When Will People Take Control of Their Lives?

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In democratic societies, especially the liberal kinds, the electorate is often faced with the challenge of weeding out, from among those who offer themselves for public service, those who ‘know’ and those who think they ‘know’ but in reality do not. It is a peculiar case for any people to have to carry out such an action because it means we have to think. Each eligible person and even those under the age of voting, to a lesser extent, must peruse their minds about what they want to see become of their country, whose message resonates with how he or she feels and who is the person most likely to make this happen. Unfortunately, thinking or maybe I should say critical thinking is quite lacking among the general populace. Even those who think they think critically do not.

Ever so often, about every four to five years, the Caribbean people in particular are faced with a melancholy. They must elect without knowing the candidates. Arguably, aside from politicians in very authoritarian democracies and dictatorships, Caribbean politicians enjoy a large cushion of protection from scrutiny. I should say here that when I say Caribbean I really mean primarily those in the West Indies. Yes, that place which like most other post-colonial regions adapted the British West Minster System into ‘models’ to ‘suit’ the New World Environment.

When one really thinks about the whole situation, there is little surprise coming to mind as to why the people do not really know the policies of those they elected and those who want to be elected. The ‘models’ we have, we, as a collective, did not make. We trusted our pioneers and founding fathers to make certain decisions such as the construction of our Constitutions which dictate almost every facet of our living instead of taking a stake in the pie. Yes, one may argue that West Indian Constitutions are Acts of the British Parliament and not even our leaders of the time really had a say. Yes, we may also argue that the ‘we’ about which I speak really means our foreparents so today’s people are not to blame for what we experience presently. Surely, we know all of that to be erroneous.

We are the ones living today and every day we let pass without engaging the very nucleic forces of our society is another strike taken off of the ‘we’ of the past to be marked against the ‘we’ of today. The politicians need not go beyond a manifesto to debate because we have hardly ever challenged them to do it. Think about it. If it is that those who sell goods and services usually provide a certain quantity and quality commensurate with market they serve then would not it be reasonable to assume that our leaders (trade union leaders, parliamentary members, clergy, teachers, government administrators) would respond to our demands since we are the market and the only market to which they can ply their trade? Normally markets are held captive but geography and nationality hold our suppliers captive; making us their masters and them our servant-leaders. 

With this small argument in mind, hopefully you recognize that it is within your rights to demand from those you employ the deliverance of what you want. It is also your right to do and say nothing to affect this occurrence. However, if you neglect your duty, even though you may benefit from the actions of those who demand what they want, in the long-run you, mostly likely, will also be neglected. 

The Caribbean Reality

European-Imperialism

Drawing from the colonial period, which only functionally ended with the British West Indies’ labour unrest in the 1930s, the West Indian reality is today one of systemic un-freedom due to the maintenance of the plantation society which perpetuates a plantation-like socio-economic structure. To believe that the end of colonialism-proper means the end of authoritarian governments and anti-democratic mechanisms such as criminal libel laws to control the media would be a mistake. One must understand that the Caribbean in general, and the West Indies in particular, are substantially defined by colonialism. Consequently, the Caribbean may be seen as a post-slavery civilization with a mirroring politico-economic structure.

The influence of Euro-American foreign policy, facilitated through international aid, dictates the Caribbean development agenda; limiting the extent to which the region exercises its right to self-determination. This situation dates back to independence of the then colonies; being preceded by the implosion of the West Indies Federation in 1962. Though popular sentiment may resist Euro-American policies which, inherently carry with them the refashioning of the Caribbean way of life, there is a tradition of compromise with international powers to facilitate local development. This explains why, for example, even though in many Caribbean countries while corporal punishment is a popular statutory mechanism for disciplining school children, the UNICEF’s call for its end was not vehemently rebuffed as imperialism; but instead compromise was made by establishing ‘child-friendly’ non-‘flogging’ schools.

The Caribbean understands its dependent disposition relative to more developed economies and uses diplomacy to safeguard its future. This inherently means compromise at the expense of sovereignty. The Caribbean way of life, like Latin America, has a fixation on peace and investment in our greatest, and in the case of countries like Barbados, our only abundant natural resource; its people. The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States’ (CELAC) declaration of our region as “a zone of peace”, and the exclusion of this hemisphere’s military and economic great powers, the USA and Canada, from its ranks at its establishment in 2011 are testimony to this fact. This concept of peace, created through mutual respect for culture and individual history guides the Caribbean, of which various Latin American and South American countries are geographically a part, in its quest for prosperity; however limited it may be. This exploration of the Euro-American Nexus’ relation to the Caribbean creates greater appreciation of the ensuing topic of Caribbean domestic policy.

Barbados proves the greatest case study for understanding Caribbean development philosophy and its inextricable link to education as evidenced by 14.27% (2009) of government expenditure allocated to that sector. Unlike Jamaica with an abundance of bauxite and Trinidad and Tobago controlling vast oil reserves, Barbados is without natural resources; circumstancing a people-centred society. Historically, Barbadian politics and economic initiatives were primarily constructed by the people’s needs. Consequently, profits derived were used for their benefit. With a size of 166 square miles and a population under 300 000, Barbados has over 70 and 20 primary and secondary schools respectively, leading to being among the top 5 literate countries at 100% in UNESCO world rankings.

Human development policy emphasis and the creation of the welfare state directly derived from colonialism and cannot be ignored. Sir Hilary Beckles, Vice-Chancellor designate of the University of The West Indies (UWI) and Chairman of the Caribbean Community’s (CARICOM) Committee On Reparatory Justice, in addressing the British Parliament in 2014 explains that Caribbean poverty is systemic because the British Parliament, “in 1833 determined that the 800,000 enslaved people in the Caribbean were worth, as chattel property, £47M [£3.892B Conservatively (2013)]” and in compensating slave owners for the loss of ‘property’, “provided the sum of £20M [1.656B (2013)] in grants”, while refusing compensation to freed Blacks. Compensation was denied and poverty institutionalized by way of British Emancipation Acts which gave Caribbean countries independence while holding that, “ ‘property’ cannot receive property compensation”.

Less than a century ago, Barbadian children attended school barefooted while pit-toilets and outdoor kitchens fuelled by firewood were commonplace. In fact, these conditions are but some of the reasons for the labour unrest earlier mentioned. This reality is only but a half-generation (25/2 years) removed from the general populace but various aspects are a mainstay in contemporary Caribbean life. Circumstances like mass child labour prompted Caribbean countries, to compromise with the economic (white planters) and political (black descendants of the enslaved as well as indentured servants) majorities in order to secure the universal right to education but it was Barbados that made it free up to tertiary level.

Contextualized by these maladies, one is dismayed by the Barbadian government’s decision in 2013 to limit the access to universal education. Until then Barbadians enjoyed, through heavy direct income taxation (20% to 35%) and indirect value-added taxation (17.5%) tax-payer subsidized education up to university level. The ruling party’s argument during the Fiscal Estimates Debate (2013) highlighted education as exponentially increasing government spending to uncontrollable levels; resulting in debt of student fees to UWI exceeding $100M BBD ($50M USD). In accordance with the ruling party’s solution students now pay tuition fees while the economic cost is tax-payer funded.

While this seems fair, understanding the Caribbean reality illustrated above, the payment of tuition fees is a barrier to social mobility for the average Caribbean person because Barbadians still pay heavy taxation rates in addition to this new barrier. What placed Barbados ahead of many Caribbean countries including the more historically powerful Guyana, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago and what makes Barbados’ achievement the Eastern Caribbean countries such as St. Lucia, Grenada, Dominica, St. Vincent and The Grenadines, St. Kitts and Nevis is the rapid transformation of the socio-economic status of individuals unilaterally facilitated by way of ‘free’ education. Though great strides have been made, the reality remains, that systemic generational poverty bars many from being able to pay the tuition fees. Notwithstanding the assurance of loans being available, the impact of high cost of living induced by heavy taxation makes the loan repayment simply impossible.

The generational revolution is under threat!