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Reminiscences of 1979 eruptions

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A few weeks ago I had begun a series centred on one of the great battles of our people to preserve democracy in SVG, the struggle against what became known as the “Dread Bills” of 1981. So far we have done six instalments in the series with a few more to come. 

However, given the violent eruption of the Soufriere volcano and the fact that the vast majority of our population either have no knowledge of the events of 1979, as well as the obvious ignorance of previous eruptions, I crave the indulgence of my readers for this week and the next to bring some recollections of 1979 and to highlight excerpts from the eruptions of 1812 and 1902 instead of the Bills series. That series will recommence for the May Day issue, on April 30.

Lessons from 1979

On Tuesday this week, on the exact 42nd anniversary of the 1979 eruption, La Soufriere indulged in another of its explosive eruptions. The situation today is of course very different from that of 1979, but there are many lessons that we can, and should learn from that experience.

At the time I was General Secretary of the progressive political organisation, YULIMO, of which our current Prime Minister Hon. Dr. Ralph Gonsalves was an executive member, though he was at the time lecturing at UWI, Cave Hill, Barbados and residing there. YULIMO was known for its activism, promotion and defence of the interests of our working people and commitment to that cause.

That was vividly demonstrated when the Soufriere erupted on Good Friday. While most Vincentians were still in shock and fear, and even though communication was far more difficult than today, we summoned an emergency meeting of the leadership of YULIMO, that same day, held at my residence to discuss the crisis.

That meeting and its outcome demonstrated the commitment and patriotism of the youthful political leadership. It also demonstrated a remarkable degree of maturity in the central outcome.  While discussing the role that YULIMO and mass organisations could play in the crisis, the conclusion was drawn that, in spite of our significant differences with and opposition to, the governing Labour Party, the crisis was a “National” one, demanding “National Unity and National Effort”. 

While we deplored the action of the government then to exclude representatives of the trade unions, National Youth Council and various political parties from participating in the Central Emergency Relief Committee, the forerunner of today’s NEMO, YULIMO still concluded that given the nature of the crisis, it, and all mass organisations, should “put their services at the disposal of the authorities and the evacuees”.

This was in clear contrast to the behaviour, (in some cases misbehaviour”) of other political forces in the country. On Easter Monday for instance, then Premier Milton Cato made a national broadcast in which he accused “politically-inspired persons”, presumably from the Opposition (NDP and PPP), of going to the various evacuation centres spreading “malicious rumours”. 

This in fact was borne out to be true over the course of the eruptions. For YULIMO, political opposition was one thing, but a national crisis was another. We strongly condemned such political opportunism and called on all to place the national interests, especially those of the affected persons, above all else. For those who today place such narrow interests before national ones, it is worth remembering that those political forces lost badly in the elections of December 1979.

At the same time we criticized the narrow short-sightedness of the government in refusing to include a wide cross-section of people in the direction of the national effort. YULIMO was the only party which took this patriotic position, drawing on all available resources, here and abroad to assist in the relief and rehabilitation effort.

Dr Gonsalves himself flew home from Barbados one week after the eruption to consult with his colleagues on how best we could assist. He was part of the decision to hold an historic Special Soufriere Conference on May 27, the only such one ever done by any political party in the Caribbean in such a crisis.

Another aspect to note about YULIMO’s outlook was its practice of international solidarity. In spite of not being in Parliament, the party tapped on resources from abroad and was able to solicit assistance from the UK, Canada, Guadeloupe and Cuba and place them at the disposal of the national effort. This was in spite of the government at first refusing to accept Cuban assistance, a ship load of relief supplies, and not even extending common courtesies to the Guadeloupean delegation which brought assistance also.

It was a splendid manifestation of patriotism, country before self, solidarity and commitment to the working people that we will do well to keep central to our practices today. 

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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