issue 203 - January 1990
Fabled in antiquity as the Islands of the Hesperides or Islands of the Blessed, the Cape Verde Islands won independence in 1975 from Portugal, which had colonized them since 1462. But if the Ancients had thought of them as the Islands of the Blessed, the reality emerging in 1975 proved very different.
Scenically splendid with volcanic peaks, the islands lie about 400 miles to the west of Africa's western bulge. The people, brought as slaves from the mainland, had known centuries of hunger and despair. Slavery ended in the nineteenth century but forced labour and an acute racist persecution took its place. These ensured destitution and in 1975, when the Portuguese empire crashed, a seven-year drought looked ready to guarantee calamity. Food supplies were very short. Half the labour force was unemployed. Health and modern education services were practically non-existent. No structures of self-rule, even the most primitive, had been allowed to develop.
'Our people had lost the belief that their country could be of use to them,' recalled President Aristides Pereira. He and some 90 veterans of the anti-colonial struggle on the mainland, in Cape Verde's sibling colony of Guiné (Guinea-Bissau), had come home in 1975 to lead the struggle for a new life. 'But we came back to a society which had fallen apart. We came back to disaster.'
The story since then has been anything but disastrous. The people have shown that warm and vivid hope can be made to grow out of despair. They have done this by means of an ingenious and dogged application of the principles of participação popular or people's participation. Their leader, Amilcar Cabral, who was assassinated by Portuguese agents in 1973, showed how to win the liberation war and at the same time build the foundations for self-government.
The result today is that Cape Verde not only governs itself by a national people's assembly elected by universal adult suffrage, but also possesses a dense network of local councils, supplemented by participatory organizations, to settle the details of everyday life. People's power is a reality.
Material results accompany this building of participatory politics. In these practically treeless islands, voluntary effort has enabled the planting of some 15 million drought-resistant trees. Foreign aid has been used to increase and ensure fresh-water supplies.
Large problems remain but at least no-one here dies of hunger. In the style of Cabral, this is a regime of prudent and realistic temperament. The visitor will not find 'triumphalism' but a careful claim to have at least begun the difficult climb to national viability.
Leader: President Aristides Maria Pereira
Economy: GNP per capita $500 (US $18,530)
Currency: Cape Verde Escudo (C V Esc)
Exports are fresh and frozen fish, livestock produce, vegetables, coffee, salt and entrepôt trade. Efforts are being made to develop industrial services such as ship-repair, cargo carriage and weather surveillance.
Imports are rice, wheat and maize/corn with some fuel, machinery and textiles also.
Most people are small farmers or peasants and face recurrent drought and soil erosion. Land reform is being implemented and main food crops are maize/corn, beans, bananas, sweet potatoes and groundnuts. Fishing (shellfish and tuna) is growing.
Health: Infant mortality figures not available, but improvements have been made since independence.
Culture: The Portuguese brought Africans to Cape Verde in the fifteenth century to work as slaves. Nowadays many Cape Verdeans live in the US, Holland, Portugal and Senegal with a few in the UK.
Religion: Catholic and some traditional African religions.
Language: Portuguese and Creole
Marxist-oriented democracy with African overlay
Help us keep this site free for all
New Internationalist is a lifeline for activists, campaigners and readers who value independent journalism. Please support us with a small recurring donation so we can keep it free to read online.