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Jomo, reparation and Cato

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Local barrister, political activist and newspaper columnist, Jomo Thomas, last weekend gave a public explanation for the tendering of his resignation as a member of the National Heroes Committee. In a style that has by now become typical of him, Jomo did not mince words in expressing his strong disagreement with Prime Minister Gonsalves, for his public lecture making the case for “serious consideration” to be given to the appointment of four persons, George McIntosh, Ebeneezer Joshua, Robert Milton Cato and J.P. Eustace as National Heroes.{{more}}

Jomo’s explanation is based on the principle that, having agreed to be part of the mechanism for recommending the choice of additional National Heroes, he “…knew instinctively” that he should restrain himself from any public comments as to the suitability of candidates for this honour. He naturally assumed that this would apply across the Board, including the Prime Minister. However this was not to be the case, and P.M.Gonsalves, claiming his “right” as a citizen, proceeded to lecture on the subject.

By this action, Thomas contends, Dr. Gonsalves demonstrated that “…the muzzle of national service applied to everyone except him”, and “…failed to see the most elementary point-that as Chairman of Cabinet, the final arbiter in the selection process, he should not intervene”. Jomo also described the Prime Minister’s action in ignoring calls in the media, including one by yours truly, for him to desist from the public comments in view of his own position, as “wilful disregard” of public opinion.

One could agree or disagree with Jomo’s resignation, but that is his personal choice and he certainly has a point. An independent voice like his is always welcome in the public debate on national issues. It is heartening though, that, at least according to the Prime Minister, Jomo is willing to sit on the National Reparations Committee to be soon established. He has impeccable credentials in this regard, having been Chairman of a local civil society committee, set up for that purpose.

Certainly if we are to get anywhere with our claims for reparation, we need all hands on deck. In this regard, I strongly disagree with those who short-sightedly are trying to by-step the issue on all sorts of spurious grounds. The battle for reparations whilst gaining more and more support, still has a long way to go. Those whose forebears committed the heinous crimes of genocide and slavery, and who are directly responsible for the plight of millions of our people today, are going to resist fiercely. We have enough external foes without creating needless internal divisions.

Whether one likes Prime Minister Gonsalves or not, whether you are critical of his administration, whether he, as a descendant of Portuguese is advocating for reparations, has nothing to do with the substance of the matter. And those, who falsely try to counterpose our current economic state to the call for reparations, are doing gross disservice to the cause of black and indigenous people. In fact, this line of attack was used before, during the debate about constitutional reform. Do you recall some of these same folk calling the constitutional reform process a smokescreen because people “can’t get jobs”?

This line of thinking must be firmly rejected. It is especially pathetic coming from people who are “educated” folk, and should know better. It is tantamount to a fear of self-assertion, afraid to stand up for what is right. Reparations is not about making enemies of anyone, it is about those who have wronged peopled historically, who have subverted the course of history to place black and indigenous people at great disadvantage, atoning for their sins and contributing towards making right the historical wrongs. There is no time line on this and the more of us are on board, the stronger our case.

However, back to Jomo and his resignation. He made no bones in accusing the Prime Minister of batting for Cato’s candidacy. It is a view widely prevalent in our society, in spite of Dr Gonsalves’ protestations about making the case for all four persons of whom he spoke. Come high or come low, that is what many people believe, including those who appreciate him making the case for Cato, and who are supportive of Cato’s candidacy. But to be fair to the PM, his case is one of “serious consideration”. On those grounds, we ought not to spend time arguing. The problem is whether all or any of the candidates proposed, merit National Hero status.

I have stated my view that we need more dispassionate discussion on the matter. Cato may be the most controversial, but there are also questions about others. Dr Gonsalves was quite correct in calling for a revisiting of our views, but this cannot involve any whitewash of history. Today, May 7, marks 32 years since the Labour Party government of Milton Cato introduced perhaps the most repressive bits of legislation since we assumed responsibility for our own affairs. That was in response to widespread industrial strife, a “labour” government attempting to take away the rights of workers.

Actions like those cannot be swept under the carpet or excused as high-handed aberrations. They are in the vein which runs back from the late sixties and seventies, acts of injustice against public servants, teachers, nurses, Dr Cyrus, (remember when he was prevented from leaving the country?). In the process many lost their jobs, were forced to migrate and the country lost huge chunks of talent. That is part of the report card of Cato’s administration, and must be taken into account as much as his achievements in the economic sphere. Similarly, Joshua’s early anti-colonialism was blighted by his opposition, along with Sir James Mitchell, to the independence process of 1978/9.

That is why, and the current controversy merely strengthens my view, we need time for more objective reflection. Time is a great healer!

Renwick Rose is a community activist

and social com- mentator.

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