status quo will continue to make Virgin Islanders, and St. Johnians in particular, vulnerable. For example, Virgin Islanders do not have voting rights at the federal level where decisions about Caneel’s future and other critical decisions are made.
At the moment, the views from the Caneel Bay Overlook and the hotel’s front gate continue to disfigure the landscape and serve as a cruel reminder of injustices. We could, instead, seize this moment to carve a better future for ourselves and our children. The Department of the Interior and the National Park Service should cease negotiations to extend CBI Acquisitions LLC RUE agreement. Instead, Virgin Islanders should be given an opportunity to bid on the RUE, which allows privately held corporations to have managerial control over this resort located inside the V.I. National Park. The once famed Caneel Bay Resort should then become a cooperative resort that benefits its workers and the wider community of St. Johnians, namely the colonized descendants of the enslaved. A Caneel Bay for the people, owned by the people, may be a lofty dream. However, if Virgin Islanders attain Caneel and commit to cooperative ownership, a Caneel for the people is a formidable step towards economic empowerment, environmental justice and self-determination.
2021 presents a critical conjuncture in the history of the United States Virgin Islands. Specifically – the devastating 2017 hurricane season, the territory’s fiscal crisis, the homicide rate, the energy crisis, the current COVID-19 pandemic and the overt white supremacy of the Trump era – require us to present innovative solutions to our current dire straits. We must upend the status quo and design a self-determined future for ourselves if we are to meet these challenges head-on. Caneel Bay presents an opportunity for moving in the right direction.
As a cooperative, the resort will benefit a wider cross-section of the Virgin Islands community. The historical resources on this former plantation can be managed by the very people who are structurally disadvantaged by the plantation system and its legacies. A cooperative owned by Virgin Islanders is more likely to heed the voices of Caneel Bay’s workers. The resort can be re-envisioned as a mixed-use development that aims to meet community needs with resort space dedicated to initiatives that focus on arts, history, culture, education and environmental sustainability. A new Caneel Bay Resort could showcase the beauty of nature and the complexity of the human spirit as witnessed and experienced on this small but beloved island.
Let’s join community organizations and advocates in saying that there should be an open bid for Caneel, one that would allow the people of St. John to determine their futures.
“If you want to go fast, go alone; but if you want to go far, go together.”
Please call or write the following officials and tell them to end negotiations for a “non-competitive 40-year lease for CBIA Acquisitions LLC” and open the bid process.
U.S. Representative Stacey Plaskett
Virgin Islands Delegate to Congress
DC Office Phone: (202) 225-1790
STT Office Phone (340) 774-4408
STX Office Phone: (340) 778-5900
or submit an email here: https://plaskett.house.gov/forms/writeyourrep/
Southwest Regional Director, National Park Service
Office Phone: (404) 507-5603
Douglas W. Domenech
Assistant Secretary, Insular and International Areas, U.S. Department of the Interior
General Line: (202) 208-3100