By Peter Richards
BRIDGETOWN, Barbados (CMC) — 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.
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 Dec. 6 general election.
“I have never seen so much external interest in our campaign,” Skerrit said 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 Secretary General of the Organization 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 Opposition Leader Lennox Linton, whom he said had been used “to carry out their plans”, instead of focusing on the campaign.
“I do not envy him. I never had the opportunity of being in opposition, people have told me it is not nice,” Skerrit said. Linton had made it clear he 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 is 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.
Other national, UN Security Council votes
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 that 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 bittersweet 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 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 (SVG) 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 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, SVG, the Group for Latin America and Caribbean (GRULAC)-endorsed candidate for the 2020-2021 term, secured 185 of the possible 191 votes, while six went to El Salvador, which had announced a last-minute bid.
SVG became only the second CARICOM country to serve on the Security Council since Jamaica’s 2000-2001 term.
Unrest in Haiti
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-English-speaking countries within CARICOM.
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 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 year-end, Antigua and Barbuda and SVG nominated Ecuadorian diplomat Maria Fernanda Espinosa to replace the incumbent OAS secretary general, with Vincentian Prime Minister 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 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 Dec. 8, 1982 murders of 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 Dec. 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 SVG 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 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 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.
Jamaica’s opposition leader survives challenge
In Jamaica, Opposition Leader Peter Phillip survived a strong challenge to his leadership when he defeated Peter Bunting in a challenge for control of the People’s National Party (PNP).
At the same time, CARICOM, which became divided on the removal of the Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, continued 2019 even though the regional leaders, at their summit in July, issued a statement reaffirming 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 Guaido, who has named himself as the interim president of the South American country.
Washington had invited the leaders of St. Lucia, The 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 Guaido, “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 on-going 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 Guaido, 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.
Crime, especially murders, remained unabated in the Caribbean in 2019.
Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Bermuda and even Barbados were among CARICOM countries where crime had become a major issue this year.
In Jamaica, where the 2018 figure of 1,287 murders was passed with less than a week remaining in 2019, Prime Minister Andrew Holness said his government remained committed to fighting the crime situation in the country, as private sector groups called on it, as well as the opposition People’s National Party (PNP), to end their combative utterances on crime and channel their efforts towards expediting the national consensus on crime.
The government went to the Parliament during the last 12 months seeking extensions for zones of special operations (ZOSO) and states of emergency in a bid to stem the killings that the opposition said have led to a serious increase in fear among Jamaicans.
Justice Minister Delroy Chuck urged Jamaicans to end the culture of not reporting criminal activities to law enforcement authorities for fear of being murdered, saying persons must muster the courage to speak out and expose criminals and wrongdoers.
In Trinidad and Tobago, as in Jamaica, the murder toll passed the 2018 figure of 517, the country’s second highest total ever, despite the appointment of Commissioner of Police Gary Griffith a year ago promising to deal with the situation. But while the 54-year-old Griffith is being regarded as a “super hero” in some quarters, he has not hidden his disgust at the fact that the courts are releasing on bail criminals caught with high-powered rifles.
Griffith would later welcome the passage of the amendment of the Bail Bill which seeks, among other measures, to restrict access to bail for 120 days in instances where a person already has a charge for a serious offence — carrying a 10-year jail term — is out on bail and gets charged for a similar offence.
In Barbados, the levels of crime and violence grew to an unprecedented level in 2019. The island had recorded 48 murders as the year was coming to an end, the highest-ever number recorded, almost doubling the 28 murders of 2018.
In an attempt to stem the rising violence, the Mia Mottley administration, in April, amended the Firearms Act so that where a person was charged with murder, treason and high treason or an offence under the Firearms Act that is punishable with imprisonment of 10 years or more, that person shall not be granted bail unless 24 months have passed.
“We still have a duty to maintain an orderly society where rights of individuals are balanced. To set a bail restriction of 24 months we think that is reasonable in this case. We know that dealing with the Bail Act this way will not solve all of our problems but I am convinced it will go a long way in bringing some order to our streets,” said Attorney General Dale Marshall.
The authorities also introduced a one-week gun amnesty, and Opposition Leader Joseph Atherley warned that crime and violence in Barbados were almost at a crisis level and called for urgent interventions to address the situation.
“The moment is urgent; the matter is approaching crisis proportions; the measure of our resolve will determine the Barbados profile of tomorrow,” Atherley said in a statement.
In Bermuda, the police said 131 murders had been committed with just a few days left in 2019 as compared with 144, the previous year.
Politicians before court
Politicians also found themselves part of the crime situation in the Caribbean. In Trinidad and Tobago, the Public Administration Minister Marlene McDonald, was sacked by Prime Minister Keith Rowley for a third time since his administration came to power in 2015, after she and several others, including her husband, Michael Carew, appeared in court on several offences of conspiracy to defraud the Government. She had been placed on TT$2-million bail.
Leader of the main opposition United National Congress (UNC) Kamla Persad Bissessar called on supporters to remain focused following the arrest of her former Attorney General Anand Ramlogan and UNC Senator Gerald Ramdeen.
Ramlogan, who was detained at the Piarco International Airport was granted TT$1.2-million bail and Ramdeen, TT$1.5-million bail.
Director of Public Prosecutions Roger Gaspard ordered that the men be jointly charged with conspiracy to contravene Section 3 of the Prevention of Corruption Act; conspiracy to contravene Section 45 of the Proceeds of Crime Act, and conspiracy to misbehave in public office. The corruption-related offences arise out of an alleged conspiracy to financially reward themselves with fees from legal briefs from the state.
In Jamaica, discarded education minister Ruel Reid, his wife Sharen, their daughter, Sharelle, as well as the president of the Caribbean Maritime University (CMU), Professor Fritz Pinnock appeared in court on charges resulting from a corruption probe into the education ministry and the CMU.
A local government councillor, Kim Brown-Lawrence, was also charged as a result.
Economic overview is ‘particularly complex’
Several Caribbean countries, in 2019, began implementing legislation decriminalising small amounts of marijuana as regional countries sought to cash in on the lucrative international marijuana trade for medicinal and other purposes.
In August, Barbados introduced legislation to establish the legal foundation for a local medical marijuana industry, joining Jamaica, SVG as well as Antigua and Barbuda in approving cannabis cultivation. A law is also in the works in St Kitts and Nevis while in Bermuda Attorney-General and Legal Affairs Minister Kathy Lynn Simmons tabled legislation in the Senate to legalise medical cannabis and regulations to govern licences for Bermudian growers and importers,
Trinidad and Tobago amended its Dangerous Drugs Act to allow citizens to be in possession of no more than 30 grammes of the drug. The measure came into effect three days before Christmas Day.
The Economic Commission for Latin American and the Caribbean (ECLAC) said the 2014-2020 period will mark the lowest growth in the region in the last seven decades, and that the economic overview in 2019 is occurring in a “particularly complex context.
“The region is exhibiting an economic deceleration that is widespread and synchronised among countries and sectors, topping off six consecutive years of low growth,” said ECLAC in its last annual report released here.
The report notes that in 2019, the country with the greatest expansion will be Dominica (9%), followed by Antigua and Barbuda (6.2%), the Dominican Republic (4.8%) and Guyana (4.5%).
Guyana grabbed international headlines in late December after the US-based oil giant, ExxonMobil said it had made another oil discovery offshore Guyana at the Mako-1 well south-east of the Liza field, marking it the 15th discovery on the Stabroek Block.
“This discovery by ExxonMobil and its partners comes on the heels of the start of oil production. The Cooperative Republic of Guyana is experiencing a truly historic moment that has all the ingredients to facilitate a paradigm shift towards sustained economic transformation,” said the head of the Department of Energy, Mark Bynoe.
Guyana on Dec. 20, declared the day, “National Petroleum Day,” as the country formally became the biggest oil-producing nation in the Caribbean.
“Petroleum production will be a transformative process in the country’s economic development. The petroleum sector will stimulate increased employment and expand services,” Granger said.
The former managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Christine Lagarde, praised Jamaica for the “remarkable” accomplishments under its financial arrangements with the Fund, which it concluded this year.
“Through two programmes, two different administrations with very strong commitment, you have managed to actually create jobs, to reduce the unemployment level to the lowest ever, you’ve reduced debt by 50 percentage points of gross domestic product (GDP), you’ve managed to stabilise inflation and you’ve managed to accumulate reserves,” she said.
International Monetary Fund
Director of the Western Hemisphere Department of the IMF Alejandro Werner, noted that over the last three years, Jamaica’s sustained commitment to a home-grown economic reform programme has resulted in significant dividends for the people of the island.
The IMF was also pleased with Barbados, noting that under its US$290 million Extended Fund Facility (EFF) approved, in October 2018 programme implementation “is strong” and that “all programme targets for end-June and end-September 2019 have been met”.
It said that since May 2018, international reserves have increased from a low of US$220 million to more than US$600 million at end-October 2019.
Overall, the IMF said that while economic prospects are improving in the Caribbean, they are doing so “with substantial variation across countries”.
“Growth in tourism-dependent economies is expected to strengthen to around two per cent in 2019-20, supported by still strong United States growth, the main market for tourism in the region, and continued reconstruction from the 2017 hurricanes,” said Werner, noting that economic activity in Latin America and the Caribbean remains sluggish and that real gross domestic product (GDP) is expected to grow by 0.6% in 2019, the slowest rate since 2016, before rising to 2.3% in 2020.
The Barbados-based Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) said despite the forecast of deceleration in global economic activity, the 2019 economic outlook for its borrowing member countries (BMCs) is positive, predicting economic growth of more than 2%.
In December, a consortium of eastern Caribbean indigenous banks entered into a “definitive agreement” to purchase all banking operations of the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) in the eastern Caribbean.
In the previous month, the St Kitts-Nevis-based Eastern Caribbean Central Bank (ECCB) announced that effective Nov. 1, the Bank of Nova Scotia operations in Anguilla, Dominica, Grenada, St Lucia, St Kitts and Nevis and SVG would end and that the Trinidad-based Republic Financial Holding Limited (RFHL) would begin operations in these countries in a US$123-million deal.
Antigua and Barbuda has refused to provide the necessary vesting order that would have facilitated the sale in that island with Prime Minister Gaston Browne insisting on the Toronto-based financial institution selling its assets to a consortium of local banks.
Tragedy and death
While most of the Caribbean may have been spared the full brunt of the 2019 Atlantic Hurricane season, it was not so in the case of The Bahamas, when on Sept. 1, Hurricane Dorian, a Category 5 storm swept through the archipelago killing nearly 70 people and causing damage estimated at US$3.4 billion, according to the Washington-based Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).
The Central Bank of the Bahamas said domestic economic developments were dominated by the passage of the hurricane, which disrupted tourism output, as well as the Government’s fiscal consolidation efforts.
In its Quarterly Economic Review released late December, the Central Bank said several varied-scaled foreign investment projects and post-hurricane rebuilding activities provided a positive construction sector stimulus and that budgetary financing was mainly obtained from internal sources and included a combination of long and short-term debt.
Prime Minister Minnis described the storm as “a historic tragedy” with most of the deaths and damage concentrated in Grand Bahama and Abaco Island.
In 2019, the Caribbean said farewell to a number of prominent personalities, including the former Jamaica Prime Minister Edward Seaga, the former premier of the British Virgin Islands, Ralph T. O’Neal, former Suriname government Minister Winston Lackin, former government minister in Jamaica, Douglas Vaz, Bermuda’s government backbencher Walton Brown, well-known cultural icon and Antigua and Barbuda’s Director of Culture Vaughn Walter and the Jamaican-born prominent jurist, Sir Edward Zacca.
In addition, several media practitioners ended their beat in 2019, among them being Harold Hoyte, one of the founders of the Nation Publishing Co. of Barbados, Tim Hodgson, editor of the weekly Mid-Ocean News, the Grenadian-born Trinidad-based David Renwick, considered to be one of the foremost journalist on the energy sector in the Caribbean, veteran Trinidad sports journalist, Dave Lamy, Trinidadian talk show host, Wayne Chance, and the former sports reporter at the Barbados-based Caribbean News Agency, Bernard Babb.