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174 years after slavery – 33 years since independence: Where is the freedom?

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A friend of mine sent me an email from the BBC with an item having to do with the appearance in court of former Philippine President Gloria Arroyo,{{more}} on charges of misusing millions of state lottery charity funds while in office. It was followed by this remark: “This item made me ask what’s wrong with Caribbean people, to be so forgiving of our politicians and others who steal from the public purse. Will we ever learn? We quibble, but somehow we think they are sacrosanct.” My response was that we seem to be specially made. Really, we put up with a lot of crap from our politicians, but vent our anger on innocent people whom we feel slight us in some way, no matter how small.

This is part of a broader issue. We celebrate Independence annually and express pride in being free and independent, but this is mere ole talk. Freedom is “the power or right to act, speak or think freely.” By that definition we are certainly not a free people. So, Bob Marley’s call to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery is still very much alive. We have over the years undoubtedly made gains materially and in the area of education, as far as certification is concerned, but we haven’t gone that further step and freed our minds. We listen to, repeat and agree with anything that comes from the mouths of our politicians without any critical examination. If we look at something that is blue and they say it is purple, we will gladly change our minds, convinced that what we are seeing is really purple.

We are afraid to take any meaningful stand to free ourselves from the bonds left over from colonialism, which our post-independence leaders refined and presented to us as a new deed. Our trade unions have been emasculated; those unions that our ancestors had fought for and which had been seen as the vehicles for advancing the interests of working people. Our press is wobbly, and so the fundamental props of our democracy, an informed citizenry, a free press and a strong civil society to which unions are central, are absent. Today our working people play ball, hoping to gain favours from those who control us. We are simply afraid to speak truth to power. We have, all of us, become a spineless bunch of people, prepared to tolerate insults (since we figure they are geared to others, not to ourselves), listen to lies and hope that somehow things will work out for us. All the while we grumble beneath our breaths about all of the problems that engulf us.

Where is the spirit of Chatoyer and his people who confronted the French and English, the great powers of their day? The more educated we get, the more we have become dependent. A country, of course, cannot become independent unless its people are independent. What are we producing these days? Our governments spend a lot of their time holding out begging bowls, rather than trying to empower and energise us to stimulate a mission geared to take us forward through an increase in productivity and the creation of a spirit of community and purpose.

The issue of the 3 per cent legislated for and promised to public servants is a test of what mettle we are made of. From some quarters, we are said to be doing well, but apparently not well enough to meet certain commitments! While admitting that there is a global economic crisis, we have to admit that part of our problem is one of setting meaningful priorities, sanctioned by the people of the country. The battle to save ‘Nice Radio’ is one that we need to win to move toward acquiring that elusive freedom and independence, for the ‘Nice’ story is much more than a legal issue. It is one about our freedoms. How can we celebrate 33 years of independence and remain so imprisoned?

(I had to interrupt the writing of this article to go into Kingstown. On my way back I met two young men of about 18 – 20 years at the entrance to Cane Garden. Each had two packs of farine selling. The image of these two guys, each selling two packs of farine, is a very powerful one and tells its own story.)

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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