As the general election campaign heats up, some of us are looking in vain for an improvement in the quality of the discussion. So far, however, it remains on a level that would have been familiar to Eric ‘Fly’ Sealy and some of the old fringe campaigners who would say anything for anyone if the money was right. But the real victims of this low grade discourse are the ordinary people who are out of work, cannot pay their bills and, more often than is publicly acknowledged, cannot even feed their families. In the meantime, they allow themselves to drift along with the half-truths, lies and total fabrications often heard from the political platforms, and, even moreso, the omissions and denials piped through the media, both print and broadcast.
There are things about our island that we can genuinely celebrate: we do not have political assassins stalking public figures; we do not have drug addicts at every street corner nor toddlers taking drugs, no matter what self-promoting ‘criminologists’ may say; we do not have organised criminal gangs, apart from those people in influential positions who make it part of their project to rip off the tax man. In the main, Barbados is a relatively law abiding and decent society, despite pockets of deviancy and vulgarity.
The great promise of constitutional independence was that there would be an overall improvement in our lifestyles, not one built on household and public sector debt, but on new efficiencies, creativity, human capital and dynamic leadership. But, to a large extent, ordinary Barbadian people have been let down by the very professional class, a gaggle of people one or two generations away from cane cutters, carpenters and field labourers (not that there is anything wrong with any of these occupations) who now turn their backs on the old communities such as the Pine, Grazettes, Carrington Village, and so on, and pretend that their rightful place is in the Heights and Terraces. They are the two post-independence generations that should have provided the leadership and vision for a new Barbados. Instead, they have failed the nation and themselves. They are the ones who should have benefited from the explosion in house prices on the West Coast, in reality there are the fledgling attorneys and real estate agents making a few crumbs from the tables of the super wealthy. They are the two generations who should have set the nation ethical and civic standards to aspire to, instead they are the thieving lawyers, doctors and politicians cashing in on the poverty and ignorance of ordinary people.
And this failure is represented by the very institutions they have established. We have what passes for a health care system in which injured people could be forced to sit in accident and emergency department at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital for hours while nurses pounce about like young rabbits on heat; a health care system in which doctors, highly trained at taxpayers’ expense, unscrupulously go about their commercial business like an organised Mafia, totally ignorant of the concept of care.
We have a public transport system that is chaotic, disorganised, loss-making and dangerous in terms of health and safety, yet the band of technocrats meant to supervise them have failed to. This is not to be over-critical of young working class women and men who, through good fortune and their own endeavours, escaped the boredom of a routine job to do one that, at its heart, should be at the caring of people. It is the degrading culture, a post-independence culture of expectation, of greed, materialism, selfishness and conceit.
One of the great defining moments of our immediate, even long-term future, will be the resolution of the chaotic Caricom/CSME/CCJ agreement. Yet, it is an issue not often heard on radio or written about during this campaign. As things stand, the structure of regional government we now have in place is the worst and most undemocratic attempt at regional unity since the abolition of slavery: even those fledgling attempts in the 1870s, the 1920, the 1960s, were far more superior and transparent – and democratic.
It is not a coincidence that the strongest regional organisation – the West Indies cricket team and the University of the West Indies – had been formed before the granting of constitutional independence. The current failure runs deeper than just institutions, it runs to the very inability of the highly paid public servants and politician to even countenance new and workable ideas for managing our region.
The scandal of Clico has been allowed to rumble on for years, in Guyana, the Bahamas, St Lucia, Barbados and Trinidad, yet Caricom has failed to step in with a solution fit for the entire union, or even to establish a Caricom-wide banking and insurance regulatory body; it has failed to establish a Caricom-wide crime fighting apparatus; it has failed to create a regional health care policy, in which each member state takes on a special responsibility for research in various health conditions (for example, sickle cell in Barbados, diabetes in Jamaica, etc).
The simple point is that we do not have any trust in each other, either as nations or individuals. This trust deficit is well recognised in social science and may explain why people are often reluctant to face reality, preferring inward-looking, rhetoric-ridden, slang-based political discourse as a form of ideas-free political campaigning. Why discuss serious issues which only cause one to worry when one can simply enjoy personal abuse which passes for entertainment, much to the amusement of ill-informed crowds?
Then there is the self-delusion that the corporatist idiocy of a tripartite government, called the social partnership, is somehow unique and workable. This, when unions are calling for a ten per cent pay rise in these austere times, when business is ignoring government and filling their own pockets with regular, above-inflation price increases, while government is impotent in the face of all this anarchy. Yet the continuing deception that because they sit around a table every so often, that the social partnership is working is beyond belief. It is not, and such coalitions cannot replace real and competent democratic government that the majority of the people voted for in a popular mandate. Of course, there is something in this rag bag of a coalition for everybody – politicians and civil servants pretend they are the cutting edge, unions can bully government in to giving ridiculous pay rises and businesses can continue to rip off taxpayers.
In the meantime, we have a stagnant economy, record-breaking youth unemployment, a breakdown in law and order and a desperate people still looking for good leadership. This is what our high calibre of education, our progress, our dynamism has brought us to – the foothills of state failure.
Analysis and Conclusion:
In the final analysis, the people of Barbados, the voters, must determine the quality and integrity of the people elected to serve them. As long as they continue to pretend that personal abuse from political platforms, verbal gymnastics, empty promises and outright lies can lead to someone being elected, then they will continue to get what they deserve.
But the debt black hole in which we have found ourselves, and which our political masters and policymakers are hopelessly incapable of dealing with, is not the sudden result of global problems, as policymakers continue to fool themselves, rather of over forty years of political ineptitude and folly. It is one of the unintended consequences of a political culture in which holding office is far more important than the policies implemented while in power.
Barbadian voters can only postpone reality for so long. At some point, no matter who wins the general election, the brutal reality is that there must be a drastic cut back in public sector spending and, if done carelessly, the net result will be an even more massive rise in unemployment. Delusions about being a middle income nation, of punching above our weight and repetitive nonsense about a high rate of literacy cannot hide the fact that we are in the process of managing decline.
Fourteen years of BLP rule, and five of DLP incompetence, must, at some point, wake us up from our dream and bring us back in to the real world – reminding ourselves that we are ill-equipped to function in a highly technological global economy. Taking ill-thought out policy advice from people who ought to know better, on the basis of their paper qualifications, is what has got us to where we are.
On February 21, the people have an opportunity to change this course. I hope they make a choice they, and their children, can live with.