Editorial: First a détente, then some diplomacy

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One of the most important characteristics of a skillful politician is the art of diplomacy. The Oxford dictionary defines it as “the art of dealing with people in a sensitive and tactful way.” Diplomacy has been the backbone of successful political negotiations since the beginning of time and it has been the foundation for the legacy of the most significant politicians and negotiators of all time.
Having said that, and having always regarded the prime minister as a skillful politician, we were taken aback when he declared that any attempts to consult with the Barbuda people regarding the very contentious Barbuda land issue would be futile. We certainly can understand if he said frustrating as the entities are at loggerheads, but futile is not a descriptive word we would have expected to hear from the mouth of Gaston Browne.
The PM’s contention is that because the member of Parliament for Barbuda, Trevor Walker, is so resolute in his stance on the matter, there is apparently no need to waste his breath to even attempt to find a mutually satisfactory resolution. It does not exist, in the PM’s mind. Instead, he prefers to ignore the Barbudans’ appeals for consultation and simply force-feed them his final decision on the matter.
Now, before we are accused of putting a word into the PM’s mouth, we recognise that “futile” may not have escaped his lips but it is the essence of what he has expressed. But, to be accurate, let’s hear from the PM as he responded to the calls for consultation during the recent debate to repeal the Barbuda Land Act in the Lower House of Parliament. He asked, “How do you consult under those circumstances when you are being threatened?” Then, he added, “we are not stupid, we know that at any time at all, we call a consultation about land reform in Barbuda that they will mash up the meeting. We know that based on how they have indoctrinated the Barbudan people that there is no way that you can have a rational discussion about land reform with Barbudans. It would not have happened.”
With all due respect, how do you know if you do not try? And when we say “try” we mean over and over again. This is far too big an issue to simply not try or make some feeble attempt in order to say “you see, dey doh want to talk.” This seems to be a case of the tail wagging the dog. It begins with an assumption that it cannot happen because ‘they do not want to talk’ and ends with a ‘so we won’t talk’. The problem with that argument is, the Barbudans are making emotional, public appeals to sit down and talk.
PM Browne tried to bolster his argument by referring to a meeting at the American University of Antigua campus to which he and his minister were invited to talk to the Barbudans. The meeting occurred last year after the passage of Hurricane Irma. According to Browne, approximately 1,300 Barbudans were gathered there, however, discussing the land issue proved to be a challenge. We can well imagine that discussing the removal of traditional land rights, shortly after the passage of one of the most devastating hurricanes of all times, might be a bit challenging.  
The point is, politicians are supposed to deal with challenges. Regardless of circumstances, they are supposed to deal with challenges in a diplomatic and empathetic way. Basically, dealing with challenges is the job of a politician. Becoming an economic powerhouse is a challenge and breaking down any impediments to that goal is a challenge but we doubt that the PM would ignore his goal just because it was challenging. So, why ignore the goal of a mutually satisfactory resolution to the Barbuda land issue because of a few ‘challenging’ people?
What is the message to the Barbudans and the nation when you prejudge a situation and refuse to employ the most basic responsibility of an elected leader – consultation with the people? Browne said that “just about a week ago or within the last two weeks in this honourable house, the member for Barbuda threatened myself and other members here saying any attempts to make any changes to the Barbuda Land Act can’t happen; over his dead body. He said it would be war.”  So what? Many wars have been averted through diplomacy. Walker is a politician and he is playing to his audience with over-the-top language like every other politician.
We have called for a toning down of the harsh rhetoric on both sides and if we could provide some advice to Minister Walker, it would be a repeat of what we have already said because a harsh, aggressive stance does little to advance the situation or get you a place at the negotiation table. And let’s face it, diplomacy is all about negotiating but first you have to get a seat at the table.
It is time for a détente. Both sides must ease the hostilities and open themselves to a very public sit-down on the matter. If either side is unreasonable or continues to frustrate the situation by disrupting the consultations, it would be immediately obvious and public consensus on the issue will swing to the more reasonable party. The first step, though, is a meeting to discuss the matter and from there, a plan on the way forward can be developed. It just takes a bit of diplomacy.

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