Politics dominated 2011 in the Caribbean

Never before in the history of the region have there been general elections in two Caribbean countries on the same date; coupled with a state of emergency in another; allegations of assassinations against two prime ministers; the surprise resignation of a prime minister, not to mention the democratic change of government in Haiti, all within a 12 month period.

In addition, Barbados’ Prime Minister Freundel Stuart warned leading members his administration that any attempt to derail his government would have “certain consequences.

“If I understand history at all, if a coup is attempted and it succeeds, the person against whom the coup was aimed usually pays for it with his neck. If the coup fails, the plotters and those who were trying to execute it pay for it with their necks,” he said.

His Finance Minister Chris Sinckler acknowledged that he and 10 of his colleagues were seeking an “urgent audience” with Stuart because some members felt that the Democratic Labour Party’s (DLP)’s level of public engagement on issues affecting the country was found wanting.

“I am hoping that by putting this on the record that those who feel that I am after some office and I spend all of my waking hours thinking about how to unseat this person or the other, or cause confusion that would lead to that, I really hope that they would stand down,” he added.

At the start of the year, St. Vincent and the Grenadines Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves, stunned parliament with his disclosure of an alleged assassination plot against him.

“Cocaine traffickers and money launderers are conspiring actively with others to kill the Prime Minister and on the public airwaves people are being exhorted by some to use any means necessary to remove a democratically elected government,” he added. This statement followed public pronouncements by Opposition Leader Arnhim Eustace that the government would fall by the end of 2011.

Nine months later, Gonsalves’ counterpart in Trinidad and Tobago, Kamla Persad Bissessar, caused an even bigger stir when she announced that the police had uncovered a plot to kill her and senior government ministers.

“I am advised by the law enforcement authorities that they have, through their intelligence resources uncovered an assassination plot against members of my government and myself,” she told the nation, adding that the assassinations were as a direct result of the ”successful” 105 day state of emergency (SOE) that had severely disrupted the activities of the criminals.

But in the end, despite the detention of 17 people, police were unable to lay any charge and the opposition termed the “assassination plot” as nothing more than “an exaggerated political stunt” by the government.

Whether he was forced out of office or not, Bruce Golding surprised Jamaicans with his announcement that he was stepping down as head of the government in October less than five years after taking the oath of office as prime minister.

“The challenges of the last four years have taken their toll and it was appropriate now to make way for new leadership to continue the programmes of economic recovery and transformation while mobilizing the party for victory in the next general elections,” Golding said in a farewell statement.

His successor, Andrew Holness, 39, became the youngest ever prime minister since political independence in 1962, but also now has un-envious record of being booted out of office just after two months.

Holness gambled and called a general election on December 29 but the voters decided that Portia Simpson-Miller, the first ever woman prime minister they sent packing in 2007, was a better choice to lead the country. They gave her People’s National Party (PNP) an overwhelming 41-22 margin of victory.

Simpson–Miller, affectionally referred to as “Sista P” and “Comrade Leader”, faces deep problems as she takes over the government, with debt running at approximately 130 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and unemployment at more than 12 per cent.

The new government has already said it will be seeking to renegotiate the multi-billion dollar Standby Agreement (SBA) from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

“We have plenty of work ahead of us…you will hear from us soon as we move to put our team in place,” she told supporters, urging all Jamaicans “to work with us as we move this country forward together.

“We will tell you as it is, we will hide nothing from you, when it is tough and rough we will let you know, when it is easy we will let you know,” Simpson-Miller said, informing all investors and businesses “that you have a government you can trust”.

The Jamaican election apart, voters in Guyana and St. Lucia created history by going to the polls on the same day to elect their respective governments.

For Dr. Kenny Anthony, November 28 allowed him another bite at governing St. Lucia, following his 11-6 defeat in the 2006 poll. The incumbent United Workers Party (UWP) had been predicting a landslide, but the voters instead sent Stephenson King and his UWP team packing.

“I ask God to give me the strength and courage and most of all the wisdom to manage the affairs of the country in the next few years or until such time it is necessary for me to say goodbye to political life,” an emotional 60-year-old Anthony said.

Donald Ramotar ensured that the People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPPC) would remain at the helm of government in Guyana, even though it failed to obtain a majority in the 65-member National Assembly.

Ramotar faced a formidable challenge from the Alliance for Change (AFC) and the opposition grouping, A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) that between them controlled 33 of the seats in Parliament.

The 61-year-old economist said the “elections have reaffirmed our maturity as a democratic nation, something of which we should all be proud.

“I wish to therefore congratulate my Guyanese brothers and sisters from all walks of life, who participated in this latest renewal of our democracy, for playing their part in this vital national process! Regardless of the results we are all winners – Guyana and all the people of Guyana,” he added.

In March, Haitians also celebrated the continued renewal of their democracy, by electing musician Michael “Sweet Micky” Martelly as their new head of state, replacing Rene Preval, who like Bharrat Jagdeo in Guyana had been barred by their country’s  constitution from seeking a third consecutive term in office.

Martelly had received nearly 68 per cent of the votes cast in the March 20 second round runoff and easily defeated former first lady and law professor Mirlande Manigat.

“We’ll work for all Haitians. Together we can do it,” he promised voters soon after his victory, but Martelly found it was easier said than done, having to nominate three persons before legislators agreed to his nominee for Prime Minister and the French-speaking CARICOM country still coming to grips with the January 2010 earthquake and a cholera outbreak.

Grenada’s Prime Minister Tillman Thomas, the then CARICOM chairman, said the successful completion of the presidential election signalled a “renewal of spirit and the rise of a new political generation” in Haiti despite the return to the country of former dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier and former president Jean Bertrand Aristide.

The High Court is likely to determine the future political careers of Dominica’s Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit and his Education Minister Petter St Jean after the main opposition United Workers Party (UWP) argued that the two ministers were illegally nominated to contest the December 2009 general election because they held dual citizenship at the time. A ruling is expected in early 2012.

In Nevis, the opposition Concerned Citizens Movement (CCM) has maintained that the July poll won by the ruling Nevis Reformation Party (NRP) was rigged and it too has gone to the courts seeking redress.

Despite early pronouncements, the British government failed to name a date for general elections in the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI) and citizens took to the streets to demand an end to being ruled by London.

But the TCI was not the only overseas territory having problems with Britain. Anguilla’s Chief Minister Hubert Hughes has called on citizens to seriously consider seeking political independence after the Governor of the 35 square mile island Alistair Harrison refused to sign off on the 2011 budget.

“We have come far enough and fought hard enough to have an Anguillian Governor or Governor General, an Anguillian flag and being identified to the world as ‘Anguillians and not “Belongers”,” Hughes said.

While the feud between Hughes and Harrison continued at year end, Reuben Meade in Montserrat upgraded his Chief Minister status to that of Premier even while acknowledging that the new Constitution that went into effect from September was not a perfect document.

“We must continue the work of improving the document over time.  We must, however, not lose sight of the focus on development issues while at the same time honouring the provisions of the constitution,” Meade said.

In the British Virgin Islands (BVI), 67-year old physician Orlando Smith was voted as Premier replacing Ralph T O’Neal in the general election.

The political upheavals in the region were taking place amid the problems associated with the ongoing global economic and financial crisis that continue to thwart socio-economic development to the point that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has warned that Caribbean countries will continue to struggle and governments will have to tighten on their economic spending.

“The Caribbean region continues to struggle to recover from a long and protracted recession. Drags from fiscal consolidation and higher energy prices continue to constrain private demand, while the recovery in tourism flows remains tepid amid high unemployment in advanced economies,” said the IMF’s deputy director for the Western Hemisphere, David Vegara.

For its part, China continued its largesse in the region pumping millions of dollars in assistance to CARICOM as part of its diplomatic initiative to improve relations with this region a point that was underscored by Vice Premier Wang Qishan as he addressed the China Caribbean Economic and Trade Cooperation Forum held in Trinidad.

The economic situation has been blamed by the Trinidad and Tobago government for its reluctance to provide more than a five per cent wage increase for public workers, resulting in trade unions mounting street demonstrations and warning that a nationwide shut down of the country is on the cards.

The introduction of the low cost carrier REDJet is seen by its owners as an attempt to deal with the high cost of travel, but while the Barbados-based carrier appeared to be soaring, its Antigua-based competitor LIAT, was continuing to face financial as well as industrial problems.

Outgoing Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Secretary General Dr. Denzil Douglas said that any reflection on the past year “will no doubt be coloured by the challenges spawned by the current period of global uncertainties.

“We have sought, for example, to encourage foreign investment from new areas and welcomed the interest shown by India, China and Japan, all of whom mounted trade and investment missions to the region seeking opportunities.”

CARICOM has also sought to put its own house in order. In August, the regional grouping named Dominican Irwin La Rocque as the seventh CARICOM Secretary-General, following the resignation of Trinidadian Edwin Carrington after 18 years in the post.

“I am humbled and privileged for this opportunity to continue my service to the Governments and people of the Caribbean Community,” La Rocque said, adding “as we strive towards the goal of a Community For All, the confidence of the Heads of Government, the support of the people of the Community and the committed staff of the CARICOM Secretariat are vital in achieving that objective”.

His statement may have had the effect of easing the fears of the population in the region, particularly after Caribbean governments indicated that the process towards a single economy within the 15-member grouping that would have gone into effect by 2015, will now “take longer than anticipated’.

But for the smaller sub-regional Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), progress was made on August 1, with the free movement of nationals.

But as the historians mull over the political developments of 2011, they will also have to deal with the ongoing crime situation that continues unabated in several Caribbean countries despite efforts by regional governments to push other options rather than resorting to murder in dealing with domestic and personal squabbles.

The Guyana-based CARICOM Secretariat has been spearheading national consultations on gangs and gang violence under a project funded by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

But horrific murders continued in countries like Jamaica, where some victims were beheaded and in Belize, the Prime Minister Dean Barrow met with rival gang leaders to bring about a truce in the country.

A move by the Trinidad and Tobago government to implement the death penalty in response to the rising murder rate was defeated in Parliament after the opposition failed to provide the required special majority needed.

Death continued to stalk the region in 2011 bringing with it a tragic accident in St. Lucia which claimed the lives of 16 people when a mini-bus plunged down a cliff into the sea at Mount Sion in Choiseul in November in what authorities said was “probably the single most vehicular accident or tragedy ever suffered by St. Lucia”.

Politicians like former Belize prime minister George Price; St. Lucia’s second prime minister Sir Allan Fitzgerald Louisy; Jamaica’s former deputy prime minister and attorney general David Coore; former national security minister, Colonel Trevor McMillan; long standing member of the opposition People’s National Party (PNP), Donald Buchanan and Trinidad and Tobago’s first Governor General Sir Ellis Clarke and former trade and industry minister, Kenneth Valley, died during 2011.

Death also claimed the former governor general of St. Lucia, Sir Stanislaus James, Dame Bernice Lake, one of the Caribbean’s foremost jurists, the Jamaican academic Professor Aggrey Brown, journalists and broadcasters Desmond Bourne, Allyson Hennessy, Dame Olga Lopes-Seale; Sharief khan; Keith Smith and Louis Daniel.

The region also mourned the passing of Jeff Joseph, the lead singer of the Dominican group, Grammacks New Generation, the acclaimed folk violinist Joseph Ives Simeon, Veteran mas designer and multiple Band of the Year winner, Wayne Berkeley; Valentina Medina, who served as the Queen of the indigenous Carib population in Trinidad and Tobago.

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