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Rethinking Independence

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Next Thursday, October 27, we celebrate our thirty second anniversary of independence. What do we really have in mind when we put our energy into commemorating the occasion? What is the meaning of independence to us today? What is its meaning to those young persons who were born after 1979 and had no experience of the colonial period?{{more}} It is true that the schools have programmes to commemorate the occasion and that the radio stations also feature programmes, but to what extent these explore what needs to be explored is a question that has to be asked. Buntings are displayed on the days prior to October 27, Vincentians attend the military parade or look at it on TV, and then for most persons that is the end. It is then time for the beach or other business.

Independence, if the truth be told, was really the beginning of a process, but the question is, a process leading to what? Really, we first had to get out of the colonial mind set and dismantle the structures that had propped up the colonial regime. Unfortunately, we continued the colonial structures and simply tinkered with them to make them suit the goals or rather the interests of those who replaced the colonial elite. We have been fooling around with education, changing from GCE to CXC and CAPE. We have introduced new subjects but hardly ever bothered to overturn the curriculum. Education has taken on a different kind of momentum where we are all simply responding to market demands. So areas of learning that are critical to the development of an identity suffer if their market demand is not high. The Caribbean is now being overrun by off-shore schools that simply follow the needs of the market and have no commitment to the region.

When we examine the meaning of independence today, we have to locate ourselves in a globalised world with the market playing a commanding role. Does independence have any real meaning particularly for small countries like ours? We are smaller than many medium sized communities around the world that are governed by mayors. On the other hand, we have fifteen parliamentarians and are also thinking of increasing that number. We sit on councils of the world supposedly as equals but at some point hand out a begging bowl to those whom we consider our equals. The whole thing is monkey business. It is not my intention to suggest that we surrender everything we have achieved. I share the view that our future lies with a single regional unit. This is certainly not going to solve all of our problems, but it makes more sense than having fifteen representatives sitting at the United Nations and other international bodies, speaking very often to empty halls. CARICOM has a population of about 16 million people, with Haiti alone accounting for 9 million.

As others have indicated, the regional movement appears to be in retreat. The Caribbean Single Market and Economy from which much had been expected is getting further away from our grasp. Our leaders main focus is on the next election, and everything is geared to that or informed by it. Agriculture is in decline, and we spend millions of dollars each year importing foods that we can produce. There is occasionally some talk about a regional food policy or plan, but that is as far as it goes. Our tourism is subjected to the whims and fancies of developments elsewhere. Fears exist, for instance, about the implications that can arise if the US embargo on Cuba is removed and Cuba with its large tourism potential becomes open to tourists from anywhere. At the moment there is not a lot of optimism in those countries with better developed tourist infrastructures than ours. So where do we stand? There is little that is innovative that has been brought to the table. In SVG unemployment grows. We simply have to look at the number of businesses that are laying off workers to realise this. Along with unemployment is the growth of poverty. These are realities and we don’t seem to have answers for them. So when we celebrate independence, are we celebrating a belief that we now have control over our own affairs? What is the nature of this control? If we have control, what are we doing with that control? The view was that independence was going to give us the space to begin to create a development path that would allow us to further our own interests and meet the expectations of our people. What have we been doing with that control? So must we not now question the reality of that control? The economic fallout has been breeding discontent in different parts of the world. In SVG and other parts of the Caribbean, our people have been very silent. Will this continue to be so? To avoid any major social eruption we have to get our people more involved in the issues that affect them. We have to look again at our political system that functions in the manner as Selwyn Ryan will call it, of the Winner taking all. We have to continue to question what we have grown to accept as democracy. Some persons suggest that there is nothing wrong with our Westminster system of government. They claim that it works well in Britain. I do not necessarily accept that, but let us give them the benefit of the doubt. The question is, are we operating the same system here? A large part of our problem with the importation of the Westminster system here is that we got it minus the conventions. What do I mean by conventions? The accepted meaning is “the established view of what is thought to be proper behaviour, good taste” (Collins English Dictionary). We see this in action all the time. British politicians understand when they have not practised proper behaviour and as we saw recently they resign. With us anything goes. Conventions are an important part of a system but we imported the system without the conventions hence it does not work with us as it works in the place from which we got it. After 32 years, our state of affairs is not what we expected or want. We have to begin to question everything because even though external factors are impacting severely on us, we fail to deal effectively with the space that we still have. We complain about the behaviour and attitudes of many of our politicians. Let us now put different structures in place to control that behaviour.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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