Congratulatory remarks continue to pour in for Ralph “De Comrade” Gonsalves of St Vincent and the Grenadines for his historic victory at the polls last Wednesday. Protest action also continues in the twin-island Commonwealth state over irregularities which were highlighted by the main opposition contender in the election, the New Democratic Party (NDP).
Perhaps the 2015 general election of St Vincent is akin to the 2013 one in Barbados in a single way: while both victories were a masterful exhibition of well-orchestrated politics, history may not prove them to have been the best outcomes to move the two respective islands forward.
Barbados approaches the start of its 50th anniversary of Independence in a prolonged economic downturn. There are also serious concerns about the state of crime on the island; about unemployment; the climate of industrial relations; and outstanding environmental issues, including the status of the Cahill project and infrequent collection of household refuse.
Although the Democratic Labour Party Government has been at pains to beat its political chest about the confidence of the people, which has seen its return to power, that return has not been consolidated into anything tangible for Barbados.
The Gonsalves-led Unity Labour Party (ULP) is like the Democratic Labour Party, asserting itself in its one-seat victory. Dr Gonsalves was sworn in as prime minister on December 10, even amid protests outside the residence of the Governor General. The others of the cabinet were sworn in in the capital of St Vincent, again amid protests from Vincentians.
Although there is something to celebrate at the personal level for the De Comrade’s victory, there seems at the moment little gain for St Vincent. I supported the stance of term limits just taken in St Kitts and Nevis. I cannot then philosophically support a fourth term for Dr Gonsalves.
Dr Gonsalves still has much to contribute to his nation and to the Caribbean; but I do not see the retention of prime ministerial power as critical to this contribution.
I first met “De Comrade” as the president of the Guild of Students at the University of the West Indies, Mona. This meeting was facilitated through one of his treatises on his life and work –– The Making Of The Comrade: The Political Journey Of Ralph Gonsalves. My next meeting of the “De Comrade” was much later, as a young female rookie journalist at the Caribbean Media Corporation.
The 1968 riot at the Mona Campus of the University of the West Indies was triggered by the refusal of the Jamaican government to readmit Walter Rodney after he had attended an academic conference overseas. Rodney was a Guyanese-born historian and political activist who became acclaimed for his academic writings, teachings and activism in working-class areas in Jamaica.
In the introduction to his autobiography The Making Of The Comrade, Dr Gonsalves makes it clear that the reaction of the Jamaican government to the Rodney affair and the student protest had crystallized his political involvement and activism into a lifelong commitment to fight for certain philosophical principles, including democracy, social justice, liberty and the “working people”.
In 2001, Dr Gonsalves again used his belief in the right of the masses to democratic protest to lead what is now famously called the Roadblock Revolution of St Vincent.
By the start of the decade of the 1980s, both traditional parties of St Vincent and the Grenadines –– the People’s Political Party (PPP) and St Vincent Labour Party (SVLP) –– had lost prominence. New entities had emerged, including the NDP and ULP (which was a coalition of two other entities).
The NDP managed by 1984 to assert itself as a significant political force in the island. By 1989 its national support had resulted in its taking all 15 seats in the election. However, by the 1998 election, a decade later, although it had won by one seat (eight to seven), it only secured 45 per cent of the popular vote compared to the 55 per cent gained by the ULP.
The ULP kept pressure applied to the NDP government. Dr Gonsalves had taken over the leadership of ULP in 1998 and the party had strengthened its on-the-ground activities. When the NDP made the first major “error” in April, 2000, by tabling a bill to increase the pensions and gratuities of parliamentarians, the ULP was positioned to rally the mass discontent with the
Gonsalves was integral in this process by his admission in Chapter 4 of his reflection. He orchestrated “shutdowns” of Kingstown on particular days of the various activities, which were organized to display public discontent. “De Comrade” in his book outlines how on a particular day of protests the paramilitary special service unit was mobilized. They carried riot equipment, M16 assault rifles and battle gear. Simply and succinctly, things had got hot in St Vincent.
The protests on the streets of St Vincent continued and eventually engaged the attention of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States and CARICOM. Gonzalves forced Prime Minister James Mitchell into negotiations for a general election date a full three years before the election was constitutionally due. Sir James and Dr Gonsalves agreed the election would be before March 31, 2001. It was eventually held on March 28, 2001; and Dr Gonsalves secured a victory.
St Vincent and the Grenadines is no stranger to having election victories characterized by slim margins, or to having opposition parties that destabilize governments. It is also no stranger to protests and remonstrations after elections. And yet there is the irony of a four-term prime ministership and accompanying power that can make a man forget when he hmself was at the forefront of mass protest.
“De Comrade’s” voice was one of the loudest in persuading Denzil Douglas of St Kitts to respect the people’s wishes and concede the election in the recent 2015 poll. He gained my further respect
for his stance.
However, now that his own people were demanding answers of him, “De Comrade’s” response was to swear himself in and then his cabinet. Such is the intrigue in the political arena of my Caribbean.
I believe the only pill for prime ministerial memory loss is term limitations. “De Comrade” has much which his country and his region still needs, but his contribution cannot be fully made within the absolute and philosophy-altering power of prime ministership. We all await the outcome of the several writs which have been filed by the NDP concerning the Central Leeward constituency and others.
Ironically, the obstinacy of the NDP reveals that the democracy which the young “Comrade” pledged to defend, after his experience of leading the UWI student riot, is alive and well in his homeland. So, perhaps, what will happen next in Vincy Land could be the grandest legacy
of “De Comrade” yet!
There is also one other little blotch on the otherwise outstanding record of “De Comrade” –– his issues with women. I, again, cannot philosophically support a pro-womanist agenda and accept that “De Comrade’s” alleged behaviour in this regard can be simply swept away.
I know that the Caribbean political construct of the god-leaders demands that we overlook their flaws and create epitomes worthy of worship. I have problems with this aspect of Caribbean political expectation.
(Marsha Hinds-Layne is a full-time mummy and part-time lecturer in communications at the University of the West Indies. Email email@example.com)