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Reliving the glorious struggles for democracy

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remember that the democracy we take for granted today did not come to us on a platter but is the product of years of struggles on the part of our people over the years. In this light, the most salient moments in those struggles ought not to be forgotten, but relived and cherished.{{more}} This very month of June marks the anniversary of some of the finest hours of our working people in the history of our political development. Let’s revisit some of the highlights.

1981 was a difficult year for the people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Living conditions were hard for the majority of the people barely a year after the achievement of independence. That achievement itself was marred by the undemocratic manner in which the then Cato government treated the accession to that status and particularly its refusal to engage a broad People’s coalition on the issue of a democratic constitution. Economically, there was widespread poverty and hardship, exacerbated by two successive natural disasters, the eruption of the Soufriere volcano in 1979 and the damage wrought by hurricane Allen at the beginning of August 1980. To make matters worse, the volcanic eruption brought in its wake a period of drought whilst compounding the situation, a freak storm in October 1980 caused severe damage to the local water supply.

The decade of the seventies had not brought the expected progress, not just in SVG mind you, but in our sister islands in the Eastern Caribbean as well. According to a World Bank report, “….in the smaller states of the Caribbean…..the rate of economic growth was about half of the rest of the region…” That failure to generate significant economic growth had grave implications for the standard of living of the vast majority of our population which could not keep pace with the rate of increase of the cost of living. A study by the Civil Service Association (predecessor to the Public Service Union) revealed that between January 1978 and August 1980 the cost of living locally went up by 71%. A glimpse at some retail prices tells the story-flour prices went from 17c per pound in 1970 to 60c in 1980, the price of sugar multiplied eight times, from 15c to$1.20, chicken from 41c to $1.10, evaporated milk from 42c per 14 oz. can to $1.35, gasoline skyrocketed from 91c per gallon to $5.00 per gallon and kerosene from 56c to $5.00.

Dissatisfaction With such a situation and high nemployment, there was much dissatisfaction, and industrial unrest loomed. Yet rather than take measures to alleviate a rapidly worsening situation, the labour administration of the day became more aloof and apparently oblivious to the cries emanating from virtually every nook and cranny. Workers, farmers, women, the youth in particular not only met with deaf ears, strong-armed methods were used to try and stifle protest and dissent. This was the situation as 1981 opened- industrial action by unions, protests by farmers, open condemnation of rate increases for water and electricity.

By the month of March there were mass protests, spearheaded by the United People’s Movement (UPM).An Editorial in the UPM’s organ, JUSTICE explains why:

“No one can deny that almost all are feeling it. The store clerk is complaining, the waterfront worker is grumbling, the small farmer is dissatisfied, the trafficker is angry, the civil servant is getting grey trying to make ends meet, all workers are really up against it. Even small businessmen are being forced out of business by the bad policies of an uncaring government. The youths are not getting the employment opportunities necessary for their survival and development…”

Socially and politically too, there was unrest. Besides the hike in rates for basic utility services, the problems associated with the re-introduction of the sugar industry had resulted in a shortage of sugar while the teething challenges at the Diamond Dairy created quality issues even while the importation of milk was banned. The government was getting more unpopular each day, even as its high-handedness and arrogance increased. In 1980, in spite of the hardships facing working people, increases for salaries of MPs and pension and gratuity entitlements for them were passed by Parliament. One year later the Speaker of the House of Assembly appeared before a tribunal on behalf of VINLEC to argue for rate increases to be imposed on consumers. Revolt appeared on the cards.

The government’s reaction was typical of its heavy-handed nature. With industrial unrest spreading, on May 7, 1981, two Bills were introduced in Parliament to clamp down on those hard-won democratic rights – of assembly, of association, of freedom of thought etc. These were to be forever dubbed as the “Dread Bills”” and provoked a mobilisation unprecedented in our country’s history. These led to the dramatic events of June 1981 which we shall recall next.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social com mentator.

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