Misreading history and repeating the mistakes

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Even the card-carrying members of the Hallelujah Chorus, the apologists for the regime, are having a hard time coming up with excuses or justifications for the unconscionable neglect of Barbuda by the central government post Hurricane Irma. And despite MP Trevor Walker’s (parliamentary representative for Barbuda) oft-stated desire to reach across the partisan divide and work, hand in glove, with this administration, we see very little reciprocity on the government’s part. For all intents and purposes, the relationship is contentious and broken.

So how did we get to this point? How did the relationship that began with a young Barbudan boy writing a laudatory letter to our prime minister, and the prime minister publicly shedding tears, to the prime minister promising at the first post-Irma town-hall that he would do right by the Barbudans, and the Barbudans interrupting his statesmanlike delivery with sustained applauses, descend into such dysfunction and animus? How and why did it all go so wrong so quickly?

For one, the condescending and high-handed approach of the central government to doing things in Barbuda did not sit well with the Barbudans. They are a proud and tough people, and they refuse to be dictated to. Ask the Codrington family about the way the Barbudans resisted his efforts to send some of them over to Antigua to slave on the estates here. According to Dr. Natasha Lightfoot in her magnum opus, TROUBLING FREEDOM: Antigua and the aftermath of British Emancipation, “. . . The well-documented difficulty of making enslaved Barbudans leave their home meant that the Codringtons could not generate a profit by selling them. In fact, their managers often complained to the absentee Codringtons about slaves’ obstinate refusal to be transferred to Antigua. By 1830, the heir apparent, Christopher Bethel Codrington, privately admitted that he had too little sway among his own slaves to enforce their removal . . ..” {Pgs.33,34].  Actually, according to the historical records, the Codringtons (their managers) even had difficulty trying to get the Barbudans to do anything in Barbuda that they did not want to do.

Mr. William Dougall, one of the good gentlemen who leased the island after the Codringtons gave up their lease in 1870, also found Barbudans to be intransigent and single-minded in their historical claims to the land and their independence, such as it was.  The relationship between that gentleman and the Barbudans was, to say the least, combative. According to Asha Frank in her must-read masterpiece on Barbuda entitled DREAMLAND BARBUDA: a study of the history and development of communal land ownership on the island, Mr. Dougall is quoted as bemoaning the fact that, “The Barbudans occupy our lands without our authority at all, and will not even pay the very nominal rent of five shillings or less that we ask.”  Frank herself asserts, “[Barbudans] petitioned the Crown who acknowledged that Barbudans should not be charged rent. Barbudans were used to the tradition of free land and refused to pay . . . The Barbudans’ history of isolation from privatized systems of land tenure and the glaring inequalities of land ownership witnessed in the developing world, influenced their unwavering objection to any change from the outside world. However, isolation is not the only aspect that created this response, and it is not the only reason they achieved the Barbuda Land Act 2007. The community spirit and loyalty to the island’s traditional way of life are primary factors, and are the product of a shared system of land tenure. Riva Berleant Schiller is quoted in the aforementioned Asha Frank dissertation as saying, “This organic system of land use, land tenure and land ideology was the foundation for Barbudan social integration and community solidarity.”[Pgs.11, 12] Hmmm!

Asha Frank concludes her explanation as to the Barbudan psyche, born out of centuries of resistance to authoritarianism, condescension and foreign interference as follows: “Barbudans were united against foreign investors that did not recognize their system of land tenure, wanted to change it, and as a result they were wary of promises of investment by outsiders. This pushed Barbudans further as a community – to demand legal recognition that Barbudan land belonged to them all in common, and not to those who came and went on a whim.” This explains why Barbudans once threw containers of investor equipment into the ocean, rendering them useless; why Barbudans once took over the airstrip to prevent investors from landing; why Barbudans once took their hunting rifles and methodically shot every llama that was let loose on the island without their consent; why Barbudans threw cold water on the cynical suggestion that they pay one dollar for a title deed to the land upon which they already had their homes. According to former Senator Mackenzie Frank, a prominent Barbudan spokesman and activist, and a Barbuda representative at the contentious constitutional conference in 1980, “Why should we pay for that which is already ours?”  Clearly, the Barbudans will not be snookered or trifled with.

 Just ask Sir Lester Bird, he of Barbudan lineage, who was soundly beaten at the polls in 1971 by Sir Claude-Earl Francis of the Progressive Labour Movement. Sir Lester himself recounts that, even after rejecting him in that election, the Barbudans declared him persona non grata and took to stoning him out of the island. Just ask the Antigua and Barbuda delegation to the aforementioned constitutional conference in Lancaster, England. The Barbudans were reluctant to come into independence with us, since they felt that they would not get a fair shake from Big Brother Antigua. Needless to say, they were brought to the altar, still kicking and screaming, only after Papa Sir V.C. Bird admonished the ranking members of the Antigua faction to “Leave the Barbuda people alone!”

Noteworthily, another significant contributor to the frigid relationship between Antigua and Barbuda is the unfortunate rhetoric. The threats and the tantrums (after losing the Barbuda seat in the last general election) and the pejoratives and invective hurled at the Barbuda people by some in high places on the mainland, were most unhelpful, and they heaped much salt in the wounds inflicted by Hurricane Irma. Interestingly, the Barbudans have not rolled over and played dead. Nay, they’ve given as good as they’ve gotten; they’ve responded with tough talk of their own and a stiffened resolve. Many have taken to the local airwaves and social and international media to verbally shake their clenched fists at officialdom with . . . well . . . unkind words and unkind deeds. This past Barbuda Council elections, the Barbudans thoroughly rejected the ruling Labour Party candidates, and then burned – in effigy – the image of the most prominent of those defeated. They also performed a burial. Good grief!  

Then there is the foot-dragging on the part of the central government in restoring essential services and public buildings in Codrington. On our last visit to the sister isle in March of this year, the post office, the Hannah Thomas Hospital, the police station, the APUA office and the Holy Trinity School were still in shocking states of disrepair. Thanks to the efforts of the Barbuda Council, the Holy Trinity School has now been reopened. What is most disturbing about the recovery effort – never mind the lack of accounting as to the monies received from donor agencies on behalf of Barbuda and how those monies were disbursed – is the back-to-front nature of the reconstruction.

Rather than prioritizing the restoration of the aforementioned essential services, this administration, under cover of night, so to speak – and even as the Barbudans were still in exile in Antigua, and even as electricity light-poles were still on the ground, and even as transport between Antigua and Barbuda by sea and air was still sketchy – began bulldozing vast tracts of the Barbudan hinterland to build an airport for the rich and powerful. Say what? A pox on those wealthy one-percenters of this world who conspired with our government to take advantage of the Barbudans by appropriating land and kicking them in the teeth while they were down.

 Look, we could go on and on and on with reasons as to why, on the unhappy two-year anniversary of Hurricane Irma, so much that could have been done has been left undone. But that would be superfluous. Suffice to say, the angels in heaven weep at the manifold egregious sins of omission. Clearly, there has to be a meeting of the minds, in a spirit of comity and goodwill, if there is to be any meaningful progress in Barbuda. All the stakeholders will have to leave their egos and self-interests at the door, and the varying concerns must be properly debated with an eye towards finding the happy medium. For example, how can there be a significant increase in revenue-generating economic activity in Barbuda? And what about the legitimate reparations claims that Barbudans have on the land?

May this two-year anniversary of Hurricane Irma be the beginning of a new chapter in the fractious relationship between this Labour Party government and Barbuda. In the meantime, on behalf of all Antiguans and Barbudans, we wish to thank the Samaritan’s Purse, the United Nations Development Programme, the United Nations pledging conference, the WAITT Foundation, the Environmental Awareness Group (EAG), the Bonnie Floyd Ministries, the Barbuda Strong concert, the government and people of Venezuela, China, Cuba and the CARICOM territories, the local and international Red Cross, the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA), the National Office of Disaster Services (NODS), local church groups and donor agencies as well as those in the diaspora, and local businesses and individuals who, in whatever way, be it ever so small, contributed to the relief, recovery and reconstruction effort in Barbuda.

Even those whose names we fail to call, please know that we are eternally grateful!

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