by: Swinburne Lestrade

(This article was originally published in the Link magazine, (Independence Issue, November 2011).

“Wolfgang and a Texas soldier of fortune named Mike Perdue had once organized a military coup on the island of Dominica, a country probably best known today as the setting for Johnny Depp’s Pirates of the Caribbean films. On November 3rd, 1978, Dominica became the western hemisphere’s 30th nation. At the Independence Day ceremony in Roseau, the capital city, Prime Minister Patrick John, the Opposition Leader Eugenia Charles and Princess Margaret watched as the Union Jack was lowered and the flag of Dominica was raised, a circle of stars surrounding a Sisserou parrot. Centuries of French and British colonial rule were over, but Dominica’s troubles were only just beginning.”

This is taken from the Prologue to Stewart Bell’s remarkably well researched book, Bayou of Pigs. Of course, the troubles to which he was referring were of a political kind, involving a crackpot bunch of mercenaries intent on making money for themselves in a Rambo-like invasion of our island. In the words of one of the organizers of the invasion: “Imagine what you could do if you owned your own country”. And of course, that attempted invasion had considerable local complicity.

Difficulties there have been aplenty since that historic day in 1978 indeed, since the beginning of time. Buffeted by winds and other forces of nature by the vicissitudes of an enveloping global economic environment or self-inflicted by national economic management that was sometimes ill-advised or merely innocent as we sought to learn the ropes of national economic responsibility in our young post-independence era, our national economy continues to be severely challenged to produce the goods.

When Prime Minister Skerrit said, “Dominica is a difficult place to manage”, no greater truth was being spoken, as successive governments would all agree. Reflecting on the last days of September you wonder if Mother Nature has made a conscious decision to rain disasters on the Nature Isle. Jamaica’s Prime Minister Golding has had cause to rue the reality of governing in a small, fiscally challenged State: “One of the problems that this Government has had to contend with is that we have had to be prioritising among priorities”. It is said of John Adams, one of the heroes of American Independence that: “No man in Congress had a clearer idea of what independence would entail: the risks, obligations, and burdens that it would impose on Americans”. If we did not know at the time, we have certainly come to appreciate the challenges of independence.

Dominica may be among the most generally challenged of Caribbean states. Agriculture is struggling to re-assert its place in the economic landscape and tourism to establish its place. In these and other areas our country simply has to do better. Strong leadership at all levels in all sectors is an essential pre-requisite going forward. Let there be a clear consensual strategy looking ahead to our country’s 40th anniversary of Independence.

What it takes is to build on the good things that are happening, and there are some. Our historically infrastructurally challenged country has been receiving a large boost in recent years. All governments have added to the country’s infrastructure bank. However one perceives now a clearer understanding of the economic and productivity value of the physical infrastructure and an implicit understanding of the critical importance of the imperative of operating on a lever that is a critical pre-requisite to increased productivity, investment attraction and economic growth. And we forgive the ignorance of those who decry the apparent emphasis on the physical infrastructure. Nor do I perceive this emphasis to be exclusive of paying due attention to the country’s other economic and social imperatives.

It would be nice … to have more national discussion on these types of issues. To hear of alternative strategies, policies and programmes that might better serve our national needs and circumstances. Our miniscule island requires discussion and consensus-forging, and it behooves all to participate intelligently in this debate. Most of all it behooves the Opposition to be a part of this process and not to hide their alternatives under a bushel. Let their alternatives be put on the table and subjected to the same type of scrutiny as are the government’s policies and programmes. This would make for a healthier and more participatory democracy.

In the United Kingdom an Opposition Spokesman announced that if elected to office they would not reverse the public sector cuts imposed by the Government: “The Shadow Cabinet has been banned by Ed Balls from promising to reverse any of the Coalition Government’s spending cuts as part of Labour’s attempt to regain credibility on the economy.”

This was in the UK. Nearer home in Jamaica the Opposition Party has launched a major JEEP debate with its coherent policy statement on its Jamaica Emergency Employment Programme, itself part of a wider-ranging comprehensive statement on a Progressive Agenda for Jamaica. It was what the Opposition Leader called her “national call to action”. That was Jamaica.
In Dominica there is this: “We are making a point” – James on UWP’s boycott of Parliament and that: Parliament opens… and Opposition walks in, then walks out UWP to stage ‘People’s Assembly’ under Financial Center next week. And then of course there is “Boots on the Ground”!

No problem. But what else is on offer by way of plans, policies and programmes to respond to the considerable challenges that our micro-state faces in these tough times? Surely the “opposition forces” have (or can access) the intellectual muscle required to think through the issues, articulate positions and contribute to substantive national debate. Or is this too much to ask when not even a manifesto was forthcoming the last time around?

As we commemorate 33, and even as there are “patriots” who are protecting our democracy, we can be proud of having preserved our democratic traditions. Our media bombard our ears with nagging 24/7 constancy all kinds of groups abound unfettered the “nattering nabobs of negativism” are also always with us people’s parliaments populate the landscape the grossest disrespect is shown to the country’s Head of Government calypsos are still as much “art form” as political cannon all the country’s institutions, (including the State’s Presidency), are under uninhibited attack from certain very vocal quarters even a State Malice banner is allowed to hang undisturbed right at the entrance to the country’s State House. Long live our democracy! Edison James wants to amend the country’s Constitution to make for even greater democracy: “And so I say that the Constitution that we have must be reviewed, must be renewed, and must be revised.” Hélas!

Speaking about congressmen of the newly independent America, George Washington bemoaned, back in 1778, that “party disputes and personal quarrels are the great business of the day whilst the momentous concerns of empire … are but secondary considerations”, and that “business of a trifling nature and personal concernment withdraws their attention from matters of great national moment”. Like poverty, one supposes, such behaviour will always be with us.

“Independence has not failed Jamaica”, says former Prime Minister of Jamaica, Edward Seaga “it is Jamaicans who have failed Independence …”, and Opposition Leader Portia Miller reminds Jamaicans that Independence is a state of mind. What is our state of mind as we contemplate our 33 years of Independence?

Going forward, our 33-year old is still fragile still requires nurturing still requires support from family and friends, local and international. The Government has to continue to do the good things it has been doing. It needs to do certain things better. The fiscal will continue to be a challenge. Thankfully, the Government appears committed to pursuing the path of prudence. Government has to guard against complacency in its various manifestations. They also have to watch the pennies.

Another hero of American independence, George Washington, would rail against wastage on his plantation – against “waste of time, waste of supplies, waste of money”. The Government system may need to heed this advice.

The Opposition also needs to put its shoulders to the wheel. They are the country’s alternative government, or don’t they believe it? They need to be challenging the Government to do right by the country – on issues of ethics and corruption, by all means, but also on issues of economic and social development. Essentially, they need to be apprising the public of their plans for growth and poverty reduction. This would be a great contribution to a thriving and dynamic democracy in our Nature Isle.

We are not talking about slogans or pledges. A slogan is not a plan and a “pledge” does not equate to a policy statement or a programme. Voters these days are smarter than that. An independent writer in the Jamaica Gleaner had this to say recently: “As part of the JLP’s 2007 campaign, Bruce Golding, leader of the then JLP Opposition, promised “jobs, jobs, jobs”. Frankly, the jobs he promised have not materialised. “At last things are changing. The public is no longer accepting promised programmes whose feasibility is suspect”.

There is hope, I insist. Former Prime Minister Edison James is quoted as having said recently that he was willing to work with the Government: “Honorable Edison James has reaffirmed his commitment to work with the Dominica Labour Party government for the further development of his constituency.” It would be nice … if he had said this about the Nation and not just about Marigot. It is a sniff a sniff of a gift but who knows? This may yet be the Opposition’s great gift to the Nation on the occasion of its 33rd anniversary.

As we begin our 34th year, perhaps we can look forward with hope to our working together to realise our potential as a nation. We are so small, it is a shame to be so polarised. Such polarisation means, among other things, that at any point in time, only about one half of your already limited high-level manpower resources is available to the Government, (though not to the nation). This is one of the tragedies of our political system. Working for the national good is the responsibility of everyone. Perhaps we can all yield time to our higher selves to allow for our playing a constructive role in building this still fragile nation. And while we are at it, let us laugh at ourselves sometimes – some of us take ourselves way too seriously.

  1. Stewart Bell, Bayou of Pigs, 2008.
  2. Swinburne Lestrade, (Editor), Continuing the Journey: Dominica’s Development Challenges and Responses Going Forward, 2010.
  3. Raymond Pryce, “Finding The Right Vehicle … And The Right Driver”, Jamaica Gleaner, 25th September 25, 2011.
  4. Edmund Morgan, The Meaning of Independence.
  5. Dominica News-On-Line.
  6. Jamaica Gleaner, 5th June 2011.
  7. Robert Buddan in Jamaica Gleaner, 7th August 2011.
  8. Ken Chaplin, “Jobs, jobs, jobs controversy”, Jamaica Gleaner, September 27, 2011
  9. Dominica News-On-Line, 27th September 2011.

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