Remembering May 29, 1979 in 2015
With the anniversary of the riots of May 29, 1979 approaching, Dominicans will invariably compare the political and economic conditions that confronted the island 36 years ago with the social environment in Dominica in 2015.
But we are of the view that apart from the dire economic situation, the other factors affecting Dominica then and now are vastly dissimilar.
In their book "In Search of Eden: Essays on Dominican History" authors Irving W. André and Gabriel Christian posit that the sluggish economy in the early seventies and the enactment of draconian laws by the Patrick John regime were the two major precipitators of the riots.
In an essay in that book entitled "Legislation and Repression in Dominica in the 1970's." André argues that the government of former Prime Minister Patrick Roland John pursued a number of ill-fated economic ventures which did nothing to alleviate economic hardship in Dominica. These hardships and the enactment of new legislation caused resentment and unrest on the island and set the stage for the clash between the two parties in 1979.
During that period, the price of bananas that accounted for 75% of the island's export revenues fell from nine cents to five cents per pound. The prices for bay oil also crashed in 1974.
According to Andre', the island's precarious economic system was further exacerbated by the paucity of aid from traditional donor countries. The problems of unemployment, declining consumer purchasing power and the paucity of new capital formation combined to create an extremely bleak economic future.
Since the Dominica Labour Party (DLP) government of Patrick John was strapped for cash, it turned, of all places, to apartheid South Africa for assistance, established a pseudo- free port zone in Portsmouth conceived by Texas businessman Don Pierson, and undertook other questionable capital ventures. Ralph Gonzales, now St. Vincent's 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).
Some political observers will argue that the economic conditions that Andre' and Christian described in 1979 are comparable to the Dominican economy of 2015.
Generally, they argue, the banana industry has virtually collapsed and direct aid from traditional donors in 2015 has dwindled to a trickle. High unemployment especially among the youth and a bleak economic future has accelerated a serious drain of the country's human resources.
But although economic conditions have remained the same, the spark that ignited the protests of 1979 is absent from the equation in 2015. These catalysts included a number of powerful and militant trade unions, a vocal and progressive civil society and church and, most importantly, an organised and opportunistic (even parasitic) political opposition.
Essentially, that appears to be the conclusion of historian Dr. Lennox Honychurch. In his popular "The Dominica Story: a History of the Island", Dr. Honychurch advances the view 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, some 10,000 demonstrators appeared around the House of Assembly at Government Headquarters on the morning of 29 May.
The peaceful demonstration began with police meandering through the crowd. Opposition members were cheered as they entered; government members were jeered and jostled. The Defence Force arrived, tear gas was fired, people scattered. In anger, people hiding in the back alleys, their faces covered with damp cloth, threw stones at the army and at 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.
A few years ago Oliver Seraphine, the former Prime Minister of the Interim Government suggested that the events of 29th May, 1979 should be forgotten, since the two antagonists in 1979, the Dominica Labour Party and the Dominica Freedom Party, had formed a Coalition Government three decades after the riots.
We disagree. If we are permitted to repeat a cliché: those who forget the mistakes of the past may, inadvertently, repeat them.
There are many lessons Dominicans can learn from the events of May 29, 1979. Of course Charles Savarin ( now His Excellency the President of the Commonwealth of Dominica), the major architect of the 1979 revolt will repeat the argument that getting rid of the John regime justified the methods that he and others employed to topple John. In other words, the end justified the means. That is, John was so dictatorial and reckless that he had to be removed for the greater good of the country. But the end does not, or did not justify the means, now or in 1979.
The May 29, 1979 unrest also shows that when Dominicans want something badly enough they are capable of marshalling their resources to achieve their objectives.
May 29, 1979 illustrates the fact that a united people are a powerful force indeed but it must be harnessed to move the country forward and not backwards.