POLITICAL CRISIS IN ST VINCENT
St. Vincent is in a condition of political normlessness. The country has been devastated by partisan politics for the last six months or so and can easily be polarised into evenly balanced Government and anti-Government forces. There is hardly a conversation today which does not revolve around political issues. The society appears to lack consensus, the political atmosphere electrified during the last campaign speeches remains emotionally charged, and a stalemate has been created. The impasse has crystallised around the very vexed question of Associated Status under a PPP Government which emerged a disputed victor at the last General election. The legality of this Government is to be tested in the Court.
That, in a nutshell, is the hard core of bald facts. It is true that feelings run high in the community and that the protracted period of uncertainty has tended to produce evidence of desperation in various forms. But things are not as explosive as the irresponsible Press will have the world believe. The cheap journalism characteristic of these parts thrives on shock appeal and has wrung whatever little capital it could out of the unfortunate situation in St. Vincent. The trouble is that journalistic prophecies tend to carry an element of self-fulfilment in them; by putting words, so to speak, in the people’s mouths journalists often bring about the events which they chose to anticipate. This is now likely to happen in St. Vincent. It is the object of this paper to separate out the real issues which have been subjected to persistent distortion and buried under a welter of sensationalism. An unbiased presentation of neutral facts will be put forward but the conclusion is personal. The writer believes that back of it all is the problem of grinding poverty. If there is a thesis it is that the political crisis is essentially an economic crisis.
It has now become commonplace to suggest that a study of the West Indies is necessarily a study in poverty. Of all the West Indian islands save, perhaps, Montserrat, St. Vincent poses the gloomiest prospect for the future in naked economic terms. We suffer all the evils of underdevelopment. We are primarily agricultural with a surplus labour force in a hostile world of increasing industrialisation, mass production and advanced technologies. Even with the proper rationalisation of the economy we would be hard put to survive. The bottom has fallen out of the market for our traditional staple products, and ours is an externally-oriented economy. Cotton has been supplanted in the industrial centres by synthetic products. Through complacent marketing arrangements, Arrowroot has been ruined by an American monopolist. Sugar which lived a fitful life on a sort of artificial respiration administered in grudging doses through the various Commonwealth Sugar Agreement Acts was strangled out of existence by an indifferent approach to industrial relations on the local front. Only the Banana crop, appropriately called “Green Gold,” has pretended to stop the economic mill from grinding to a definite halt, and the banana is an extremely precarious crop in a hurricane-prone area. Moreover, the competition from Jamaica and higher-yielding regions has caused a glut in the market and damped the prospects of bananas as a lasting source of revenue. To crown it all the rate of population increase has been allowed to soar to a world record-breaking pace, like nobody’s business.
But in the West Indies generally the past has continued to decide the present. There has not been a concerted effort to channel energies in other directions and seek alternative avenues for the economic redemption of the country. Instead the traditional staples are to be given a new lease of life. One of the few things on which both parties are agreed is on the reintroduction of Sugar and, one is left to assume, Plantation Society. Government though approaching bankruptcy felt itself obligated to back a loan to defer the eventual collapse of the Arrowroot Industry as constituted. And the policy of the commercial banks is retrograde. Their whole rationale in this day and age is still governed by the old imperial concept of raking in as much profit as possible, as quickly as possible, and the welfare of the host community be damned. It is a shockingly parasitic relationship. The injustice of the operation shows up in the fact that “credit-worthy” people seldom are engaged in productive enterprises which contribute to the real wealth of the country, but are for the most part commission agents, real estate people and folk in the distributive trades who need ready cash to take imported stuff out of the warehouses in time to handle a quick turn-over. The striking irony of the situation is that while we suffer the indignity of being grant-aided, bank man· agers implement a “credit-squeeze” policy in the face of a net export of local earnings to the bank’s headquarters flourishing in the metropolis of the aid-giving countries! This may be good business in the short run, but it may turn out to be very bad politics in the long run. The Insurance companies, too, constitute another leakage of local funds and continue to bleed the country to death. Yet instead of directing Government’s attention to some of the real problems which threaten to cripple the economy the experts advocate a concentration on infra-structural development and incentive legislation to encourage private foreign investment and tourism which are the officially recommended panacea for the area. Given this gloomy economic setting it is not surprising that there have been some conclusive repercussions in the political superstructure.
In such a stagnant economy, young impatient businessmen see little scope for enterprise. The only sure guarantee for a personal business boom is to “ride” the Government in power. Without sounding too apologetic one must state that this is a characteristic of all countries which toe the capitalist line. But because of the poverty in St. Vincent, the correspondingly overwhelming economic importance of the Government, and the primitive methods employed in carrying out the deals, this aspect of Government and business tends to loom disproportionately large on the social horizon. The Port Contractors is a good case in point. The deep-water harbour which was largely a gift by the Canadian Government to the people of St. Vincent was handed over to a small band of PPP supporters. This company has also secured pioneer status to set up industry in various fields. It is an open secret that a Labour Government plans to extend the Port Contractors Company – no doubt to embrace some of its aggrieved friends – and so water down the fantastic profits which go to the few individual shareholders, or take it over as a Government concern. The Speaker and Deputy Speaker of the House, both appointed on the advice of the Chief Minister, are members of the Port Contractors Company. A Censure Motion against them would have opened the way for a detailed public exposure of their involvement with the destiny of the PPP. So, crass economic considerations were the reasons for suppressing a debate in the House, though “the threat to the dignity of the House” was the pretext. And this sort of thing operates fully in the entire business community. The owners of a certain firm lay the charge that some envious Labour Party members of the Town Board prohibited them from completing a building on which they had already spent a considerable sum. Consequently, they have become open PPP supporters. The Labour Party in turn has called for a boycott of stout sold by that firm as well as of a brand of beer sold by another alleged supporter of the PPP. Similarly, sanctions must be employed against a certain store the owners of which have committed the cardinal sin of aiding Joshua. The rationalisation is that goods must not be bought from people who are backing the corrupt Government that has hamstrung the progress of the island. Apparently, it is better to throw one’s money behind businessfolk who help to meet the election expenses of the Opposition Party. It is significant that Labour Party stalwarts are also in the business field in precisely those areas in which they have demanded a boycott of so-called PPP goods.
The alignment of the businessmen in St. Vincent provides deep insight into the power of economic factors in the political maelstrom. One entrepreneur failed to satisfy certain requirements in his quest for pioneer status. When the franchise went to the “Port Contractors” he enlisted among the ardent followers of the Labour Party. This has become the dominant pattern giving the general impression that all firms which received pioneer sta1us or some form of Government concession are “PPP” and, as a corollary, the rivalling firms are anti-Government. Another businessman, an erstwhile supporter of the PPP, turned coat some years ago following a business disappointment which was attributed to bad faith on the part of the Government. He, almost more than the Labour politicians themselves, is working assiduously to procure the demise of the PPP. He is the moving figure behind the Citizens’ Association which has suddenly become a sort of ginger group in the political fray and has been generally regarded as a lively cell of the Labour Party. He also was instrumental in prodding a number of lethargic organisations to forward resolutions to Colonial Office requesting a postponement of the Constitution. Predictably the Government struck back by calling a halt to his scheme for recruiting domestics for North America. One Labour candidate had been a devout PPPite until Joshua sided with his cousin in a family business quarrel. He has since been fighting tooth-and-nail to topple the Government. A building contractor who featured on the PPP platform in 1961 campaigned strongly for the Labour Party in 1966 because for one reason and another Government contracts had ceased to come his way. On the other hand, a veteran politician who had contested the 1961 election on a Labour ticket jumped on the PPP bandwagon in 1966. The Government had set him back on his feet by the ill-advised purchase of property from him, and he wished to show his gratitude. If the foregoing appears to descend to the banal and the trite it is because these are the very stuff of which our petty politics are woven. And one can only handle the material and the facts that are at one’s disposal.
The use of the political arena as a lever to raise low standards of living is manifest everywhere. Civil Servants who curry favour with the Ministerial bosses are assured a place of comfort in the system. There are a few political minions in the middle ranks of the service who are being groomed for high office come Associated Status. The party in power under the new constitution will be entitled to name quite a few political officers such as an Attorney-General, Governor, and Secretary to the Cabinet. Appointments to various Boards, commissions and other bodies will also come within the purview of the new Premier. The result has been widespread intrigue, fawning adulation and unabashed sycophancy to get in the good graces of the right people now that the political kingdom is at hand. There are, in fact today a number of misfits in top posts which have not been filled on the basis of merit, and one suspect that they are grave cases of political appointments – straws in the wind, as it were. Hence the hyper-sensitivity of the Civil Service Association to political intervention in any shape. A number of political officeholders could not stand on their own in the open job market. Their salaries are their chief, if not their only, means of livelihood. It follows that a seat challenged is equivalent to an existence threatened, and self-preservation continues to be the first law of nature. In 1961 it became necessary for the Government to place one of its defeated candidates as manager of a Government farm which operated at a loss. Another was made a paid official of the party’s trade union arm. Junior Findlay, who had unsuccessfully run for a Kingstown Board Seat for the PPP was made an authorised debt collector for C.H.P.A. immediately following his release. Government contracts and licences have in the past been farmed out to active politicians as, for instance, when two PPP members of a former Kingstown Board were given the monopoly to import rice and cooking-oil respectively. The father of a previous Government Minister has consistently cornered the lucrative mail-carrying trade in the Grenadines as well as secured the monopoly for selling stones to Government in Bequia. The high-point in this system was attained in 1962 when Ministers’ income-tax for that year was waived. There are a number of sincere PPP supporters who admit the errors of the Government but honestly fear that the alternative Government will do worse. To bolster their case, they point to the presence of some merchants in the Labour Party who are clearly in the business for personal gain if not sheer survival, and they refer to the time when labourites used the Banana Industry in much the same way as the PPP has been using the Public Works Department to keep their supporters in line.
A Commission of Enquiry in 1963 established beyond doubt that the PPP has been using the P.W.D. as a sort of welfare agency. Given the piercing poverty of the majority of the electorate, the number of party hangers-on and camp followers to feed, this is not surprising. With the disappearance of the old economic mainstays and the continuing failure to find new stimulants to forge economic growth the situation in St. Vincent has plummeted to an unprecedented low. Retrenchment of workers has become the order of the day. The demand for agricultural hands has dwindled with the exit of the labour-intensive arrowroot and sugar industries. The estates have since shifted to livestock and other activities which do not require much manual labour, while some socially irresponsible landowners have even decided to leave large tracts of land lying idle in the face of mounting unemployment. Mechanisation has aggravated the problem. Banana “headers” have been replaced by conveyer belts and the deep-water harbour constituted a serious economic blow to the stevedores and waterfront workers. It is in this context that employment in public works projects assumes important dimensions.
When people dwell like most Vincentians on the threshold of ever-threatening starvation they cannot readily appreciate an intellectual approach to politics that is studded with sophisticated constitutional arguments, and emphasizes the reason behind properly coordinated long-term development. Bread-and-butter politics is the only type they understand. They are not interested in such philosophical inanities as “the rights of man” and the various concepts of freedom. They want to know who will meet the food bill until they receive the next remittance from overseas. The ruling party has at its disposal the immense patronage of the governmental machinery to help foot these bills. With the transfer of more political power to the local scene also comes a more complete power to dispense patronage. This privilege most small-island politicians will scruple at nothing to grasp. This is not to suggest that there is not an instance of the odd species interested only in the glory of office, or of that rare bird who genuinely cares about the political and economic well-being of the country. But, by and large, the struggle for office is the public means to a private end: to feather one’s nest, to hand out political favours and smooth one’s path towards the perpetuation of power and the consolidation of personal aggrandisement.
The party in power has a tremendous advantage over its competitor. It can use the radio station to build up a good public image and it can dispense Government patronage particularly through public works schemes. Since the Opposition party is strong enough to offer an effective challenge every measure must be employed to keep it at bay, and frustrate its ambitions. Immediately after the last elections money earmarked for a road-building programme in what turned out to be “enemy territory” was diverted for expenditure in a PPP stronghold. Water-front workers who support the Government must be favoured, public health workers who are attached to a rival union must be hauled over the coals. Staff employed at the Government Printery must receive more overtime pay than Post Office workers who are enrolled in the “anti-Government” Civil Service Association. And so on. For their part the Opposition’s job is to seek to discredit the Government at every turn and belittle any achievement which stands in the name of the Government. What should in normal circumstances be a political contest conducted within a prescribed boundary and according to set rules has, in the prevailing economic milieu, degenerated into an embittered dog-fight that has invaded every aspect of life. In the open warfare, which surfaced after the last election it would be reasonable to assume that there were other than political motivation behind the boycott. A rough statistical estimate indicates, for instance, that the beer, the stout, and the store against which the sanctions have been ordered, have all collared well over half the local market in their respective fields. How gratifying it would be to fight for the political salvation of one’s country, while procuring one’s own economic security as a fringe benefit! It is within this framework of an anaemic, mendicant economy that cannot entertain the various cliques vying for an ascendancy that one must place the turbulent political events now in evidence.
Both parties are intent on leading the country into Internal Self-Government. They are locked in a sort of death-struggle especially as both teams are acutely aware that the stakes are high for whichever one governs under the new constitution will inherit the wherewithal to manipulate the forces which determine future election results. The PPP and its financial backers are obsessed with the consolidation of power and the fruitful economic prospects which are in store for them. Precisely because a number of the working class eke out a marginal existence they are afraid to risk a change and will defend the PPP to the death. The Labour Party wants to rid the country of the political-economic monopoly of the PPP. It is being pushed along, lofty motives apart, by businessmen who suffered over the last ten years and are athirst to enjoy the substance of the land. The trouble is that in such a constricted economy there is not enough elbow-room for both contending groups to manoeuvre without considerable friction. The friction takes place in the political sphere, but the root causes are really economic.
If the economy could be shaken out of its stupor the tensions in the political system would be considerably eased. Ministers would not be so vitally concerned with the maintenance of power, nor would the Labour Party be so resolute in its stand aimed at the erosion or acquisition of that power. They would still seek to present on alternative to the PPP, but most of the sting would have disappeared from the political contest. The rein would still have to be kept on the ebullient Joshua, but in a more equable economic climate Joshua would be more bark than bite. Politics would make more sense, for a five-dollar note would lose the magic held it enjoys over the hungry elector today. Politicians would cease to over-indulge in their extravagant game of party chairs and election music if non-political jobs become available. Conceivably the political parties might even evolve a social philosophy and present an effective choice to the people. But the economic reconstruction which alone can prepare the ground for progressive and meaningful politics can only be brought about by considered political action. And there lies the rub, and the possibility of a continuing crisis. For the economic crisis and the political crisis are in a sense both cause and effect of each other.