TIME FOR BOLD ACTION!
NUFF SWEET TALKIN’
I n times not nearly as bruising as present, Prime Minister John Compton often promised barely comprehending citizens that under his leadership Saint Lucia would never land in the jaws of the International Monetary Fund, “because two male rats cannot in the same hole coexist." With suspected malice aforethought, he delivered the quoted words in unprocessed kweyol!
The line no longer has meaning at this time when same-sex marriages raise no eyebrows, even at the Vatican; when the planet’s most prominent women with their impeccably painted faces openly reference the assets of their similarly decorated wives; when macho superstar athletes can overnight turn into femmes fatales worthy of the covers of fashion magazines, and male couples produce and raise their own offspring.
It would appear gender fluidity has caught on even in the animal kingdom. Earlier this month “gay penguins Sphen and Magic made world headlines after they welcomed their own baby at a zoo in Sydney, Australia.” (This particular tidbit according to the BBC!) So who can say for certain what may be going on undetected in what rat holes?
I recall without difficulty one of the reasons the earlier cited prime minister offered for pursuing independence from Britain: “We will be free to make our own decisions, among them the ability to borrow as we please from the IMF.” Yes, so said the very prime minister who would later swear never to share the quarters of a samegender fellow rat. In 1979 he had also implied the IMF was a panacea denied us, thanks to our relationship with our restrictive Mother Country.
Speaking of rat idiosyncrasies: While Compton was campaigning for what he knew full well had already been determined by Whitehall, the Labour Party, then inclusive of George Odlum and Peter Josie, did what opposition parties do best. Result? An ill-informed country at war with itself, ostensibly for the right to be or not to be free.
We need not revisit the expensive fiascos that preceded 22 February 1979. It is worth mentioning, however, that it was not John Compton who showed up at the United Nations General Assembly to hear Saint Lucia officially declared an independent nation. No, that special privilege went to one of the leading protesters against the campaign for “freedom from British interference in our affairs.”
Politicians are uncommonly chameleonic. In time George Odlum would say the Labour Party was never against independence from Britain, that what concerned them was independence while Compton was still leader of the island’s government. For his part, a straight-faced Compton in opposition revealed, during a lecture at the Central Library in Castries, that the so-called Mother Country had simply grown weary after so many
years of breastfeeding her insatiable adopted children. Independence, said Compton, was just another euphemism for “you're on your own now; learn to swim or drown.” (Another irony, when you consider England's historic pirate relationship with the naïve leaders of islands of the Caribbean!)
To return to the IMF. This is how it describes itself: “An organization of 189 countries working to foster global monetary cooperation, secure financial stability, facilitate international trade, promote high employment and sustainable economic growth, and reduce poverty around the world.” At first glance it would seem, save for the global dimensions, that our government and the IMF share the same aspirations: financial stability, high employment, economic growth, keeping poverty at bay.
But seldom are appearances as they seem. Not for nothing was John Compton famously wary of any relationship with the IMF and its no-free-lunch policies. The idea of the IMF essentially running the affairs of Saint Lucia was to Compton altogether anathema; a reflection of his managerial skills; tangible proof that he did not have the qualities demanded of the captain of a ship of state. Keeping Saint Lucia out of the hands of the IMF was for Prime Minister John Compton a personal ambition.
It may well be asked: if one of the IMF's advertised main functions is to lend money to countries in financial difficulties, why was Compton so determined to avoid the organization? Michael Manley, in a 2001 documentary entitled Life and Debt, offers a hint of how the IMF process operates: “What you really need is to sit down with them and say, 'Look, can I work out a five-year program? And in the meantime I'm strapped for cash, so can you help me up-front get out of the cash bind and then put in the context of a long-term development plan?' And they say, 'No, long-term development is your problem. We are here to see who you owe the money to; why you're in a bind; and we lend you money in a very short time-frame at full interest rate to get you out of the bind.' And then they impose on you tremendous restrictions on what you can spend. And you say to them, 'But if I do it that way, when I finish repaying you I'm gonna be in the bind all over.' They say, ‘Not our problem!' ”
Nevertheless, Guyana, Trinidad & Tobago, Dominica, Grenada and Belize have all accepted IMF stabilization programs as a condition for receiving financing. The latest to join the club is Barbados under Mia Mottley, who recently announced that several state-owned entities will be restructured or shut down as part of phases two and three of the Barbados Recovery Plan, starting the next fiscal year.
Several government departments including the Cultural Industries Development Authority, will be absorbed into other agencies. The Barbados Defence Force's sports program will continue, but without government funding. Scheduled to be sent home are workers from the government's public affairs department, which comprises the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation, the Government Printery and the Barbados Government Information Service. MCTV will remain but is being restructured. The list of changes is long.
As I watched this week's parliament in session, during which the finance minister sought approval to borrow close to $141 million for various purposes, I sensed in my living room the presence of John Compton. And I knew not whether to pray or cry for Argentina. Nothing I heard from the MPs on Tuesday, despite permitting myself some irrational exuberance, if only perchance to protect my sanity, suggested a guaranteed positive change in our circumstances any time soon.
Try as I might, I could not recall a time when the word most often thrown around the House was not “borrow.” Even from the earliest days of John Compton. Alas, while he had put down in words the future as he envisaged it—free of cosmetics—and rarely offered intelligence assaulting perfectstorm possible solutions, he too tended to take the easy road to nowhere; not the right road, regardless of attendant risks. While Compton talked incessantly about the Micawber formula—“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery”—he left in place the most voracious gobblers of government revenue.
Although we face realities far more complex than existed in the time of Charles Dickens, there can be no escaping the bottom line: a government that year after year selfishly spends more than it takes in is on a fast track to the poorhouse. Inevitably, it will arrive at the IMF's door.
The question is: Which government will discover the courage to risk a confrontation with the CSA? Which government will find the strength to remind the people that since 1979, at least, we've been on our own aboard our rickety canoe, with only one or two lifebelts long past their shelf life—in increasingly turbulent waters.
To invoke Compton one more time: “We cannot afford every year to keep paying for peace with the unions.” Who among our leaders will openly acknowledge it is high time we as a nation learn to swim, however late in the day. Count on it, what we refuse to do for ourselves will be done for us. Barbados is the most recent victim of this inconvenient truth too long ignored. Will Saint Lucia be next?
Will Prime Minister Chastanet, like his predecessors, continue to pay for peace while ignoring the killer realities that confront the nation? Or will we suffer the obvious consequences of too much talking without follow-up action!