Go ahead, Dominicans: continue pretending May 29, 1979 did not happen
Many Dominicans will observe the momentous riots of 29 May 1979 reeling from another major crisis- the COVID-19 pandemic. But comparatively, May 29, 1979 was a completely avoidable man-made disaster; COVID-19 is not. It is an international tragedy that has sucked in all members of the human race in a vortex of sickness and death.
In our view, the circumstances, the slow build-up followed by the spectacular climax- the riots, the major players and all the other unsavoury ingredients that created a perfect storm that blew Dominica away nearly four decades ago will not happen again. This history will never repeat itself. Really? Are we sure?
Will there ever be another Dame Eugenia Charles, waiting eagerly in the slips to catch Patrick "PJ" John off the bowling of Charles Angelo Savarin, if we may use a cricket analogy; will there ever be another Louis "Zabocca" Benoit to lead the Waterfront and Allied Workers Union (WAWU) and other trade unions to blockade the island's ports so tightly that not even a titiwi could enter or leave our ports, for months; will there ever be another Charles Angelo Savarin to persuade and guide civil servants on a 47-day strike and then to demand more than 100 percent increase in salaries and wages; will there ever be another Patrick Roland John who will be so blinded by power that he would not see the determination of the forces aligned against his government, and then withdraw from the error of his policies; will there ever be another defence force that would so cold-heartedly shoot at protestors with live bullets; and most significantly, will there ever be another period when the majority of civil society, the intellectuals and religious denominations come together to deal with a perceived problem?
That period of the Seventies, of heightened political consciousness, some say "enlightenment", cannot be duplicated although there are similarities in many of the social, economic and political conditions then and now.
For example, in a four-part series, published in The SUN in 2016 entitled: "The Road to May 29", Dr. William "Para" Riviere argued that the incidents that led to the riots of 29 May 1979 were substantially rooted in the economic circumstances of the island just prior to independence.
Dr. Riviere adds that other factors contributed to the violent uprising of 29th May 1979. These included widespread discontent; repressive laws that attacked freedom of the press and a proposed amendment to the Industrial Relations Act; a uniquely unified trade union movement under the leadership of Charles Savarin of the Dominica Civil Service Association and joint decisive action by the private sector, civil society, churches and farmers.
During that period the price of bananas that accounted for 75% of the island's export revenues fell by more than 50%, from nine cents to five cents per pound; the prices for bay oil had also crashed in 1974.
Dr. Riviere and others argue that the island's precarious economic system was further worsened by the paucity of aid from traditional donor countries. The problems of unemployment, declining consumer purchasing power and the lack of new capital formation combined to create an extremely bleak economic future.
Since John's government was strapped for cash it turned to apartheid South Africa, the establishment of a pseudo-free port zone in Portsmouth conceived by Texas businessman Don Pierson, and undertook other questionable capital ventures. Dr. Ralph Gonzales, the St. Vincent prime minister aptly described the riots in Dominica as "material contradictions of capitalist underdevelopment followed by dictatorial tendencies within a democratic cloak."
As the population endured that dreadful economy, the Government further risked confrontation with the militant trade unions by enacting the Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act and the Prohibited and Unlawful Societies and Association Act (The Dread Act).
In "The Dominica Story: A History of the Island", Dr. Lennox Honychurch suggested that the Dominica Civil Service Association and other opposition forces in Dominica angered by the Government's legislative agenda forced a confrontation with the John administration.
In a vivid description of the events on May 29, 1979, Dr. Honychurch wrote that after two weeks of intense campaigning by opposition forces, including the Dominica Freedom Party, some 10,000 demonstrators appeared around the House of Assembly at Government Headquarters on the morning of 29 May, 1979.
The peaceful demonstration began with police wandering through the crowd. Opposition members were cheered as they entered while members of government were jeered and jostled. The Defence Force arrived; they fired tear gas; people scattered. In anger protesters hiding in the back alleys, their faces covered with damp cloth, threw stones at the army and Government Headquarters, the cement and glass building towering above the surrounding slums.
The Defence Force opened fire. One youth, Phillip Timothy, was shot dead. Ten others were injured, four critically. These events and others which followed led to a "palace coup"; it ended the reign of Patrick John on 21 June, 1979. Then Hurricane David a few months later completed the collapse of the economy.
Now let's fast forward to today. Charles Angelo Savarin is the President of Dominica; Maria, on 18 September 2017 completely destroyed the economic and social fabric of the island; ironically, a large number of supporters of the Dominica Freedom Party are currently propping up a Dominica Labour Party administration. And there is the Gonsalves' observation that we are witnessing today a high level of "dictatorship within a democratic cloak".
So, we argue, 29 May 1979 should not be forgotten, even if the current DLP of Roosevelt Skerrit and Charles Savarin would want to muffle discussion, for obvious reasons, of that historical event. But we must remember 29 May 1979 because as the Spanish philosopher George Santayana said: "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it"