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For Educators — Understanding Colonialism: The Effects of Colonization

Most of the countries in the world today have a colonial past: they were colonies of another nation, or owned colonies, or both. The traditional colonial relationships are nearly extinct now, but the effects of those relationships persist. What are the effects of being or having a colony?

Former colonies

Generally speaking, places that were colonies in the past are now either independent nations or have become part of the nation they used to belong to. Two examples are Haiti and Guadeloupe, both of which were colonies belonging to France. Haiti is now an independent nation and Guadeloupe is a department (state) of France.

Read the articles linked below to see how these two former colonies compare with Puerto Rico, still a possession of the United States. You will discover that both Puerto Rico and Guadeloupe are in much stronger positions, economically and politically, than Haiti. This does not mean that joining the colonial power as Guadeloupe did is necessarily better than gaining independence as Haiti did, but it can be.

You will also discover that both Puerto Rico and Guadeloupe are in weaker positions than their mainland counterparts economically, even though they are in stronger economic positions than their independent neighbors in the Caribbean. Puerto Rico, which is neither a sovereign nation nor a state of the U.S., is also in a politically powerless position relative to the states. Guadeloupe has the same rights and responsibilities as other regions within France.

Comparing Puerto Rico and Haiti

Comparing Puerto Rico and Guadeloupe

Not all former colonies are in weaker positions than their former colonizers. The United States was a colonial possession of Britain, France, and Spain. It is now an independent nation and is the richest country in the world. Singapore, Australia, Macao, and Canada are some other examples of wealthy former colonies. However, former colonies in general tend to be less financially successful and often also less politically stable than the imperialist nations that owned them.

One explanation for this is that the colonizing nations exploited the resources of the colonies. Wealth was removed from the colonies and sent to the colonizers. The people living in these places were exploited, too, and traumatized by violence, racism, slavery, and imposition of the colonizers’ culture. In modern times, the legacies of these actions continue to oppress the people of the former colonies. Tax havens, climate change, debt, and ongoing human rights violations continue to limit the power of  former colonies, both economically and politically.

For classroom discussion

Challenge students to identify modern nations that used to be colonies. Have groups of students work together to find basic information about their chosen nation:

  • Which nation(s) owned them in the past?
  • What kinds of exploitation took place during the colonial period?
  • When did they gain independence, or equality within their country if they joined the colonizing nation?
  • Do they currently face challenges like poverty, poor health, climate emergencies, political instability, or high levels of crime?
  • If so, are these problems connected with their colonial past?

Have each group present their conclusions to the class.

As a class, apply the same thinking to Puerto Rico. Tax havens, climate change, debt, and ongoing human rights violations are all current problems in Puerto Rico. Does Puerto Rico currently face more of these problems than the former colonies like Haiti and Guadeloupe? What causes can your class identify for these problems?

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