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The UPM and the 1979 elections – some reflections

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This Sunday, December 5, marks the 25th anniversary of the holding of the first-ever general elections in an independent St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

In many way 1979 was an eventful year, internationally, regionally and in our own country. {{more}}It was the year that saw Britain, the colonial ruler up to October, take the first dramatic lurches to the right under Margaret Thatcher, the year that Sparrow so succinctly described in song as the one in which “the rule of the tyrants declined” – Somoza in Nicaragua and our own Eric Gairy and Patrick John in the Caribbean. The year when we lowered the Union Jack and when La Soufriere emptied its venom on us all.

The December general elections in St. Vincent and the Grenadines were scarcely less dramatic. History records the outcome of those elections, for 13 seats in the House of Assembly, as the St. Vincent Labour Party (the incumbent), 11 seats, the New Democratic Party, two seats. There were two other parties contesting the elections, neither of which gained a seat. One was the rump of Ebeneezer Joshua’s once-mighty People’s Political Party (PPP), which was finally annihilated at the polls, Joshua himself suffering a disgraceful defeat; the other, the four-month-old United People’s Movement.

In essence, the electoral struggle was a three-way one between the SVLP, NDP and UPM, though any keen, dispassionate observer was bound to conclude that it was a titanic struggle between the OLD and the NEW, with the UPM representing fresh ideas for the future and the three others all ganged up against it on a common platform of student anti-communism.

For the UPM was not just your usual run-of-the-mill political party; it represented a radical break with the past, fuelled the aspirations of the young, downtrodden and dispossessed for justice, bread, democracy and progress. It promised popular participation and involvement of the people in decision-making on a scale before envisaged in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

The UPM was itself a product of intense debate and consolidation by the popular forces that had grown out of the anti-colonial and Black Power movements of the sixties and early seventies, had been radicalized by socialist thought, then very prevalent in the seventies, and been forged in the intense political battles of the time.

The alliance of the People’s Democratic Movement (PDM), it-self a coalition of the Parnel Campbell/ Kenneth John DFM (Democratic Freedom Movement) and Carlyle Dougan’s short-lived PUC (People’s United Congress), the ARWEE group largely based in the Diamonds Village area and the unabashedly vocal ULIMO advocating a path of socialist orientation, was launched as the UPM on August 3, 1979, fittingly in that one-time cauldron of political battle,

the Market Square, Kingstown.

It was not without teething pains. In fact, it followed a sustained public debate from about 1977 on the wisdom of unifying the “progressive forces” to confront what then represented reaction and backwardness. Events, locally and abroad, helped to influence this debate, leading to the three factions agreeing after a very democratic set of discussions and exchanges to establish the UPM as an electoral alliance. A set of major hurdles forced this bold new grouping. There was first and foremost the serious drawback of a lack of financial resources.

The UPM’s pro-workers, small farmer and poor people bias did not endear it either to the monied classes or those with geo-political interests in the Caribbean. The flaming rhetoric of many of the young also raised fears among the elite and middle classes to fight an election without significant financial resources, even in those days, was almost to court suicide, though to its credit, the UPM did manage to avoid that fate.

Then there was the regional and international climate. A curious mixture this was of both positive and negative factors. There was first of all the revolutionary tide sweeping the region with mass movements in St. Lucia and Dominica rocking the status quo and the Maurice Bishop-led New Jewel Movement (NJM) actually accomplishing the revolutionary overthrow of the Gairy dictatorship. Youths throughout the Caribbean felt inspired, empowered and determined to sweep away the entire old order in the region.

On the other hand, those same revolutionary changes, the emerging alliance of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and Jewellites in Grenada with the revolutionary government in Cuba rang alarm bells in the corridors of power in Washington, London and Ottawa and scared the hell out of their servants in this region. With the cold war still raging, a vicious campaign of anti-communism was launched. The UPM in SVG was to face the full brunt of this.

•Next week: Facing the challenges

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