By Alvette ‘Ellorton’ Jeffers
Each 1st of November, Antiguans and Barbudans assemble to remember the moment we became independent. It has been thirty-eight years of celebration, and no one seems quite clear as to what separates this period from 1967 when Antigua won Statehood. The Antigua Trades and Labour Union (AT&LU) expected to achieve full Independence in 1967, but it was denied by the British who offered them, instead, the lower status of Associated Statehood.
In 1967, Antigua gained control over its internal affairs and the right to amend the Constitution the British gave it. If, during the period of Statehood, Antigua demonstrated maturity, the British would grant it independence at an opportune moment. Antigua could not conduct its own foreign diplomacy. The arrogant British elite thought they were best suited to speak for Antiguans in international circles. It was always the thought of the British colonialist that it had something to teach us about democracy, even though it never practiced it on the islands. It relied on its local police force and the British Army to squash dissent and the uprisings in the Caribbean for self-government. It seems that our governments have mastered colonial, authoritarian practices.
The year 1967 offered Antigua the opportunity to overthrow colonialism with its production of violence, cruelties and self-loathing. The system of economic dependency which replaced the colonial economy, not only reproduced those social vices in altered forms, but from the very beginning, it rationalised the exploitation of labour, and required an altering of the political consciousness of workers, and the people in general, to accept that the government was ceding authority over the economy and the development of Antigua to the emerging class of foreign investors. In this effort, the union government expected the workers to follow its directives.
Very few leaders were as suitably positioned as was Vere Cornwall Bird, to craft a new, national purpose for Antiguans and Barbudans. He and the AT&LU had the loyal support of the working class, peasants and farmers. The union dominated the industrial and political landscape. With its ubiquitous village and constituency branches, VC Bird and the trade union had the organisational prerequisites necessary to start the transformation of politics and economics by elevating these branches into economic councils for coordinating the country’s economic reorganisation and development. It had the opportunity to simultaneously raise the cultural level of the population to encourage this new development, and the broadening of our national consciousness. Bird chose otherwise. He shackled Antiguans to a life of dependency and imposed limitations on the workers’ organisation to permit this to happen.
Every political party in Antigua and Barbuda, despite its pretensions, has remained faithful to VC Bird’s economic creed, with just slight modifications. As a substitute for a national purpose, they have fed the population a bad diet of consumerism. Consequently, the population has become mentally groggy and less discerning of the transfer of Antigua and Barbuda to financial marauders who are daily encircling their island and narrowing the public spaces Antiguans and Barbudans can occupy. All this, they are persuaded to believe, will afford them the means to consume more and more and more. It is false. But they hope for it to be true.
To give their lives meaning, the political directorate asks them to measure their achievements by how much money they make, for whom and where they work, the social circles they move in, the size of houses they occupy and the style of car they drive. Some will call this an inauthentic existence. It remains true that men and women cannot live by bread alone. And as CLR James noted somewhere, “humans are not pigs to be fattened,” for life consists not in the abundance of things we possess. Human beings are distinguished for their cultural and intellectual achievements. It is noteworthy when they reproduce themselves through the transformation of their material environment. The skills and intellect that develop as a consequence of that engagement make greater achievements possible. As a result, they become more confident in who they are, and are becoming. Dependency produces the opposite of all this and worse, it manufactures a cultural system which justifies servitude and gives people a reason to celebrate their impoverished state.
When Antiguans and Barbudans become liberated from dependency and assume mastery over their existence, at Independence, they will have something meaningful to celebrate together.