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A Volcanic May Day


I have promised that during this historic “homecoming” year I will attempt, on a monthly basis, to revisit some of the events of 30 years ago, our independence year. Today, as May Day is with us, it is only fitting that we examine the Labour Day atmosphere of 1979. Then, the labour movement was far more active than today and there was certainly no shortage of issues – labour issues such as wages, working conditions and basic recognition of trade union matters, as well as wider social issues.{{more}}

All these were put on the backburner, though, by the events which literally erupted on April 13, 1979. On that fateful morning, a strange combination of Good Friday and the traditional “Black Friday” (Friday the 13th, according to superstition), our La Soufriere volcano erupted for the second time in eight years. This one was far more violent than the previous one and raised fears of a repeat of the cataclysmic eruption of 1902. In the two and a half weeks leading up to May Day, the volcano continued to erupt intermittently, covering the whole country in a blanket of ash and enveloping it in an atmosphere of gloom.

So how did this affect May Day celebrations? This is how one section of the local media described the May Day atmosphere: “May Day was hot, humid and hazy, as the Soufriere volcano carried on its steaming. Unlike previous years, there were no marches and rallies, customarily held by the trade unions. This was because of the situation concerning the eruption. A joint workers march, organized by four local unions, the Commercial Technical and Allied Workers Union (CTAWU), the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Union of Teachers (SVUT), the Civil Service Association (CSA) and the National Progressive Workers Union (NPWU), had to be cancelled”. (FREEDOM, May 4, 1979)

This was a time of national uncertainty and trepidation, as the effects of the volcanic eruptions began to tell on the national economy, and psyche. Soufriere’s fury had resulted in mass evacuations of thousands of persons in the north of the island, northwards from Spring Village on the Leeward side and from Colonarie on the Windward. All in all, there were an estimated 23,000 persons in evacuation camps, primarily schools, community centres and churches. Those days, our schools were far from the standard of today, as were the community centres, so life could not have been any bed of roses for the evacuees. It was having its toll, too, on the national purse. Then Premier, the late Milton Cato, in a national address, informed the non-independent nation that it was costing an average of $100,000 daily for the evacuation exercise, including $75,000 to feed those in camps and another $10,000 for those sheltered in private homes.

This was more than enough to test the capacity of a country which had not yet achieved its independence. We could not even seek external aid without the permission of the British colonial authorities who still had responsibility for our external affairs. An incident involving accessing assistance from Cuba was later to bear this out. The situation demanded clear leadership and a banding together of the entire nation, but sadly that was not the case. In the first place, the governing Labour Party was far from inclusive in its approach, preferring to rely on its own faithful, whereas a broad-based relief effort was needed. In the event it was to be embarrassed by the greed, insensitivity and downright unpatriotic behaviour of such persons. Reports of dishonesty and stealing emerged, in the camps and even at the headquarters of the Central Emergency Relief Committee (CERC) itself.

Partisan politics was rife at the time for not only was independence on the horizon but there was an impending election as well. The road to independence was strewn with many a political battle, including a mass struggle since 1978 around the content of the independence constitution. Had the then political leadership been accommodating to the popular will, we may well have been spared the trouble and expense of today’s constitutional reform process. To make matters worse, opposition political figures, unable to make a distinction between opposition to Labour’s partisanship and the national interests, found themselves virtually opposing independence itself, and in a national crisis sowing seeds of division.

It was left to the “radical” political movement, YULIMO, to try and inject some sanity and to display a sense of maturity which put the Parliamentary parties to shame. In a series of public statements on the crisis, YULIMO sought to urge national unity as the only means of tackling the disastrous situation. Take its STATEMENT No.3 for instance, issued on May 4, 1979. In this statement, the organization declared that the situation created by the eruption represented A NATIONAL CRISIS and, as such, required A NATIONAL EFFORT in response. It decried the cronyism of the Labour Party leadership and lamented that the CERC was far from broad-based or as representative as it should be. Several suggestions were offered including: 1. The involvement of active mass organizations such as the National Youth Council, then headed by current CCJ Justice Adrian Saunders, in the running of the camps; 2.The initiation of programmes to keep the evacuees occupied meaningfully, among them educational, cultural and sporting activities.

These suggestions continued to fall on deaf ears. YULIMO was not deterred, however, and continued to hammer home the message of national unity. On May 11, it was to go one step further and in STATEMENT No.4 made a bold call for the holding of an All-Party Conference, bringing all the political forces together to seek national consensus on dealing with the crisis confronting the nation. This, the statement said, could include “the possibility and advisability of establishing a Government of National Reconstruction for a limited period”. This call was not even considered, neither by those in office, nor those sitting on the other side in Parliament. The entire nation was to suffer the consequences of disunity as we marched towards independence. Thus it was, 30 years ago.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.