By Alvette “Ellorton” Jeffers
Prime Minister Gaston Brown, and those who uncritically support him, have a gross misunderstanding of the people of Barbuda. He has grown so accustomed to the inconsequential resistance to his socio-economic policies in Antigua that he now thinks that he can, once and for all, end Barbudans’ resistance to what he perceives as their hostility to the business alliance between his government and Peace, Love and Happiness (PLH). PLH is a foreign-owned company that is building houses on Barbuda for a wealthy clientele. Brown has staked his personal and political reputation on PLH’s success to the extent that he has forgotten that he has an obligation to the people of Antigua and Barbuda. He has opted, instead, to show deference to PLH in announcing that he is quite willing to sanction the use of State violence against Barbudans to preserve the cordial relationship he enjoys with PLH and the mutual benefits that will accrue to the real estate business and the Antiguan State
VC Bird’s Antigua Labour Party and the United Progressive Party were able to negotiate lasting accords with Barbudans when they governed. Gaston Brown’s Antigua and Barbuda Labour Party (ABLP) government shuns diplomatic finesse at every crucial moment. In place of negotiations, the ABLP has instituted a policy of attrition in Barbuda. The objective of this policy is to transform Barbudans into dutiful and passive subjects. The policy of attrition is noticeable, for since Hurricane Irma devastated the island in 2017, Brown’s government has been indifferent to Barbudans’ recovery. The measurable progress they have made, since 2017, are mostly the results of their personal efforts, the generosity of foreign aid donors and good Samaritans in and outside of Antigua and Barbuda.
The policy of attrition is failing. Barbudans remain unbowed. If the Prime Minister had studied history instead of the art of the deal, he would have known that anti-authoritarianism is a Barbudan creed. It is deeply ingrained in their collective consciousness. Barbudans’ hostility to arbitrary rule was announced in 1745, when McNish, the manager of the island, unjustly punished one of their own whom he accused of theft. To demonstrate their displeasure with McNish’s judgement, the Barbudans revolted, and with the guns they seized, they killed McNish. Prime Minister Brown, soldiers were sent from Antigua to put down the rebellion. However, they could not rid Barbudans of their anti-authoritarianism. Barbudans were enslaved. Their daily existence was, however, not as regimented and regulated in ways required by the rigours of Antigua’s sugar plantations. So much so, that they were noted for their “insubordination” and “idleness” by Christopher Codrington. That suggests that Barbudans were behaving as if they had an idea of what orders they were willing to obey and those they would refuse to obey; and those moments of rest from toil which were dubbed as “idleness” by a slave master, induced imaginings of what life beyond forced labour could look like for them.
That early idea of freedom as the right to say ‘no’ is now a way of life in Barbuda. It is not something they practice now and then. The moment a people begin to embrace that democratic ideal, you can do a lot of heinous things to them, but you cannot erase the ideal from their minds. If Gaston Brown had a sense of history, he would not attempt to mimic so badly what Codrington did in 1745. He does not; and so, like Codrington, he plans to send the police and the Defense Force to Barbuda to beat and arrest their leaders and their leaders’ friends, which may be a thousand and more. It seems, by this threat of repression, violence and imprisonment, Gaston Brown wants to secure for himself a place in the pantheon of petty tyrants, like Papa and Baby Doc of Haiti, Eric Gairy of Grenada, Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic and Forbes Burnham of Guyana. VC Bird lost the support of the majority of Antiguan workers and political power in 1968, when he opted to behave like a petty tyrant and turned the police and Defence Force on them. He severely tarnished his image as an anti-colonialist and undermined his own credibility as a freedom fighter by being anti-democratic.
Those petty tyrants of the Caribbean believed that they had the right to govern without the involvement of the people in the day-to-day running of the country. While they excluded workers and everyday people, they were quick to assign to foreign corporations and individuals, control over the resources of the country and with it, the power to make decisions that affected the social life of surrounding communities. In Burnham’s Guyana, where the State controlled the commanding heights of the economy, the working class was subjected to State violence whenever they organised to have some say about how work should be performed. (See Eusi Kwayana, “The Bauxite Strike and the Old politics” 2014.)
In the Antigua of today, parts of the island are under the jurisdiction of foreign investors. (See Antigua Special Zone Act, 2015.) These places are open to Antiguans only if they work there. In the name of “development,” the government is always anxious to partner with these economic actors in making the demarcated spaces safe and successful. In the daily operation of the country, the government has no such partnership with its citizens. To the contrary, the State threatens them with violence or labels them as “terrorists” and obstreperous when they seek a discourse about the end uses of Antigua and Barbuda’s resources. Democracy in the Caribbean is not understood to include popular discussion and decision- making around these vital economic issues. Nor does it extend to questions pertaining to the organisation and performance of work. The foreign and local investor have full control over the organisation and use of labour. The decisions the investor makes has an impact beyond the workplace. Their decisions influence social relations outside of work because the worker has to reorganise his or her family life to satisfy the business owner’s work schedule if the worker wants to make a living. In short, work upsets the normal rhythm and balance of our social existence. The importance of work and the uses to which resources are put affect our lives and yet, no attempt is made to even solicit our opinions about these matters. Conformity is all that the State and owners of industry expect from workers and everyday people. If there is the reluctance to conform, various methods of coercion are put to use.
Barbudans are trying to buck this trend and in the process, they are redefining the concept of democracy for Antiguans. What they are suggesting is that matters of economic development and the use to which resources are put should not be left solely to the corporations and the experts in and outside of government. They too must be involved in the decision-making processes so that they can ensure the viability of the environment and by extension, their own survival. Politics is the administration of economics; and Barbudans are using their democratic institutions to subject economic issues to public scrutiny. Brown thinks this is heresy. He seems to think that nowhere should ordinary people have that kind of power. His government wants to sidestep the democratic practices and processes in Barbuda because the democracy not only restrains him but also forces PLH to be accountable for all of its actions to the citizenry. If anyone believes that the threat to send the police and Defense Force to arrest Barbudans is just about PLH, they have understood very little. What is in contention here are two notions of democracy. Gaston Brown believes in absolute rule for the Executive branch of his government and the Barbudans tend towards popular participation in public affairs without the constant, unsolicited and unwarranted interference of a centralised government bureaucracy. Barbudans’ anti- authoritarianism which leads them directly to embrace the notion that government is of, for and by the people is what Brown hates and wants to destroy. If this happens, it will deepen the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few and increase their ability to own more of the resources of these islands strapped for cash. The control they gain will position capital to pursue development that is detached from the social needs of the people and continually erode Barbuda’s capacity to ever become self-sustaining, evidence of which is slowly emerging in Antigua. The democracy has to survive and be expanded to end the rule of society by the corporations in conjunction with the State.
Barbudans will not cower under State violence, but Antiguan workers and everyday people need to come to their aid, using civil disobedience to prevent armed forces from getting to Barbuda. (See David Thoreau on Civil Disobedience.) More than that, Antiguans need to begin a discussion about their own future. The questions that they need to ask themselves are: What role do they see for themselves in the transformation of the economy? Are they still confident in the belief that foreign investment must continue to play the central role in the economy? Is what’s good for the wealthy investor good for them too? Can they maintain the same economic and political relations and still hope to expand the notion and practice of freedom and democracy? Bear in mind when you take up the discussion what Clarvis Joseph said in July of 2020 on VOICE OF THE PEOPLE: “You cannot ask people to do for you, what you are not willing to do for yourselves.”
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