By *Jomo Sanga Thomas
(“Plain Talk” April 1, 2022)
If we were to take the ULP leadership at its word that a revolution was initiated with its electoral triumph and ascendancy to the corridors of power in 2001, it would be equally fair to say that a virtual counter-revolution is unfolding before our eyes as Gonsalves celebrate 21 straight years as Prime Minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines.
You can’t make this up. It is true. It is real and quite damaging to the legacy of PM Gonsalves, who stormed into power with so much promise. One will have to judge Gonsalves’ current performance on the broadest political spectrum to maintain that he governs as the heralded progressive this nation embraced on March 28, 2001.
Only the diehard ULP loyalists, the most unabashed cynic and change agents nostalgically yearning for a star to steer by, can foolhardily claim that we got what we bargain for. It is sadly disheartening to look on as Gonsalves self-destructs before our very eyes.
The man who promised so much now presides over an increasingly undemocratic government. In 1998, Gonsalves drafted and published in THE VINCENTIAN newspaper a foreboding indictment of James Mitchell’s government entitled “Fear Stalks the Land”. The letter detailed the many ways in which the then governing New Democratic Party captured government machinery and despoiled the body politic.
It was a passionate and compelling manifesto for change. The people bought the message, and evolution did come. So confident was Gonsalves that when challenged, he declared, “We are the change.” His use of power and authority best discloses the heart of a man. If he is not awestruck by power, say Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, he is bound to misuse it. We offer up Gonsalves as exhibit A.
Rather than salve the nation’s yearning for an improved and more perfect democracy, Gonsalves punishes those who adopt his very advocacy methods to challenge what they perceive to be his misdeeds. We are guided by the maxim that while we may disagree with the stridency of your advocacy, in a democracy, we are committed to defending your right to legally enter and participate in the marketplace of ideas.
In present-day SVG, Gonsalves police snatch placards and drums from protesters, restrict the rights of citizens to protest and routinely arrest opposition activists on the most frivolous of charges, charges that are unsustainable in law and inevitably fizzle, are withdrawn or are dismissed by the law courts. His police brutalise, beat, shoot and kill young men, and the administration does not bother to investigate or hold a coroner’s inquest. Citizens report being stalked, their children taped by foreigners and the authorities turn a blind eye offering succour to suspected offenders.
The auditor discloses that over EC$95 million has been unaccounted for over five years. The government offered the disingenuous answer that our “Smart Stream” computer software intended to track and trace public finance is woefully inefficient and ineffective. We are none the wiser about whether the government’s money is being misappropriated.
Increasingly, there is little or no consultation with citizens. The manner in which 59 acres of national property at Richmond was leased to foreign investors without regard for the health, safety, financial and environmental wellbeing of Vincentians is clear proof of an uncaring government. Fortunately, there is a growing civic consciousness, which helps people push back against strong undemocratic tendencies. The public uproar over the Richmond quarry, the denial of planning approval for the destruction of the coral reef at Villa and the construction of a jetty at Layou are positive signs of what can be achieved when the people remain vigilant.
On top of all this is Gonsalves’ approach to law-making, his response to court rulings and declarations and his interpretation of the Constitution. In April 2020, Gonsalves passed the Miscellaneous Amendment Act. This act, reminiscent of the dread bills passed by the Labour Party in 1981, gives the minister the power to amend any law, including the Constitution. This amounts to a veritable power grab that transforms SVG from a society governed by laws to one ruled over by the whim and fancy of men.
The total effect of this thinking is boldly reflected in how the government dealt with the COVID mandates. Gonsalves cynically and callously declared, “No jab, and you lose your job!” Hundreds of teachers, nurses, police officers and other public servants were dismissed, thus creating a financial crisis that made worse the mental health emergency which pervades the land. Once heralded as a champion of workers, Gonsalves morphed in the Caribbean ayatollah on COVID matters. The ULP government vamped on sanitation workers forcing them to be vaccinated to ramp up vaccination numbers. Last month, Health Minister Jimmy Prince declared that the government made an error because the COVID mandate did not apply to sanitation workers.
When the law courts make declarations adverse to Gonsalves’ government, he refuses to abide by the court’s orders. Ask to pay damages and costs, he and his finance minister stand in defiant contempt of court.
This resume is not pretty, but it’s worth stating that there were points of light over these 21 years.
Let no one say that Plain Talk said Gonsalves’ tenure is all bad. Gonsalves remains the policy wonk, the steadying hand, the tactical and strategic genius of the ULP. He is still highly regarded by a dwindling band of supporters here and across the Caribbean.
Many change agents will remember him fondly for his government’s commitment and drive to “right historical wrongs”, the training of hundreds of nurses, universal secondary education, 100% mortgages for public employees which allowed them to buy their own homes, scholarships and financial assistance to hundreds of disadvantage citizens for university education, his efforts in CARICOM to protect and defend the sovereignty and independence of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela from the clutches of U.S. imperialism as well as taking the reparations cause for indigenous and African peoples for the genocide, the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, slavery and colonialism to CARICOM and the world.
Over the last two decades, there has been much chatter about revolutions in health, housing and education. The evidence is now in. Most conscientious Vincentians conclude that we got less than we bargained for and that Gonsalves now presides over an undemocratic counter-revolution.
*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].