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Protecting the Vincentian-Garifuna Compact

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The Vincentian-Garifuna compact is being threatened. This compact, best expressed as Vincentians’ recognition of the crucial role the Garifuna have played in anchoring Vincentian history on the rock of resistance to European imperialism, racism, slavery, and genocide, is now legally enshrined in the Vincentian government’s elevation of the Garifuna Paramount Chief Chatoyer as St Vincent and the Grenadines’ (SVG) first and only national hero.{{more}} And during the past 15 years the Ralph Gonsalves’ government has led the transformation of this idea from simply a legal construct into the lived experience of our national holiday. And each year, the return of so many Garifuna to SVG to join us in these national celebrations has certainly underlined the idea that Vincentians today should and must see ourselves as bearers of a sacred trust – to protect the land that is both our home and the ancestral homeland of the Garifuna.

It is therefore with deep unease that we are witnessing a breach of the concord that should underpin the relationship between the Garifuna people and Vincentians. The trigger for this potential disruption lies within the New Democratic Party’s (NDP) declaration that an NDP government would award “honorary citizenship” to all the descendants of the Garifuna. Precisely what the NDP means by this is unclear. On the one hand it could simply recognize what is in fact the case: that in affirming the virtue and dignity of Garifuna history on the Vincentian historical experience, Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves and his ULP administration have bestowed on SVG’s indigenous peoples an honour that is without parallel anywhere within the Americas. On the other hand the NDP’s undefined offer has demonstrated how and why debates surrounding the offer of “honorary citizenship” can swiftly descend into the poisoned swamp of Vincentian political divisions; the response of the Prime Minister to the offer is a clear example.

Into this swamp has walked Mr Ramos, a putative leader of the Garifuna people. In a speech that is utterly feckless, ill-considered, and completely demeaning to anyone claiming to speak on behalf of the Garifuna people, Mr Ramos proclaims his lack of respect for the Prime Minister. It is one thing for Mr Eustace to attack the Prime Minister in whatever language he chooses; he is, after all, the Leader of the Opposition. It is quite another for Mr Ramos or any other Garifuna leader to attack a sitting Prime Minister. Or, for that matter, the Opposition Leader. For the greater truth is this: morally, the only ground the Garifuna can and must occupy in the context of Vincentian national politics is complete neutrality. Vincentians’ support and respect for our Garifuna brethren cannot and must not be corrupted with the appearance whether real or imagined of Garifuna’s interference in SVG’s domestic politics. Yet this is precisely what Mr Ramos has done.

Indeed, it gets even worse. Mr Ramos also proclaims that a clear line of distinction be drawn between the Government’s pursuit of reparations for enslaved Africans and its search for reparations for the Garifuna because as he says, “the Garifuna were not slaves.” The idea that common sufferers cannot face a common foe together makes no sense. More poisonous, however, is Ramos’ belief that in linking these histories of suffering we are somehow belittling the Garifuna by equating them with the descendants of slaves. Since the vast majority of modern Vincentians are descendants of slaves, how are we supposed to feel about that? We condemn Ramos’ statements as vehemently as we did in 2011 when Minister Montgomery Daniel, himself a Garifuna, made similar pronouncements.

The truth of course is quite simple: enslaved Africans in SVG and the exiled Garifuna were the victims of the same forces: European imperialism. And today, all Vincentians and Garifuna are called upon to recognize and honour that shared history beyond the narrow corridors of partisan politics. Mr Ramos violated that principle. Let’s pray that he retreats from that line and that no one else follows his example.

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