When the American, Ervin Drake, wrote the lyrics for his song It Was A Very Good Year, in 1961, Dominica’s Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit was not born as yet and Guyana’s President, David Granger, was a 21-year-old youth.
But the 47-year-old Skerrit and Granger, now 74, have every reason to say 2019 was indeed a very good year for them, albeit for different reasons.
Political victories, losses, records and battles
Skerrit will always remember with fond memories, the year 2019, as it allowed him to enter, yet again, into the political history of Dominica. Being the youngest prime minister as he was in 2004, he is now the first prime minister to win four consecutive general elections in that Caribbean country. Skerrit was also able to lead his ruling Dominica labour Party (DLP) into a fifth consecutive general election victory despite moves by the opposition parties –both legal and otherwise – to halt the December 6 general election.
“I have never seen so much external interest in our campaign,” Skerrit would later say, after the DLP swept the main opposition United Workers Party (UWP) by an 18-3 margin in the two-way fight for control of the 21-member Parliament.
The opposition had during the campaign called for electoral reform, and more so, the need for voter identification cards with pictures and a cleansing of the electoral list. The opposition was supported in its call by the United States and the Secretary General of the Organisation of American States (OAS), Luis Almargo, who earlier in the year had been the subject of much criticism from a divided Caribbean Community (CARICOM) grouping on his unilateral backing for the efforts to remove the elected government in Venezuela.
As he was being sworn into office, less than 24 hours after the victory, Skerrit said he believed the “external people” had used the Opposition Leader Lennox Linton, whom he said instead of focusing on his campaign had been used “to carry out their plans.
“I do not envy him. I never had the opportunity of being in opposition, people have told me it is not nice,” Skerrit said as Linton would later indicate that his UWP would not recognise the election results even though several regional and international observer teams, including those from the OAS, the Commonwealth and CARICOM, said reflected the will of the people in Dominica.
Linton has since said the party intends to challenge the matter in the courts.
Meanwhile in Guyana, Granger’s coalition government, A Partnership for National Unity (APNU), was able to remain in office even though it had been defeated in an opposition inspired motion of no confidence in December 2018 and the voters were expected to cast ballots for a new government 90 days later in keeping with the provisions of the Constitution.
In July, the Trinidad-based Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), which is Guyana’s highest court, ruled that the vote of no confidence against Granger’s coalition administration was valid and urged all parties to adhere to the provisions of the country’s constitution. But it gave no date for holding the elections.
Under the Guyana Constitution, the elections should have taken place 90 days after the vote of no confidence had been passed. The Constitution also makes provision for an extension of the period based only on a two-thirds majority vote in the Parliament. The National Assembly did not provide that extension.
The ruling by the CCJ followed legal moves by the government to challenge the legality of the vote of no confidence in the lower courts after one government legislator had sided with the opposition to pass the motion and overturn the government’s slender one seat majority in the 65-member National Assembly.
“We challenged the validity of the no-confidence motion and defended the challenge to the constitutionality of the appointment of the Chairman of the Elections Commission,” Granger said, adding that the legal processes were neither frivolous nor aimed at delaying the consequences of the no-confidence motion.
The CCJ had also ruled that the appointment of retired justice James Patterson as chairman of the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM) was flawed and urged a consensual appointment supported by both the president and the leader of the opposition, Bharrat Jagdeo.
In the end, the parties agreed on retired justice Claudette Singh, who would inform the country that the polls could be held in February next year.
But Granger had insisted that the polls would only be held when GECOM said it was prepared to conduct a free and fair poll and while the main opposition People’s Progressive Party (PPP) had rallied against plans for a new voters list generated by a house to house registration exercise, including a legal challenge, it agreed with Granger’s announcement that voters would elect a new government on March 2 next year.
Eight years after it was swept out of power, the Virgin Islands Party (VIP), headed by Andrew A. Fahie, in March won the general election in the British Virgin Islands (BVI) winning eight of the 13 seats at stake.
The party, which formed the government between 2007 and 2011, won four district seats and four Territorial At-large seats, while the incumbent National Democratic Party (NDP) won three seats.
Fahie, 48, was ousted as Opposition Leader last December, following the split within the then-ruling NDP, with Ronnie Skelton leading a faction, and became the largest opposition party in Parliament.
The election was the first general election in the Territory to use electronically-tabulated voting, rather than manual counts.
In Montserrat, another British Overseas Territory, Easton Taylor-Farrell, led his Movement for Change and Prosperity (MCAP) into power in November reversing its 2014 electoral defeat.
“It is a bitter sweet celebration, now that we have come home, in the MCAP camp we are celebrating. I must admit I would have preferred to have a bit larger majority, that’s not the case but we will work with what we have for the benefit of this country,” he said.
Taylor-Farrell, who took over the leadership of the party after then-premier Reuben Meade lost the 2014 general election to the People’s Democratic Movement (PDM), said the time has now come to heal the nation and he would also be placing much emphasis on the youth of the island.
Outgoing Premier, Donaldson Romeo, who had been ousted as leader of the ruling People’s Democratic Movement (PDM) weeks before the election, was the only successful independent candidate in the election.
In June, St. Vincent and the Grenadines emerged victorious winning a seat and becoming the smallest country to become a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council for a two-year term. Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves described it as a “sweet; very sweet, sweet victory.
“I am saying thanks first of all to Almighty God, we thank the members of the United Nations, we thank the members of the Group of Latin America and the Caribbean, those from the Africa group, Asia-Pacific, Western Europe and others and Eastern Europe; all of the countries of the world,” Gonsalves said.
After a decade-long campaign, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the Group for Latin America and Caribbean (GRULAC)-endorsed candidate for the term 2020-2021, secured 185 of the possible 191 votes, while six went to El Salvador, which announced a last-minute bid.
St Vincent and the Grenadines becomes the second Caribbean Community (CARICOM) country to serve on the Security Council since Jamaica’s 2000-2001 term.
While Skerrit, Granger, Fahie and Taylor-Farrell and even Kingstown could have regarded 2019 as a “very good year’ for them, this was certainly not the case for President Jovenel Moise in Haiti, who came to power in 2017 and Suriname’s President Desi Bouterse, the leaders of the only two-non-speaking English countries within CARICOM.
President Moise spent all of 2019 deflecting calls for his resignation by opposition parties that staged violent and fatal demonstrations across the French-speaking CARICOM country.
The opposition parties have accused Moise of corruption and unsuccessfully sought to impeach him on the grounds of high treason, violating the Haitian Constitution and leading the country to “the edge of social explosion”.
The unfolding social and political situation in Haiti was of concern to the wider CARICOM grouping that had, following their summit in St. Lucia in July, named its chairman and host Prime Minister Allen Chastanet, as well as his counterparts from Jamaica and The Bahamas to undertake a fact finding mission to be facilitated by the Haitian government.
At year end, the mission was still grounded and CARICOM said it was still awaiting a response from Port au Prince for the good offices Prime Ministerial delegation to visit.
Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the OAS, Sir Ronald Sanders, would later urge CARICOM not to abandon Haiti.
“Haiti is in turmoil again. This time the countries of the Caribbean Community cannot be criticised for inaction, but questions must be asked about others in the hemispheric community who have been silent about the political and humanitarian situation in the country,”’ Sir Ronald said, in a clear reference to the OAS “which has been active in other countries (but) has been conspicuously silent” on Haiti.
By yearend, Antigua and Barbuda and St. Vincent and the Grenadines nominated Ecuadorian diplomat Maria Fernanda Espinosa to replace the incumbent OAS Secretary General, with St. Vincent and the Grenadines Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves “urging all Caribbean leaders not to vote for Almargo” when the election comes up in March next year.
In November, a Military Court sentenced President Bouterse to 20 years in prison for his involvement in the 1982 murders of 15 political opponents of his then military government in the Dutch-speaking CARICOM country. The trial had been going on for several years and in a lengthy verdict the Court did not order his detention.
In 2017, Bouterse along with 23 co-defendants appeared in the Military Court after the Court of Justice had earlier rejected a motion to stop the trial. The former military officers and civilians had been charged with the December 8, 1982 murders of the 15 men that included journalists, military officers, union leaders, lawyers, businessmen and university lecturers.
The prosecution had alleged that the men were arrested on the night of December 7 and 8 of that year and transferred to Fort Zeelandia, then the headquarters of the Surinamese National Army. They said the men were tortured that night and summarily executed.
Bouterse, who has since filed an appeal and was out of the country when the verdict was given, said the decision of the three-panel Military Court was not unexpected.
“It was clear that the verdict was political,” he said, indicating that he was also advised by his lawyers not to discuss the ruling and was now concentrating on the general election constitutionally due by mid-2020.
Bouterse is not the only Caribbean leader with elections on his mind next year. Trinidad and Tobago, St. Kitts-Nevis, Anguilla, and possibly, St. Vincent and the Grenadines should all be holding general elections in 2020.
In 2019, some opposition parties failed in their quest to remove incumbent administrations through motions of no confidence.
St. Lucia’s Opposition Leader Phillip J. Pierre had urged legislators to vote their conscience and remove Prime Minister Chastanet from office, but in the end the ruling United Workers Party (UWP) used its comfortable majority to defeat the motion.
It was a similar case in the Bahamas, where the government in December used its majority in the Parliament to successfully amend a motion of no confidence against Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis that had been tabled by Opposition Leader Phillip “Brave” Davis.
Davis had earlier told legislators that he took no pleasure in moving the motion “but what is at stake is bigger than me or any individual in this place.
“What is at stake is our democratic system of government and the tenets, the laws, the conventions, processes, procedures and practices that undergird them.”
In St. Kitts-Nevis it was the opposition that refused to vote in support of a government move to limit the term of a prime minister to two terms.
Prime Minister Dr Timothy Harris, had piloted the Constitution of St Christopher and Nevis (Tenure of Office of Prime Minister) (Amendment) Bill, 2019) and it needed the support of the opposition in order to get the required special majority needed to amend the Constitution.
In Jamaica, Opposition Leader Dr Peter Phillips survived a strong challenge to his leadership when he defeated Peter Bunting in a challenge for control of the People’s National Party (PNP).
CARICOM’s divided position on the removal of the Venezuelan President, Nicolas Maduro, continued in 2019 even though the regional leaders at their summit in July issued a statement re-affirming their non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries.
CARICOM has been pushing for a negotiated settlement on the issue in which the United States with the support of several other Western countries have been pushing for the removal of Maduro and replacing him with Juan Guaidó, who has named himself as the interim president of the South American country.
Washington had invited the leaders of St. Lucia, Bahamas, Haiti and Dominican Republic for talks on the matter and the split among the region continued at the OAS where those four Caribbean countries voted to “accept’ the nomination of a candidate supported by Guaidó, “as the National Assembly’s designated permanent representative, pending new elections and the appointment of a democratically elected government,” in Venezuela.
In August, the Barbados government said while it remained committed to hosting talks aimed at finding a peaceful resolution to the ongoing economic and political crisis in Venezuela it had no intention of making any official statement on the deliberations.
The two sides began meeting in Bridgetown in July and Norway, which had brokered the talks, confirmed that representatives of President Maduro and Guaidó had “reiterated their willingness to advance in the search for an agreed upon and constitutional solution”
But by year end, the situation in Caracas remained virtually unchanged, with thousands fleeing the country and Maduro holding on to power.