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Missing at Independence (Part 4)

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The Independence issue had been part of the conversation throughout the Eastern Caribbean in the 1970s; after all, Grenada became independent in 1974 and St Lucia in early 1979. The political parties in St Vincent had mentioned it in their manifestos, although with no specific details. The National Youth Council was among the earliest organizations to have held discussions on it. I remember on my return from studies in the early 1970s being invited to be on a panel on “Independence” in Georgetown. ET Joshua was part of that panel and took the position that the country was not ready for Independence.

In 1978 and 1979 the Democratic Freedom Movement had been making contributions to the debate through its organ, “The Tree”.  Its leader, Kenneth John, apart from sitting on the NIC, did public lectures and discussions. Other members participated in NIC activities. The Tree of March 30, 1978 hoped that the country would not find itself divided on such a critical issue. “Independence is for all time, for everybody”.

Yulimo, one of the leading advocacy groups at the time, took a forceful stand for Independence. Ralph Gonsalves, who was then lecturing at Cave Hill, but was a member of its Central Committee, presented one of the lectures hosted by the UWI Centre. Because he is currently Prime Minister of this country, 38 years after Independence, it is proper to look at his thinking at that time. The Vincentian’s reaction to his lecture was interesting and informative. “Instead of the fire spurting dragon that might have been expected”, his address was one with which most Vincentians would agree. “But there was one big snag which placed doubts on his credence. His talk was interspersed with references to his party, Yulimo.” This, of course, reflected the times.

What did Gonsalves say? He felt that a constitution “should reflect the mood, spirit and direction of a people.” It should consolidate the existing freedoms of the people and extend them to other areas. He urged Vincentians to behave as political adults and suggested that we follow “a path of Socialist orientation”. Yulimo, we were told, was calling for representation at the Constitution Talks. Renwick Rose, Yulimo’s general secretary, was the other leading spokesperson. At a press conference on August 28, 1978, they indicated that they had been in contact with the Labour Party and trade unions in Britain. They claimed that there was support abroad for their position “and if the Labour Party does not feel Yulimo’s weight here, it will feel it abroad”.

The group was very critical of Premier Cato’s approach, stating their dissatisfaction with the way he was handling the move to Independence. They accused him of behaving like a dictator and highlighted his refusal to listen to the voices of the people. “We cannot sit down and allow Cato to trample on our people and our democratic rights. We have to stand up in defence of our rights like real men and women.” When the Premier and his delegation arrived from London and were met at the airport by adoring crowds, Yulimo was very much there with placards, “determined to protect our right and freedoms with our lives if necessary”.

The dissatisfaction with Cato’s approach was widespread. Let us fast forward 38 years. Today, Cato is listed as one deserving recognition as a National Hero, largely because he took the country to Independence; the man who was considered a dictator, who refused to accept the proposals submitted by the different organizations and who dared to call the National Independence Committee, (a committee of about 18 organizations), “a bunch of nincompoops”. This soured Independence and if it has any meaning for us today, we certainly need to revisit his role. 

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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