AD TO INDEPENDENCE!
Associated States Secretariat in Castries, at the special invitation of the St. Lucia government, to celebrate in advance the installation of John Compton as the island’s first prime minister. When lunchtime came and the guest of honor still had not shown up, Tourism Minister George Mallet stepped forward to apologize and deliver the official word of welcome. He also assured the gathering that never mind the doomsayers, Lucia was economically vigorous and looking forward to a record tourist season, now that the government had secured the services of a Nigerian gentleman named Ignatius Atigby who had arrived in St. Lucia the previous day but was ready to answer any questions.
Mallet promised that the scheduled press conference would provide journalists with ample opportunity to discover how really wonderful was the leader of the government—contrary to opposition propaganda. The party broke up late in the afternoon. Long before that Mallet had left to prepare for the arrival at Vigie Airport of Princess Alexandra and her husband Angus Ogilvy. The princess would represent her cousin Queen Elizabeth at a special Independence ceremony two days later. Darkness was already enveloping Castries when the state limousine drove through the city with its royal passengers, en-route to La Toc Hotel. The princess may or may not have recognized the decorative lights along William Peter Boulevard and Bridge Street. They had once brightened London’s Oxford Circus at Christmas—before they were purchased by the St. Lucia government, reportedly for over $100,000.
The princess did not attract hordes of excited, cheering, calypso-chanting, flag-waving natives. Neither did she encounter massive protest demonstrations as had been promised by the armchair strategists of the opposition party. The dozen or so halfnaked Rastamen who carried anti-Independence placards proclaiming the wrath of Jah had kept well within their own turf. By 10:30 the next morning some sixty exuberant journalists had jammed the conference room at the Halcyon Sands Hotel, west of fabulous Vigie Beach, some loaded down with video paraphernalia, others, well, just loaded. At 11 a.m. the government’s public relations officer, Willie James, informed the gathering that the prime minister designate had been held up by yet another emergency. The reporters didn’t seem to mind the delay; they were in a party mood—and the hotel was serving free rum punch. Shortly before Compton arrived, Willie James announced that only the visiting journalists would be permitted to question the prime minister designate. “What’s that supposed to mean, man?” asked Jeff Fedee of St. Lucia TV. Ernie Seon, a local freelance reporter, suggested the government’s public relations officer couldn’t possibly have meant what he’d said. Of course, Seon knew better. In fifteen years St. Lucia’s premier had held fewer than half a dozen meetings with local reporters. The island’s two radio stations—Radio St. Lucia and Radio Caribbean— were in effect little more than transmitters for government propaganda. News bulletins were broadcast only if they originated at the government’s PR department.
Jacques Compton, the premier’s cousin and manager of Radio St. Lucia, was especially touchy about news items that tended to suggest Premier Compton and his cabinet ministers were fallible. The premier did not have a blood relative at Radio Caribbean, but its foreign owners knew better than to broadcast information critical of the government. Radio Caribbean could not operate in St. Lucia without a license. And whether such license was granted depended wholly on the petitioner’s relationship with the government.
At the Halcyon Sands hotel, seated at a table loaded down with microphones and recorders, the living monument to Saville Row wizardry who was about to become St. Lucia’s first prime minister apologized to a roomful of journalists for his late arrival. Flanked by unrelated PR men Willie James and Timothy James, a stone- faced Compton said: “All right, gentlemen. I’ll take your questions now.”
A forest of hands shot up. One man rose from his seat and was about to introduce himself when Compton cut him down: “I thought I made it clear that this press conference was for visiting journalists. Not for local reporters!” His audience groaned. The diminutive Willie James jumped to his feet. “Gentlemen, please,” he said, palms held high. “We agreed the prime minister would speak with the local press in due . . .” The reporter was still on his feet. “But that’s the whole point,” he protested. “I’m not local.” He held up a press card. “Here’s my ID.” Willie James took it, passed it on to his boss for close inspection. The reporter was no stranger to St Lucia. He had once been an assistant editor at the Voice newspaper—until Compton enticed him away with a job at the government’s public relations office. Shortly after the 1974 elections, however, Compton had reneged on his promise of a scholarship and a disappointed Gregory Regis had packed his bags and left to study radio journalism at Toronto’s Ryerson Institute. Four years later, the St. Lucia government had again seduced him with a position at home, this time as news editor at Radio St. Lucia. Alas, Regis was destined for further disappointment. He had been at his desk just three days when he clashed with his employers after he permitted a statement by an official from the ministry of agriculture to be broadcast over RSL. The official had said, in reply to a reporter’s question, that he had no idea why the minister of agriculture was attending a conference in Guyana; the minister had not seen fit to inform him. That was enough to earn Regis a right telling off by the peripatetic minister upon his return home. Regis landed in more trouble after he informed RSL listeners that a police warrant had been issued for the arrest of a local playboy—a friend of the government—who was suspected of having absconded with over $100,000, swindled from trusting St. Lucians. A news item that featured George Odlum was the straw that finally broke the camel’s back. RSL’s news editor was suspended, without explanation. Soon afterward, he went to work for CBC, in Toronto. And now he was home again, ready to cover his former employer’s for-foreigners-only press conference—ostensibly for Canadian consumption. St. Lucia’s prime minister designate carefully studied the CBC reporter’s press card before returning it to Willie James. Finally, Compton decided to continue with the business at hand. “All right,” he growled, “Go on, ask your question.”
“In view of the atmosphere surrounding the independence celebrations,” Regis began, “do you have a plan for reuniting St. Lucians?”
“What do you mean?” Compton sniffed. Regis reworded his question and Compton told him his government had done everything possible to bring St. Lucians together—“despite the enemy within.” A Barbados journalist asked why the government had chosen to seek independence from Britain without referendum. Compton replied: “The way our constitution is set up, any obstructionist could’ve adversely affected a referendum.”
Someone inquired about the prime minister designate’s relationship with the leader of the opposition, Allan Louisy. Compton refused to comment. Then the BBC’s Martin Bell raised his hand. When Compton nodded, Bell asked: “Why are you unable to discuss the opposition party without obvious acrimony?” Compton jumped to his feet, as if one of the microphones on his table had suddenly turned into a cobra.
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