Dr. Fraser- Point of View
March 28, 2013
Sir James’ “St Vincent and the Grenadines – the Ungovernable”

Sir James Mitchell’s manuscript is an attempt to destroy the myths behind his short walk on the Grand Anse Beach with Dr Ralph Gonsalves, adviser to the Organisation for the Defense of Democracy (ODD) whose leadership had been invited to a Caricom meeting in Grenada. The author, former Prime Minister, outlines and discusses the issues that fed the so-called “Road Block Revolution” and let us into the circumstances and mindset that ended the crisis with the agreement to cut short the life of parliament.{{more}} He also raises the matter of lessons to be learnt from the ‘Road Block Revolution’, but appears to have left it to the reader to pluck them out from the scenario he creates.

The pledge to make the country ungovernable that was issued by the leadership of the ULP, following their narrow one seat defeat at the 1998 General Election, he argues, manifested itself with the ‘Road Block Revolution’ that rocked the country. Today ‘ungovernable’ is frequently used to describe the state of the country, but it appears that for the former Prime Minister it ended with the disturbances of 1999.

What were the issues that fed those disturbances? The author provides us with what he obviously considers the major ones: A proposal to provide gratuities, not pensions, for Senators and other related matters that came out of the Venner Report; the trade unions’ rejection of the offer of a 12 per cent increase, which the country was not prepared to go beyond, in light of the looming economic problems, among them the loss of protection for bananas, the country’s main export product. Sir James had seen the extension of the Arnos Vale airport as the best means of boosting tourism as a counter to the expected fall-out with bananas. This was a critical issue, with the Opposition vowing to obstruct any effort to work on an extension to the airport.

He poses a number of questions about the Road Block Revolution, most of them rhetorical. Some of these, however, should have been more than rhetorical. One can ask, was the failure of the police to act a result of instructions given to them by the Prime minister or was it because the police were among the voices demanding a larger salary increase? The answer to this is important, for the other question that will emerge in the public’s mind is if the eventual ‘resolution’ of the matter was influenced or dictated by this.

It is clear in the author’s mind that the protests were financed by an individual whom he identifies, without even having to name him. He seemed to have understood and did state the motivation behind this. He laments the failure of critics to investigate the financing of the protests and to “reconcile the inconsistencies in a democracy and to link them to life today in SVG”. He probably has a point here, since little work of an investigative nature has been done on what is a very important phase in our democracy. In fairness to him, the emphasis has been on a supposed secret plan, myth or not.

A lot of attention was given to the divisions within his Cabinet over approaches to airport development. He saw the extension of the Arnos Vale airport as the best option. In discussing this, he has not dealt with some of the real issues that influenced those who did not favour that option; that of a downwind take-off that limited the take-off load and the safety factor arising from the Belmont hills at the back of the airport. The question emerges as to whether approval would have been given for a larger jet to land. He was obviously angered by his Cabinet’s reaction and asks “How do you secure the leadership of public opinion when your troops are agreeing with the enemy?”

We are told that Sir James had already decided that it was time to quit following his discovery of a heart problem. A call to CARICOM to assist in resolving the impasse led eventually to a meeting in Grenada, to which the ODD was invited and brought along their adviser, Dr Gonsalves, the Leader of the Opposition. Sir James, had strangely enough, decided to ‘expose their irrelevance’ and so invited Dr Gonsalves, to a walk on the beach where he declared his intent to shorten the life of parliament. He had previously phoned Arnhim Eustace, his proposed successor, and told him about the decision.”No questions! He agreed!” One assumes – no discussion! But why was Dr Gonsalves rather than representatives of the ODD invited for that famous walk? Certainly, not to show their irrelevance! What was the point about this and why were they there in the first place? When was the decision made to shorten the life of parliament? One would have thought that this was so serious an issue that it should have been discussed with his parliamentary colleagues even before his trip to Grenada and that he would have been guided by the various options. Sir James was at pains to show that the path of reconciliation was always his chosen path, pointing to his role in the settlement of other disputes in the region. This appears credible enough. He wanted “no stain on his name, party or image of SVG.”

In trying to remove the myths about a secret deal, he also defended his daughter’s later placement as head of the OFA because of her professional studies in offshore matters and the results she had shown working in that body.

He poses some questions: Are we better off for this ‘Road Block Revolution’? Do we have a healthier democracy and greater opportunity? He notes that the Trade Unions never got the 30 per cent increase the Opposition promised and that the only ones to have benefitted were the leaders who reaped certain rewards. But, for him, the harvest of the protests were “Loss of confidence in justice, deliberate elimination of equity in opportunity, shrivelling expectations, drifting without an alternative course.” He asks: “How did optimism convert into anguish? Where did all this bitterness and complaining about misery come from?” Valid questions indeed!

There are obviously lessons to be learnt by everyone, including the author. It is not simply a “mistake of thinking that the public had matured to this type of thinking.” In a democracy one has always to understand the pulse of the nation and be guided by it. “…When ministers whom you nurtured over the years begin to challenge your vision in a country you inspired, it is high time to leave them to their own devices.” This says a lot, since it must be perfectly understood that in a democracy the leader’s vision can be challenged. Why not? The child becomes a man and the student becomes a teacher. Moreover, it is not only about knowing your “exits and entrances”, but also appreciating how to exit. In his bid to destroy the myth of a deal with our present Prime Minister, he would have to be careful how he functions once he has made that exit and to try not to create situations that will continue to fuel the myth he hopes to destroy. One understands better some of the factors that the then Prime Minister claimed to have influenced his decision, but at the same time there are many questions left standing. Perhaps a 22-page document could not really put all of the myths to rest and a single column cannot raise all of the questions and issues that need to be raised.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.