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40th anniversary of UPM

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2019 does not only mark the 40th anniversary of our nation’s reclamation of its independence, for in the same year 1979, another important event took place which was to have significant influence both on our pre-independence passage and during the four decades since then. I refer here to the formation of the United People’s Movement (UPM) which was launched on August 3, 1979.

Before I go further, permit me here to pay my respects to the late Sir Vincent Beache and to offer my condolences to his family. As the nation mourns one of its elder statesmen, a veteran of political battles dating back close to a half of a century, I look back to his growing maturity over the years. We have had our own battles and heated exchanges, he being a member of the Cato regime that we young activists of the time considered as becoming increasingly anti-democratic, yet when the situation demanded it, he was open and receptive to progressive change and ideas leading to his accommodation with now Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves and the emergence of the Unity Labour Party. May he rest in peace!

But let’s return to the UPM and its 40th anniversary. This was not just another political party, for as the name implies, it was truly a People’s Movement, a unifying force of the various progressive and revolutionary strands that had emerged in our country during the late sixties and early seventies. These groups, while all preaching black consciousness and radical change, campaigning against colonialism and for national independence and even advocating socialism of one form or another, had remained separate and thus limited in influence, with personal and ideological differences the excuse.

The brutal suppression of the protest against the visit of Britain’s Princess Margaret in 1972 caused some sober reflection. Out of it came first the merger of the predominantly black nationalist BLAC (Black Liberation Action Movement) and OBCA (Organisation for Black Cultural Awareness) groups, with the Young Socialist Group (YSG) in 1974 to form YULIMO and to take the struggle to higher heights.

In December of that same year the Democratic Freedom Movement, the early leader of the radical movement, ventured into local electoral politics. It contested the two Kingstown seats in the general elections. Strongly criticized by the YULIMO elements (on reflection, the DFM candidates representing the most progressive elements in the elections, ought to have been supported by the left movement as a whole), the DFM candidates were roundly trounced at the polls.

The elections ushered in a supposed “Unity” government with the ten victorious Labour Party candidates assured of the support of the two seats of the formal Opposition, the Joshua husband and wife team. Branding itself “the strongest government in the world” it set out on a path of high-handedness and repression which was not only to drive Joshua from its fold before three years elapsed, but which was to bring about its own downfall 10 years later.

The most positive feature of the 1974-79 period was the solidifying of the progressive movement. Intelligent debates in the media, fuelled by YULIMO’s burning desire to unify the broad progressive forces under one umbrella, it was an era rich in political exchanges. Significantly too, this sweeping search for unity was not confined to political organisations. There was a revival of the youth movement, the emergence of the women’s movement, the banding together of often reluctant trade unions, the blooming of the arts and culture and even the formation of social organisations promoting international solidarity, peace and consumer rights.

These provided a solid platform on which a progressive, anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist movement could be built. The march towards independence and in particular the approaches to independence and to the drawing up of a new constitution for our country, gave manifest expression to that nationalist movement. In contrast to the top-down style of the government, the broad range of forces mentioned above coalesced into a National Independence Committee, chaired by prominent and well-respected local lawyer Henry Williams, initiating wide public discussion on independence and soliciting ideas for a new constitution.

YULIMO, the DFM and ARWEE (based in the rural community of Diamonds Village) all played prominent roles in this process. Sadly, the democratic route was spurned by the government of the day which proceeded to independence on its own terms under the tutelage of the British government. In the meantime the Soufriere volcano had wreaked havoc throughout St Vincent. A new direction was clearly needed.

This was the challenge confronting the local progressive movement. It was beyond the capacity of any single group. It called for unity of purpose, a forward movement of the people. The UPM, the “Upful” movement as it was branded then, was the response on August 3, 1979.
We shall continue next week.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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