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Let’s not make Garifuna issue a political football

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A very sad political row has erupted here following the promise by Opposition Leader Arnhim Eustace to grant honorary citizenship of St Vincent and the Grenadines to Garifuna people living abroad, should his New Democratic Party (NDP) form the next government.{{more}}

Mr Eustace was speaking at a town hall meeting in New York last week, organized by the NDP as part of its build-up campaign to the next general elections, constitutionally due by March next year, but widely expected to be called later this year. There were reportedly several Garifuna persons in the New York audience.

Since assuming office in 2001, the government of Prime Minister Gonsalves has placed the Garifuna issue, the rights of the original inhabitants of St Vincent and the Grenadines, in the forefront, honouring Garifuna Chief Josef Chatoyer as our first, and so far only, National Hero. It has also declared March 14, the date on which Chatoyer was reportedly killed by the British colonialists, as National Heroes Day, and has facilitated strengthening ties between Garifunas living abroad and their ancestral homeland.

Interestingly, the constituency of North Windward, considered as Garifuna heartland, has been a hotly contested seat between the NDP and governing ULP in general elections, and is again expected to be a closely-fought battle in the upcoming elections.

Given this background, Mr Eustace’s honorary citizenship promise and earlier calls for attracting investment from Garifunas in the diaspora, have political implications. Sure enough, the honorary citizenship issue evoked responses from PM Gonsalves at a press conference earlier this week.

Reacting to the Eustace pledge, PM Gonsalves made it clear that he does not support any such issue. He questioned what is meant by the “honorary citizenship” designation and if it confers the right to a Vincentian passport. Gonsalves attacked the honorary citizenship programme instituted by the NDP administration in 1996 and repealed five years later when the ULP got into office.

Sadly, the level of the attacks degenerated as the PM went on, until it could hardly be distinguished from that of far less respectable or progressive politicians. Estimating the number of Garifunas in the diaspora at between 700,000 and 800,000, Gonsalves went on to question whether by granting honorary citizenship, it meant that those so honoured would have the right to work here.

“Are they coming out of (Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala) for jobs in St Vincent?” This statement has shocked many listeners, myself included. He carried on in this manner, asking, “They coming for your houses?” It is a style reminiscent of the worst anti-communist propaganda, from which he himself suffered, including, ironically, by his NDP opponents during the constitutional referendum of 2009. The Prime Minister even extended this to asking whether the Garifuna honorary citizens would have the right to vote, when many Vincentian descendants in the diaspora do not have such a right.

It is a pity that PM Gonsalves has chosen this line of attack in response to the Opposition Leader’s Garifuna promise. It has certainly not endeared him in the eyes of either the Garifuna community nor progressive people worldwide. In fact, known supporters of the ULP have already expressed dismay with this approach, which they reckon will do damage to the progressive credentials of Dr Gonsalves.

Rather than lift up the national discourse on the role and place of the Garifuna in nation-building and national development, it has been taken down the slippery slope of traditional electoral politics. If the PM feels that the Opposition Leader is politicking, then by all means challenge the nebulous nature of the “promise”, demand clarifications, and then better the proposal. Continue in the vein of showing the consistency of your party’s position on the Garifuna, link it to the Reparations claim, and contrast it with the position of the NDP. He could even have recalled the promise of a former NDP Minister to have a bronze statue of Chief Chatoyer procured from Venezuela, all to no avail.

But by all means, leave such politicking to less endowed politicians. Progressive people must keep progress, development and principle above scoring political points, which do nothing to ennoble our civilization. The issue is far too serious for that, we need enlightened national discourse, debate and engagement, not scaremongering about “jobs” and “houses” and votes.

Please, please, is my appeal to both sides. Let us treat the Garifuna with far greater respect. Let’s not play political football with the Garifuna issue; our national and cultural heritage must be above all that.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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