Cape Verde, rising, with emigres' help

Deepening ties bind islands, Bay State

John Monteiro, who came from Cape Verde in 1959, helped establish a fast ferry network to let Cape Verde gain economic clout. Arid and mountainous, the islands have a land area about the size of Rhode Island, and income, literacy, and nutrition standards have improved dramatically. John Monteiro, who came from Cape Verde in 1959, helped establish a fast ferry network to let Cape Verde gain economic clout. Arid and mountainous, the islands have a land area about the size of Rhode Island, and income, literacy, and nutrition standards have improved dramatically. (George Rizer/Globe Staff)
By James F. Smith
Globe Staff / April 26, 2009
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John Monteiro came to Massachusetts from Cape Verde in 1959, when he was just 6 and memories of famine in his African island nation were still fresh. He put himself through Tufts University, built a thriving construction business, and became a civic leader on the South Shore.

But like many Cape Verdean immigrants, Monteiro never forgot his homeland, even after he found his fortune here. In 2006, he journeyed back for the first time, leading a delegation of investors.

That trip, and four that followed, spawned a $50 million project for high-speed ferries that will start sailing in June, providing reliable transport and new business options for the poorest of the nine inhabited islands of Cape Verde - including Fogo, where Monteiro's family came from.

The ferry project is just one of the many ways that New Englanders of Cape Verdean descent, whose roots here stretch back to the 1850s, have helped their tiny homeland transform from one of the world's 50 poorest nations into a model of development for all of Africa. They have helped forge a system of secondary schools, where there were almost none - drastically reducing illiteracy - and helped found the first public university on the islands. They have worked to nurture political institutions that have made Cape Verde one of the exemplary multiparty democracies in Africa. They have fed powerful connections in the world of music, film, and culture.

Cape Verde's strides toward prosperity have been as unheralded as they are rare in the developing world. The swelling two-way flow of talent, ideas, and money between the island nation and Southern New England - epicenter of the Cape Verdean emigre diaspora - is a similarly quiet tale, one long drowned out by glaring headlines about deadly gang violence and lingering poverty in the community here.

But it is a story overdue for attention - and telling.

Cape Verde was born out of seafaring, and cruelty. Portuguese explorers and traders established the first settlement in 1462 and imported African slaves into the empty archipelago, located 375 miles west of Senegal in West Africa, to provision their fleet. Arid and mountainous, the islands, with a total land area about the size of Rhode Island, endured relentless cycles of drought and hunger.

Cape Verdeans, a people of mixed race blending African and Portuguese blood, began finding paths out of the islands' poverty as early as the 1700s, signing on as crewmembers for New Bedford whaling ships and creating a foothold in new lands.

"For us, the concept of Cape Verde is not just the islands, but also the diaspora," said Maria Mascarenhas, the tall and imposing consul general, a career diplomat who has been in Boston for three years.

"For us, Cape Verde is a global nation."

The prominence of Massachusetts and Rhode Island in that global diaspora is impossible to overstate. It is no accident that Cape Verde's only consulate in the United States is in Boston, and that it has enough work to support three satellite branches, in Brockton, Pawtucket, R.I., and New Bedford.

Most statistical measures show that more people of Cape Verdean descent live abroad than the 430,000 or so residing in the islands. Major communities have settled in Portugal, Italy, France, and Holland. Most Cape Verdeans will tell you they are half a million strong in New England, but the Cape Verdean Embassy in Washington puts the number in the United States at about 200,000.

Many of those emigres, like those who left other lands, often send money home to support family, remittances Cape Verde's government long counted on as a major source of capital. But Mascarenhas said that in this decade the government's strategy has very consciously turned toward tapping the diaspora for resources and expertise. Investments in Cape Verde by those living abroad now exceed the value of the traditional cash remittances.

Members of Monteiro's group, the Cape Verdean American Business Organization, are in the top rank of those investors, moving from the ferry project to an investment in factories designed to convert mountains of trash into energy.

"The government likes us because we help them take care of their problems," Monteiro said.

The economic transform- ation on the islands is nothing short of remarkable. After independence from Portugal in 1975, Cape Verde was one of the world's 50 poorest nations, classified by the United Nations as "Least Developed Countries." In January 2008, Cape Verde became just the second African country to graduate from "least developed" status (Botswana did so in 1994), based on measures of income, literacy, nutrition, and economic stability.

From 1996 to 2006, annual growth averaged 5.7 percent, and extreme poverty is projected to fall by half by 2015. That is in a country where famines killed thousands as recently as the 1940s.

Education also draws intense diaspora support. At the time of independence, Cape Verde had two high schools. Now it has 30. And Cape Verdean-Americans are closely involved. For example, last month New Bedford educators traveled to the island of Fogo, a sister city, to build on a program involving website exchanges and distance learning. Wareham's public schools also have an exchange program aimed at improving basic education in the islands.

"Literacy has been turned upside down," Mascarenhas said. "We have technically zero illiteracy now."

At the university level, Bridgewater State College president Dana Mohler-Faria, a third-generation Cape Verdean who grew up in Wareham, helped Cape Verde establish its first public university. Mohler-Faria began working with the national education ministry in 2002, and made the first of three trips to his ancestral land in 2005. The university opened in 2007, and now has 3,000 students.

This fall, three Cape Verdean graduate students and five undergraduates came to Bridgewater to study, and in their spare time worked with recent immigrants. The number of students of Cape Verdean descent at the Bridgewater campus has more than doubled in the last six years.

"Our chief information officer and his assistant are in Cape Verde right now," Mohler-Faria said. "We have built this strong, strong engagement."

Mohler-Faria's grandparents came to the United States around 1910 because of poverty and drought. He picked cranberries as a child.

"If my grandparents could see me now, it would be beyond their wildest dreams," he said. "Reconnecting and bringing it full circle has been very rewarding for me."

The Cape Verde alumni association in New England is also running mentoring programs, and the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth has several initiatives with the islands.

The Cape Verdean Embassy in Washington and the consulate in Boston have become expert in tapping these skills.

"If Cape Verde is what it is today, a democracy, with good governance and transparency, a lot of this is due to Cape Verdeans abroad who are pushing those values," Ambassador Fatima Veiga said in an interview at the embassy.

Cape Verdeans living in New England also play an active role in their country's multiparty democracy. The Cape Verdean Parliament has two members representing the diaspora and both are from New England. The Boston consulate organizes the ballot among Cape Verdean citizens here.

One reason that the linkages have stayed so strong is that people of Cape Verdean descent retain an especially powerful sense of cultural identity and involvement generations later, and the Cape Verdean government has learned to take advantage of that tradition.

"They are working to funnel all the diaspora's energy back into development there," said Claire Andrade-Watkins, a second generation Cape Verdean who is a historian at Emerson College who also teaches at Brown University. She worries that development will come at the expense of Cape Verde's rich cultural heritage, especially as globalization and tourism engulf the islands: "Culture is our most valuable asset. What happens when it's for sale?"

Not everyone who leaves the islands emigrates for good. Many Cape Verdeans travel to the United States and Europe to attend schools and universities, and then return home.

"We are an island people. Everyone has a sense of adventure, of needing to travel and come back," said Gunga Tavares, the cultural attaché in the consulate. "Here, you find people in the US who hadn't been back for 20 or 30 years and now go back regularly. . . . Islanders always want to come back - to put your feet back in the water that raised you."