|The Courier N° 140 - July - Aug 1993 - Dossier: National Minorities - Country Reports: Dominica, Mozambique (EC Courier, 1993, 96 p.)|
|Dominica : Much ado about... bananas|
'The strong must help the weak'
Edison James became Leader of the Opposition in Dominica as a result of the 1990 election when his United Workers Party won six of the 21 seats. He thereby-to the surprise of many-overtook, by a margin of two seats, the 'traditional" opposition Dominica Labour Party, which is the country's oldest political movement. The UWP, by contrast, was established only in 1988. At the same time he helped reduce the overall majority of Dame Eugenia Charles' governing Freedom Party to only one seat. In power since 1980, where she won a landslide victory (virtually wiping out the opposition by winning 17 seats), Dame Eugenia has subsequently seen her majority decline to its current narrow margin. Edison James nevertheless faces a difficult task in challenging the still widespread popularity of the 'Iron Lady' and the control which she exercises over the levers Government. During the election campaign, he confronted her with the UWP slogan of 'Fear no more'. He is also critical of her alleged comment on the narrow outcome of the poll to the effect that she would show little interest in those constituencies that did not vote for her.
A former manager of the Banana Marketing Corporation, Edison James is deeply concerned by the ongoing banana 'issue', which leaves no Dominican untouched. He also insists that he is an 'unequivocal believer in the democratic process', a statement which must be particularly appreciated when one recalls that a former Prime Minister, having lost his seat, was sentenced to twelve years imprisonment for a coup attempt whick, fortunately did not succeed.
· Following the last election, you became-to the surprise of many-the Leader of the Opposition, beating the 'classic' opposition by two seats and helping to reduce the Government's overall majority to only one. What is the explanation for this dramatic swing? Was it merely the result of your electoral system?
-If those people who were suprised by the results had been doing their work properly they wouldn't have been suprised, because it was obvious that the Freedom Party was losing ground. Many people were disenchanted with the party; its whole approach and attitude, especially that of its leadership, which displayed arrogance and tried to instil fear in the electorate. So it was obvious that they had become distanced from the people. But it was our view that that disenchantment would not lead to their defeat if it had been left simply to the Labour Party, because people were not prepared to go back to what they had essentially discarded just a few years ago. So we felt we had to present a new image to the population. A group of us got together to examine the situation, and to analyse whether it would be best to try to change things through the existing opposition structure or whether we had to come up with something new. We did a serious analysis of that, examined all the factors and decided-not at the first meeting but a little later on-after talking to people outside our original group of eight or nine, that the best thing to do was to create a new organisation. So in 1988, the United Workers Party was born. We began with a steering committee, which did the initial ground work around July of that year. In October we held our first Convention and by 1990 we faced our first election. In that poll, the Freedom Party Government survived by a mere 26 votes, the margin by which they held the seat which gave them their overall majority of one.
· In a small place like this, if you are talking about macroeconomic policy, can the policies be really different?
- Probably not in terms of macroeconomic policy, but in terms of how you relate to people and how you seek to provide for people, the approach can be very different. We take the view that in this country there will always be relatively strong and relatively weak people and, in the final analysis, the strong must help the weak. While we firmly advocate proper management and a meticulous approach to it, and while we think that efforts should be rewarded, we do not feel that everything must be sacrificed on the altar of profit making.
· Therefore you adopt socialist policies?
-We are not going to get caught up, and we have said this before' in any 'ism', be it capitalism, socialism or anything else. We believe, for instance, where essential services are being privatised in a manner which seeks only to maximise profits, that that is not the best approach. For a long time we had a situation where some public companies, while not functioning properly, had developed a kind of monopoly situation, with consumers crying out for some measure of protection. The point is that if these organisations-these essential services-are put into private hands in this country solely for the purpose of making a profit at all costs, then the weak will need some measure of assistance.
· Can you give a specific example?
-Well, let's take water, for instance. The water authority is being converted into a company with the intention of selling it off. There is also the case of the electricity company and we are hearing talk of the same happening to the national bank.
· Will the electricity company be sold?
-There has been a serious discussion about that.
· So your thesis is that the present government is not mindful enough of the weak?
-Indeed. There are always people who are not able to survive in a competitive situation, so you have to be mindful of them.
· The newspapers are full of the ongoing debate about the banana issue. Do you think it is accurate to portray the Government as pro-Geest while the opposition favours the small farmers?
-The Prime Minister has declared quite unequivocally that she stands shoulder to shoulder with Geest. Our stand is not one of being against Geest. What we are saying is that if our industry is to survive, and if we are not to continue being the hewers of wood and drawers of water, then we must get involved in the lucrative areas of marketing and shipping. This has been articulated by everybody else except Geest and the Prime Minister. And no matter how she tries to camouflage it by suggesting that we are not ready, but that we will probably be ready for it in three years' time, this is just an attempt to mitigate the impact.
· Is this just an opposition claim, or are others saying the same thing?
-A recent Caribbean Development Bank consultancy study has recently recognised that these are areas that our industry can benefit from tremendously. I read this myself in the preliminary report. It is a study on the improvement of the competitiveness of the Windward Islands' banana industry. So it is not a matter of we, the opposition, being against Geest. I want to make that very clear. What we are saying is that we must get involved in those areas. The Geest General Manager was reported in the Saint Lucian press saying that we should not get involved in those areas. What that shows is that we are clearly on different wavelengths on this question, while the Prime Minister is on the same level as Geest.
· So you feel that not enough of the benefits which derive from the banana industry are coming back to the small farmers?
-Much more can, and needs to, come back; much more. There is money in the banana business but the farmers here continue to struggle. We have been told that we have just to concentrate on producing bananas and let somebody else market them, that somebody else being Geest, in our context. But Geest is involved in banana production as well, in Costa Rica. They have shown in their own activities that they do not see the need for a division of labour in this regard, so why should we?
· So it is not just a question of American multinationals, operating in latin America, versus British multinationals?
-The real producers in these Latin American countries are multinational companies like Chiquita, Dole, Geest and Fyffe. It is clear that today, Geest is on both sides of the divide in terms of the Windwards and the Latins. So, for us it is obvious that we must get off-shore, into the shipping and marketing of our produce.
· Aside from the banana issue, what are the other key sectors where you disagree with the approach of the Government?
- We have taken issue with the Government regarding their hands-off approach to the marketing of our agricultural products. The Government's stated position, as articulated by the Prime Minister when addressing farmers in 1991, is that it is not Government's business to look for markets for farmers. We are saying 'It is your business because it is you more than anyone else who are telling the banana growers to diversify.' In fact, the Prime Minister is on record as having said, since before 1980, that we should leave bananas before bananas leave us. So she has told people to diversify. When she was in Taiwan, she declared over the telephone that she now expects growers to go into other crops such as passion fruit, peppers, pumpkins, ginger and so on. There is nothing wrong with farmers going into other crops, whether exclusively or together with bananas, but if these crops are not marketed then it is useless. So we strongly advocate that the Government establish links with private entrepreneurs in the potential market places. We are looking at metropolitan countries such as Canada, America and the UK, where we have Dominicans, Windward Islanders and West Indians. We could establish marketing relations with them and get them moving using whatever facilities are available to the Government. We recognise that governments are not necessarily the best people to be involved in this kind of operation but they are in a position to get things started, to find partners and to develop a team approach.
· Does the Government really disagree with what you say?
-I don't think it is a question of them flatly disagreeing with us. The point is that so far the Prime Minister has said that it is not the Government's business to find markets for farmers. We have been articulating just such an approach for a long time. They have never really come out and opposed it, but I suppose that given the fact that it is us that have challenged them on the subject, some time will need to pass before they move in the direction of taking our advice.
· Do you think they will eventually come around?
-Yes, they are already showing signs of coming around. In fact there is a document-a kind of 'immediate action plan'-which I understand has been produced by some Government technicians and which I am led to believe has received the blessing of Government. In that document they advocate that kind of approach.
· Another big issue that seems to be on everybody's mind, because it has to do with the future of the whole island, is the famous new airport. Is that going to become a political issue as well?
-Well, that is the airport that I am supposed to have stopped. It is said that I prevented that airport from materialising. There are different versions to this. It depends on what mood the Prime Minister is in at a given time and who she is talking to. Sometimes she says I stopped it; at other times she says 'No, they ignored him.' What happened was that, during the election campaign, we wrote a letter to the Americans saying that in the absence of a development plan or any broader perspective, if they were to get involved in the earth moving, as the Prime Minister pretended they were going to do, they would simply be party to an election gimmick. We said in our manifesto that if you seek out partners to engage in such work, you also have to come up with your own contribution and suggest ways of raising the money. When the Government produced their budget after the election, they indicated that they were seeking to raise the local financial component of the airport by embarking on a scheme of selling passports to raise the money: what they called economic citizenship. The Freedom Party stated in their manifesto that the work would begin within a few months. It is now three years since the election and we have seen nothing yet. Of course, it has also been said that the airport did not come into being because the US Army Corps of Engineers went to the Gulf. That is what the Prime Minister said, but the war has been over for quite a while now. Then again, the Americans are now in Somalia...
· Should you come to power, what is your feeling about the airport: does Dominica need it?
-It needs a certain type of airport- one which allows people who come here from Canada, America or wherever to avoid having to change plane en route. It would also be extremely beneficial for us if we were able to put our agricultural produce on a carrier here in Dominica without having to worry about transshipment through Antigua, Barbados or elsewhere. We have indicated that we support the construction of that type of airport facility here. We have always been for that even when our opponents said we were against it, but then that is the game of politics.
· In 1980, the Freedom Party had a landslide victory. Each successive election has seen their majority drop and in 1990 they held on to power by only one seat. If this trend continues you could take power next time.
-I am glad you have noticed that. That is probably why the Prime Minister
is running away. She has declared that she will not be contesting a future election. I think she does not want to be defeated.
· Bearing in mind the recent report of the West Indian Commission, which some refer to as the blueprint for the long-term survival of Caricom, where do you, as a potential future leader of a Caribbean state, think the organisation should go from here?
-It seems to me that when decisions are taken at Caricom level, the people of the different countries concerned are not as involved as they should be. They are not sufficiently informed as to what such decisions might mean to them. Decisions are mostly reached in secret and the Heads of State or Government come back to their countries and find that what they have decided, on behalf of their people, does not enjoy the kind of support that it should enjoy. The politics of the situation then dictates that they must have a second look. I feel that the approach has to be modified. If I were going to take an initiative at a Caricom meeting, I would first seek as broadbased an input as possible in my own country, so that when I entered the negotiations, I was satisfied that I had strong support at home for the proposal which I was putting forward. And where new proposals are presented, we should all go back and talk to our people. Of course there may be proposals which do not require a massive popular input, but in general it is that kind of approach that has hindered implementation. Caricom has, nevertheless, had some successes, however difficult it may be to manage our differences.
· Is it easier to work on the OECS level?
-Even when you come down to the level of the Windwards, you still find there is a lot of work to be done. I believe that in the context of the Windwards and OECS unity, there has to be much more interaction among the people of the different islands. They have to meet each other more and more, so that further unity comes from the bottom rather than from a study carried out over their heads. This kind of feeling and attitude must be built up, so that sometime, somewhere along the line, people come to say 'I am a Windward Islander.' But these sorts of exchanges and interactions among people have not been happening enough up until now.
· What are the other key political issues going to be in the coming months?
-I think the economy. It is still in a tailspin and if you talk to people around the country, nobody seems to know where the next penny is coming from. Much has to be done to stimulate the economy. We have to look for new solutions. We ourselves have some positive proposals which I will be putting forward at the next budget address. We expect that by the middle of this year, we will be able to bring some Dominicans together, both local and from abroad, in a sort of 'think-tank'. The aim of this exercise is to analyse the situation further and to come up with some even more concrete proposals for our economic survival.
· Many of your fellow ACP countries, African ones in particular, are going through a process of democratisation. Coming from a country with a long democratic tradition, are there any hints or tips that you could give them?
-First of all I would say unequivocally that both I and my party believe passionately in the democratic process. I cannot at this point in time conceive of any other system that I would want to subscribe to. I believe that if I am unable to persuade people that they should go along with my thinking, then I have failed, and I should not try to use any other means to get them to do what I want them to do.
· This could not always be said of the whole of the opposition.
-For myself and the United Workers Party that can be said, even if things may have been different as regards other opposition parties in the past.
I also believe in the transparency of Government. Where a matter of national security is involved, then there may be a need, up to a point, to keep your cards close to your chest but, over and above that, the transparency of Government is a matter of principle. I am very worried and concerned when I hear that in so many parts of the world people take power through the barrel of a gun. Coups being coupe, it is difficult to take control and expect to survive. In any case, it is so much better to leave when people ask you than to impose yourself on them against their will.
Interview by R.D.B.