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Jomo Thomas

Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and a former Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. (iWN file photo)

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By *Jomo Sanga Thomas

(“Plain Talk” Mar 12, 2021)

On Sunday, March 14, we mark another National Heroes Day. Since 2018, the National Heroes Committee, chaired by Rene Baptiste, recommended Ebenezer Joshua, George McIntosh, Milton Cato and Dr J.P. Eustace.

Will Gonsalves name any of the shortlisted persons to join Paramount Chief Joseph Chatoyer into the pantheon of heroes?

In April 2013, I resigned from the National Heroes Committee after Gonsalves improperly corrupted the selection process by arguing for Milton Cato, a man he had harshly criticised in the past. What follows is my explanation for resigning:

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“When Governor-General Sir Frederick Ballantyne called to ask whether I would serve on the National Heroes Committee, I viewed his request as a signal honour. In the past, I had written and spoken extensively on who our next heroes should be. However, once I became a committee member, I instinctively knew that I could not speak or advocate for or against anyone who should join Paramount Chief Joseph Chatoyer in the national pantheon of heroes.

“Drs Adrian Fraser and Kenneth John, at the UWI Open Campus’s invitation, spoke persuasively to elevate George McIntosh and Ebenezer Joshua to hero status. Doctor Gonsalves felt compelled to make a case. He spoke on the topic ‘The Making of a National Hero: The Law and Practice in St Vincent and the Grenadines’.

“Some say that the lecture was brilliant. Most citizens expect no less from Ralph Gonsalves. The man is an academic of superior intellect. There was no surprise there. If Gonsalves could translate his intellectual prowess into political IQ, history may look at him kindly. But alas, the muzzle of national service applied to everyone except him. By shortlisting who the next heroes should be, Gonsalves failed to see the most elementary point; that as Chairman of Cabinet, the final arbiter of the selection process, he should not intervene.

“Gonsalves’ decision to proceed with the lecture amounted to willful disregard of respected opinion makers. P.R. Campbell QC, social activist Renwick Rose and newspaper editorialists led the chorus against the Prime Minister’s intervention.

“What can we make of Gonsalves’ case for Milton Cato? Cato is far removed from anyone resembling a national hero. Such a pronouncement on Cato is not to say that he did not contribute to our country’s development. Cato performed in the context of his time. His biggest weakness is that he dwelt on the limitations of small island politics and failed to grasp the enormous possibilities open to the country during his governance. More than any other leader since 1951, he saw our country through the eyes of our ‘traditional’ friends.

“But there is more. Cato’s 29 straight years in Parliament, and decades-long tenure as leader of St Vincent Labour Party, do not recommend him for hero status. We must never forget that Cato and his Labour Party acted as a planter class foil against the people’s awakening, empowerment and rebirth, as represented by Joshua and his Peoples Political Party.

“Gonsalves said that Cato was avant-garde in terms of his initiatives and policies during his administration. The evidence does not bear this out. Most of Cato’s legislative reforms came on stream across the region. To give Cato credit for these acts would be similar to crediting James Mitchell for the liberalisation of the media. But the press was liberalised across the region at virtually the same time.

“PM Gonsalves gives Cato major credit for introducing the National Commercial Bank and the National Insurance Service. A quick study shows that these were neither unique nor innovative acts. For example, the Grenada National Insurance Service came into being on April 4, 1983. The National Commercial Bank of Grenada was incorporated in September 1979. St Lucia established its National Insurance Service in April 1979. In Antigua, it was even earlier, April 1973. So much for the P.M.’s points that Cato was a leader of the pack in these areas.

“The area in which Cato’s image and legacy took the most significant battering was the very area to which Gonsalves applied the most whitewash, that being Cato’s repressive tendencies, high-handedness and over-reaction when it came to the use of force and his disrespect for citizens’ rights and political rights.

“The ‘Kill the Bills’ struggles of 1981 placed Cato and H.K. Tannis in awful company. He was so arrogant and contemptuous of others’ views that in the 1979 Independence period, he criticised a group of respected nationals as a ‘bunch of nincompoops’.

“Many citizens still remember Cato’s overreaction to the 1970 Black Power Rebellion in Trinidad, the tear-gassing of teachers during their Nov. 14, 1975 march, and the Union Island Rebellion led by Lennox “Bumba” Charles in 1979. Citizens were not allowed to walk in more than twos, and Barbadian troops came onto our soil at Cato’s invitation.

“Cato’s political police also searched and rounded up members of the budding intellectual class on the severe charge of sedition, and dug up the yards of progressives searching for ammunition. That was the political atmosphere that Cato’s regime engendered.

“Did PM Gonsalves try to rewrite history in speaking of the tear-gassing of teachers? We think he did. Beache, he said, told him that Cato and his cabinet were in session and had not given approval for the tear-gassing of the Teachers’ march.

“If this is true, why did Cato not order the immediate release of the arrested teachers? Why did Cato have the Teachers Union leaders spend the entire weekend in jail? Why did Cato summon Attorney General Arthur Williams to lead the prosecution against the teachers? Do these actions reflect the opinion of a leader who was not in support of the tear-gassing, arrest and trial of citizens?

“There is an affection and acclaim that McIntosh and Joshua had that Cato lacked. The essence is gleaned from the names by which they were known. Among broad sections of the people, McIntosh was “Daddy Mc”, and Joshua was “Pappy Josh”.

“The muzzle of national service as a member of the National Heroes Committee prevented me from checkmating Gonsalves’ sales pitch for Cato. Do you still think Cato makes the cut? I hope you can see why I had to resign.”

*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and a former Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the opinions or editorial position of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to [email protected].