Editorial: On the backs of the poor

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There is a popular saying that there are only two things certain in life – death and taxes! And here in Antigua and Barbuda, the ‘taxes’ part of that saying is a sad fact that one can take to the bank. Not that one will have much left to take to the bank, what with all the taxes! Seems, this administration, bereft of ideas and initiatives to move this country forward, has resorted to gathering in the kitchen cabinet to cook-up new ways to tax the hell out of the people of this fair state. Especially the poor! It is a low-down dirty shame! 

It was the late Eric Henry, aka Da Count (his calypso sobriquet), the son of former and legendary educator Mr. Morris Henry, who once complained of the regressive and disproportionate tax burden being shouldered by the poor, and he sang a calypso lament that spoke to that concern, “Taxes, all up meh blankety blank!” Da Count penned his disgust way back in the late seventies/early eighties, and it appears that the harsh reality then is still the harsh and painful reality now. Poor people getting it left, right and centre, barely keeping their heads above water and living lives of quiet desperation!

The proposed Antigua and Barbuda Sales Tax (now 15%) increase is allegedly/supposedly to fund the fourth landed campus of the University of the West Indies. While increased access to tertiary education is a laudable goal, we cannot help but feel that the aligning of this education effort with the possible tax hike is a cynical ploy by the government to somehow lessen the blow. It is a poison pill! Poor people working harder and harder and taking home less and less! No fair! What the financial wizards are proposing is that if the Windfall Tax (on banks, insurance companies, other financial institutions, telecoms companies, and the West Indies Oil Company) does not raise enough money, then the government will turn to the poor (a 1% increase) to make up the shortfall. Help us, Lawd!

The Mighty Sparrow once sang a song called NO, DOCTOR, NO! in which he gave voice to the struggling poor people of Trinidad and their discontent with the high cost of living. Sang Sparrow: “. . . Ah only hope dey understand / I am only a calypsonian / What I say may be very small, but I know that poor people ain’t pleased at all / We are looking for a betterment, that’s why we choose a new government / But dey raise on de food before we could talk / And dey raise taxi fare so we bound to walk! CHORUS: Dey raise up on de taxi fare! No, Doctor, no! / And why de blasted milk so dear? No, Doctor, no / Ah want you to remember we support you in September / You better come good, ah still have a big piece of mango wood!” Of course, Sparrow was referring to the upward spiral of prices in Trinidad back in the late sixties under Dr. Eric Williams, but his plaintive lament is oh so very relevant to us here in Antigua and Barbuda today. Poor people can’t catch a break. Just when the poor think that they are catching themselves, the “grabberment” (a word coined by the late, great wordsmith, Tim Hector) finds a new way to screw John Public! Think tax-a-mole! No escaping the ‘taxaholics’ who intend to generate revenue at the expense of the working stiffs!

Oh for the day when our ‘grabberment’ will take it’s grasping, grubby hands out of the back pockets of the people. Leave the people with their hard-earned money! In the aforementioned song, Sparrow declared that the ‘mango wood talk’ is not an empty threat; that he would use it judiciously if push came to shove. We here in Antigua and Barbuda are of the same mind, and while we might not be au fait with the mango wood, we can become proficient with our native rods of correction.  Our rods of reproof are the ‘tambran whip,’ the ‘cassi tick’ and the . . . er . . . (how can we put this delicately?) ‘bull*&%,’ aka the ‘Bylay special!’   Indeed, a sitting member of parliament, when he was in opposition, once opined out loud, “Me nuh-know wha mek Antigua nearga nuh goo-dong ah market and look for de biggest bull*&% and put om under dis government!” Hmmm! Well sir, many in our fair state are now opining the very same thing! This government needs a ‘Bull*&%’ or a ‘Bylay Special!’

Of course, the rods of reproof, be it a ‘cassi tick,’ ‘mango wood’ or something of the sort, are metaphors for the many tools available to the people to express their displeasure and petition for a redress – strikes, boycotts, pickets, civil disobedience and so on and so forth. The people in Haiti and the Yellow Vests in France have shown us the way with their protests against tax hikes and fuel and food price increases. Those are teachable moments, and we need to “pay the more earnest heed to the things that we are taught,”   . . . and act accordingly!

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