By Alvette “Ellorton” Jeffers
Government ministers, who took part in the virtual meeting of Parliament held on March 3ist 2020, confirmed for the working class what they have always suspected; the government of Antigua and Barbuda is a government for the rich and by the rich. Parliament met specifically to authorise a twenty-four-hour curfew and to warn people of the severe punishment they would face if they refused to comply with its mandate. The curfew, government ministers and parliamentary opposition reasoned, was necessary to give the State the latitude that it requires to prevent the spreading of the coronavirus, especially when some people were daring in their disregard for all entreaties to practice social distancing and the government was too financially lean to pay for all the medical necessities indispensable to the prevention of a rapid spread of the virus and its treatment.
During this session of Parliament, ministers could not conceal the fact that the government was financially in dire straits. For years, citizens were encouraged to believe that the economy rested on a solid foundation and revenue streams, though not always at levels to meet or justify public spending, nevertheless flowed steadily. Despite government’s assurances, Antiguans and Barbudans knew that something was amiss because there was a regular shortage or the absence of funds to pay for pensions, social security and to fix buildings and roads. When the Minister of Parliament, Asot Michael, begged the private sector to establish a $50 million fund to help government finance a crisis that the coronavirus is aggravating, he exposed the existence of a financially, secured class who unlike the working class and everyday people, were doing good and would have no problem waiting out the crisis. (Observer, April 1, 2020) This wealthy class existed stress free, in possession of the means to sustain their lives of privilege, while the poor, exploited and now unemployed working class is in a precarious existence, unsure when their hardships and the virus will end. Their problem is compounded by their government’s inability to help them or itself although the society was able to create wealth for a few.
The famous Mr. Knight, who runs a popular program on late-night Observer, always says that the Antigua and Barbuda Labour Party (A&BLP) is a “real estate government.” He is partially correct. It is true that some of them benefit from government’s land deals which they acquire to build houses to sell to the public. But the government is more than that. The government does not only sell land to itself and investors, as they themselves claim. It also secures and promotes the interests of the economic elite and investors, like Peace Love and Happiness (PLH). It prioritises their interest above those of Barbudans and the working class. When necessary, the elected officials are prepared to use the Executive arm of government to shield investors from criticism and deflect citizens demands to have investors become accountable to them. This is not theory. It is an actuality. In his speech to Parliament, Asot Michael explained to all who were listening how his government was aiding the economic elite and investors to accumulate wealth. He said: “All those wealthy homeowners at Jumby Bay, Mill Reef, Galley Bay, and Jolly Harbour, who have enjoyed millions of dollars in tax concessions and relief over the years; all those business persons who have enjoyed very lucrative government contracts and in some instances, monopolistic and exclusive government contracts, need now more than ever to step up to the plate and practice good corporate citizenry.” (Observer Newspaper, April l, 2020)
While everyday people are being deprived of essential amenities, enduring hardships due to rising cost of living and retirees are never certain when they will receive their benefits, the A&BLP government is transferring wealth to a minority elite who, for the most part, remain in Antigua and Barbuda for only as long as they can make a profit, which they cannot realise without the availability of a working class ready to be exploited. Yet Asot’s government continually puts significant amounts of money in their coffers while the public purse diminishes and the many, in Antigua and Barbuda, lack the social services to which they are entitled to, and are necessary to facilitate their healthy existence.
While Asot Michael was confirming that his government was enriching the wealthy, the Prime Minister, Gaston Brown, attempted to dupe the population into thinking that the distribution of wealth was the result of divine intervention. After acknowledging that his government was strapped for money, he pleaded with his comrades in Parliament to join with him in the creation of a fund to help those facing hardships. He reminded them, in grandiloquent style, that his “god” had endowed him and his Ministers of government with an abundance of resources, in amounts, way above those they claim to represent, and it was their duty to help. It reminded me of the verse in the 1845 song, All Things Bright and Beautiful, which made God a willing accomplice in the creation of injustice, inequality and misery. A verse in the song reads: “The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, God made them high and lowly, and ordered their estate.” The English bourgeoisie could have sung this song and feel justified while they exploited their working class, enslaved Africans in the Caribbean and colonised Africa. The European colonisers, on a whole, could feel no responsibility or guilt for the misery and hell they created for Africans all over by assuming that they were fulfilling a divine act in exploiting Africa’s resources and labour that their god had “endowed” them with. Gaston Brown should know that no amount of sacrilege will make filthy lucre clean or render the exploitation of man, woman and child a noble act. The God of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, does not perpetuate injustice, create class divisions or the condition for poverty to exist and wealth inequality to sustain itself while Labour remain impoverished, exploited and suppressed. The socially depressed condition of the working class and the impoverishing of the society happen because the resources of the country – land, labour and intellect – are organised to create wealth for the few, in Parliament and outside of Parliament. This wealth, which is socially produced, should be under the democratic control of the working class and everyday people for them to use for the upliftment of society. It is this working class economic and political policy that would have served the society well in this present moment of crisis.
Unfortunately, Antigua and Barbuda does not have a government committed to the working class and everyday people. Those have to make do with what they can get and now they may lose even that pittance. The Ministers of government do not expose themselves to such uncertainties. They sit in the Executive of Government and create incentives for the wealthy few and perpetuate the concentration of wealth in the hands of an upper class. We know this because that is what Asot Michael has told us. This upper class is so wealthy that the government is begging them for money and Asot says the lifestyle of the rich and famous in Antigua and Barbuda would not diminish in anyway if they gave the government $50M. In any case, it is we, the A&BLP government, he said that made your riches possible. Not God. That he made clear. Antigua and Barbuda political Executive contains some nouveau riche who occasionally boast about their millions. We now know, thanks to Asot, that these rich politicians sit in the Executive and use their position to permit the transfer of wealth to a selected few. Antigua and Barbuda would be in a good position if it had access and control over that wealth. In short, it is a government for the rich by the rich.