December 11, 2009
Healing the Grenadines Rift


Some anniversaries pass relatively unnoticed, shorn of the hype and attention given to others. This is particularly so of events with which we are somewhat uncomfortable and not sure how to handle. In those circumstances, the easiest approach is to conveniently forget.{{more}}

Perhaps that is the underlying thought about one such disconcerting historical experience of ours, the Union Island uprising of December 7, 1979, the 30th anniversary of which passed quietly this week, as has been the case for the past 29 years. That rebellion came hot on the heels of the general elections of December 5, 1979, the outcome of which gave victory, by a large margin to the Labour party led by the late Milton Cato. Not only was the margin of victory a surprise to some, but it also brought in its wake frustration on the part of many young people, some of whom desired radical change but who were unable to vote.

That frustration was not confined to the island of St. Vincent. The people in the Grenadines had long been neglected in the provision of basic social services, and seemingly punished for not being supportive of the ruling party. The election results came as the proverbial straw which broke the camel’s back, for a group of disgruntled youth, who took armed action in a rash attempt to secede from mainland rule. The limited adventure was met with a response far out of proportion to reality. The Cato government, already frightened by the successful revolution in Grenada and fearing a repeat on our shores, invoked its close friendship with the Tom Adams administration in Barbados to call in Barbadian troops to quell the rebellion and declared a state of Emergency throughout the multi-island state.

There are many stories of gross violations of the rights of the people of Union Island (and St. Vincent as well), during the Emergency. In addition, the Labour Party administration used its power to delay the holding of a by-election in the Grenadines (the winner of the seat having resigned without taking his place in Parliament), to deny NDP Leader James Mitchell the opportunity to regain the seat in Parliament after he had unsuccessfully contested on the mainland. All these had the combined effect of further alienating the people of the Grenadines and fuelling secessionist tendencies. These were skillfully exploited by the wily Mitchell who crafted the infamous Grenadines Declaration in May 1980, which was an undisguised call for secession.

Roundly condemned for it, Sir James has not to this day publicly repudiated that call. Until now, for in an exclusive interview with SEARCHLIGHT, he has now said he no longer holds that view. However, whatever Mr. Mitchell’s views, thirty years after Union Island 1979, the social gulf between the Grenadines and St. Vincent remains as wide as ever. Not even seventeen years with Sir James as Prime Minister appeared to have been able to heal the wounds. The reason may lie in the public unwillingness to face the facts and discuss the causes frankly; we seem to prefer to bury our heads in the sand and wish the problems will disappear. They won’t do so unless the underlying root causes are acknowledged as a first step towards having them redressed.

We cannot claim to be a multi-island state with condescending attitudes towards persons from different parts of the state. Economic development in the Grenadines must be accompanied not only by social development but also by cementing its integration such that Mayreau feels as much a part of the nation, as does Clare Valley or Stubbs. This will take painstaking effort, given the physical separation of the islands. But we cannot be taking a shot at wider regional integration while ignoring our own national cohesion. We have failed in this regard for the past thirty years. Let us not allow 30 more to pass without attending to our own internal unity.