Peril and Possibility In Leadership Vacuum
By Sunity Maharaj
For a people whose Independence was signed, sealed and delivered in a fit of prime ministerial pique over the collapsed West Indian Federation, the scenes of raw humanity sweeping across the Middle East in a death-defying grasp at the chance for freedom is almost surreal. Only in Haiti is the thirst still sharp enough to draw blood. In the rest of the independent Caribbean states, the passion for participation has been largely doused by a progressive self- neutering as the promise of power inherent in the vote is reduced to the single act of ballot ticking after a season of ritualistic hype.
The good news is that almost 50 years on, the institutional legacy of central power is being dismantled as maximum leaders and their ghosts who once embodied the full authority of the colonial state, are being laid to rest. The bad news is that maximum leadership has been scuttled by the rise to power of a generation that has been systematically depoliticized to the point of psychic disconnection from this place.
Now, it is not simply that the centre does not hold; it almost does not exist. In its place is an amorphous sense of “the people’s agenda” consisting largely of those with the loudest voices and the wherewithal to get to the front of the line. The democratic engagement that should link people to power has been subverted by a façade of sponsored participation. The net result is an enveloping stasis involving people without power, and power without people. This is the zero sum trap into which the politics has fallen, where political parties are coming to office without the means to effect real change.
In response, they either seize the power—as Patrick Manning did with the full compliance of a supine People’s National Movement, or they surrender to the people- as Kamla Persad-Bissessar is doing in distilling her daily agenda from the news media in the mistaken belief that the media is an effective conduit to accessing the people’s agenda. Ultimately, however, in a participatory democracy, there is no substitute for direct and networked connections between people, party and government. This is what we have never had and what is becoming increasingly urgent as one administration after another slip into a deepening sense of drift.
In 1990, such conditions opened the way for the daring gamble by the Jamaat- al-Muslimeen which recognized the vacuum and moved to fill it. We must not be so innocent this time around, nor should we be so reckless as to push ourselves over the edge and somehow hope to escape. Citizen participation on an organised basis can be as effective in filling the vacuum and keeping worse terrors at bay.
There is no question that we have failed to make the transition to Independence on terms that will secure us well into the future. No amount of GDP figures and import cover can hide the fact that we have fallen far short of our potential, given the natural blessings of our resource inheritance and the creative potential of our people. What good excuses can we have for the insecurity, inequality, inequity and institutional dysfunctional that plague us with all the money and opportunity that have been at our disposal?
Acknowledging our shortcoming in open, honest discussion is the only credible basis on which we could begin to dig ourselves out of the hole.
In broad terms we could examine the comprehensive failure to transform inherited structures and systems and to invent new institutions more relevant to the purposes of Independence. Perhaps we might find some answers in public policy
This has been so especially since 1970 when the first generation to come of age after the political wave of popular politics swept Eric Williams into office in 1956. In last year’s 40th anniversary retrospective of the 1970 Black Power Revolt, leaders of the movement gave graphic descriptions of the intense political engagement of young people in communities all over the country, and especially in Belmont, Laventille, Morvant and along the East-West corridor.
The images called to mind the descriptions of these communities in the early 1930s and 40s where every block was alive with the sound of experimentation and innovation as groups of young people hammered the steelpan into existence and transformed the sound of iron into music to move the soul.
How East Port of Spain went from being a community buzzing with political energy and national consciousness, to becoming the crime zone it is today, is a matter for serious and urgent study. What Morvant-Laventille needs is not a state of emergency but an understanding of how public policy destroyed the community with a view to charting a way out of the hellhole into which it has been plunged.
Equally important in understanding today’s all-pervasive alienation from the political- as opposed to the electoral process is a study of the role of the St Augustine campus of the University of the West Indies. This seat of radical student mobilization in 1970 is today marked by entrenched student apathy and careerist ambitions. How did UWI move from the electricity of 1970 to the dormancy of 2011? Was it by accident or design? As in the case of government policy, did UWI pursue policies designed to avoid future risks? Do we now have a glimpse into why culture and history have been so marginalized in the education system, all the way up to UWI? Why the issues related to identity have been so de-emphasised in preference to the clerical and the technical? Why the obvious mandate of UWI specializing in the West Indies as a necessary requirement for supporting the development process, has been surrendered in some vague quest to demonstrate our fitness to rub shoulders with the brand names of the world?
Whether it has been a sin of omission or commission, can we now see the link between the policies that have served to disconnect and dislocate us from this place (on the pretext that we are internationalizing our experience) and our failure to mount a successful response to the challenges that face us today- whether it is crime, transportation, the economy, health, education, family relations, foreign policy? Who are we? And what are we about in the world? Inside these two questions lie the policy imperatives for giving life to our Independence.