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New Year won’t be so happy

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The traditional wishes for a “Happy New Year” have more and more a hollow ring when balanced against reality.

With each passing year, it becomes clearer and clearer that for the bulk of the world’s peoples, “happy” is not a state they are likely to experience day-in or day-out. That is not to be unduly negative; it is simply a fact of life, which must be faced.{{more}}

Unfortunately, for most of us, it is not a reality which we seem prepared to acknowledge, far less confront. Locked into our “pie in the sky” political illusions, we are more inclined to be willing victims of the blame game and to pretend that, wherever we are, short-term political changes will provide the solutions to our chronic problems. We deliberately ignore statistical evidence of the deep and persistent crisis and continue in our pipe dreams that a new administration, in Kingstown or Kingston, in London or Edmonton, will be able to deliver that “happiness” which we crave at the beginning of each year. As a result, rather than a sober reflection of our true state of affairs, and a realization that the problems facing us all are far more serious than the differences, real or perceived, among us, we persist in our denial of the true causes of our economic and political stagnation, and in our beliefs that either adherence to our current political loyalties or mere shifts in political allegiances will bring the salvation we seek.

Those facts were reinforced most dramatically on December 29, on the occasion of the official opening of the new Parliament. Here we were, a mere four days after professing our profound belief in the birth of Jesus Christ and all that he stands for, and, just two days before our New Year wishes, in two distinct and hostile camps, jeering and cheering to start the new Parliamentary term. It was as if all that we had been boasting about which makes Christmas in SVG so “special” – Nine Mornings, the Christmas “spirit” etc.- were only mouthings with no sound basis. Elections were then two weeks behind us and the sour grapes expressed then ought to have been discarded with the copious garbage we had disposed of during our seasonal clean-up. Differences in outlook, policies and the like are an essential part of our democratic process; but since when have we adopted this practice of hailing politicians, but hurling obscenities at our neighbours, friends and relatives on a purely partisan basis? It was, for me at least, the saddest moment of the admittedly divided 2010 political season.

Shout ULP or NDP as loud as we might, we all have to face the fact that 2011, Gonsalves or Eustace notwithstanding, is going to be a rough year for us all. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has just announced that food prices, globally, have risen even beyond the level of the crisis of 2008. Already there have been repetitions of the social unrest which broke out then, this time in Algeria. It is instructive to note the words of the FAO in describing this new crisis: ”Net food-importing countries will face lower terms of trade and have to pay a larger food import bill”. (In the Caribbean region only Guyana and Belize are net food exporters).The FAO went on to explain who would be most affected by this situation: “People most affected by higher food prices are net food buyers-urban residents, small farmers, fisherfolk, pastoralists and agricultural labourers”. In other words, ALL those persons lined upon either side of the political barricades outside Parliament on December 29, for it is poor people who take part in those demonstrations.

In addition to the global food crisis, the major international financial institutions have warned of an impending threat to the international financial system with possible similar effects to those from which countries like ours have still to recover. Come high or low, irrespective of what our politicians may preach, those will be the real constraints to our economic well-being in 2011 and beyond. Those factors and the spin-off from global trade agreements, such as those which have decimated our banana trade, have already forced Caribbean governments to make major changes in fiscal policies.

One example is the introduction of the VAT system of taxation, as tariff reductions dry up the source of revenue at the port. Naturally, the poor, paying the same rate as those much better off financially, but with little resources, are the ones who feel it the most; but, manipulated by politicians, do not understand the economic realities. The government of Britain, faced with budgetary deficits, has just increased its VAT rate to 20%. In St. Kitts/Nevis, the Prime Minister, in explaining a hike in that country’s VAT rate, openly said that Caribbean countries, like ours, with lower rates, will be forced to come to the conclusions that in order to finance their Budgets, VAT rates must be increased. While I do not necessarily share his conclusions, Barbados has already followed that prescription, calling it a temporary measure. Yet the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has called on Barbados to make the hike a permanent one.

This whole scenario tells us that we have little room for manoeuvre; that it is imperative that we have national consensus and unity in order to be able to make maximum use of our meagre resources. This is not going to be a happy year for us, nor our Caribbean neighbours, for that matter. The sooner we can understand the gravity of what lies before us, and grasp the fact that political grandstanding will not get us out of our predicament, the sooner we are able to appreciate the commonality of our problems and that only collective effort would enable us to tackle them as a country and region.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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