Fearful they might lose their grip on power in their respective countries, Caribbean leaders selfishly rejected the crucial recommendation for a central executive authority to ensure the implementation of the decisions taken together by Caribbean Community & Common Market (CARICOM) heads of state in their collective sovereignty, contends former Commonwealth secretary-general Sir Shridath “Sonny” Ramphal.
The recommendation was included in the Independent West Indian Commission report – Time for Action – which Sir Shridath presented to them at the 1992 CARICOM heads of government meeting in Port-of-Spain.
“Basically, West Indian politicians choked on it,” the lawyer and statesman said at an event last week at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs to promote his new book, Glimpses of a Global Life. “They saw it as the first step of movement away from absolute power at the territorial level. That sentiment has continued to prevail even as the public sentiment for integration, in my opinion, has deepened. The report is certainly more acceptable to the people of the Caribbean than to the governments of the Caribbean.”
Ramphal devoted an entire chapter of the book to the commission that emerged following a paper – The West Indies Beyond 1992 – that late Trinidad & Tobago Prime Minister A.N.R. Robinson, submitted at the 10th CARICOM heads of government conference in 1989.
With historic changes in the Soviet Union, the far-reaching implications of a single European Market formation in 1992 and the emergence of a Canada-United States Free Trade Area, the paper concluded that “the Caribbean could be in danger of becoming a backwater, separated from the main current of human advance into the 21st century”.
Sir Shridath chaired the commission that included late Barbados governor-general Dame Nita Barrow, developmental economist and scholar, Sir Alister McIntyre and Belize-based Dr. Neville Trotz, whose daughter Dr. Alissa Trotz – a University of Toronto associate professor and 2013 President’s Teaching Award recipient – attended the event.
“It really was a desperate effort by a leadership that had run aground to draw on what they regarded as the best minds in the region to point the way forward,” said Sir Shridath, a former University of the West Indies and University of Guyana chancellor. “The hallmark of the report was the consultative process. We didn’t sit in a room and argue among ourselves and produce a draft. We went out to the people of the Caribbean in all of the islands and also in the Diaspora and we produced a report, which in essence, called for the economic integration of the Caribbean. We developed the machinery through which integration might begin. If you are talking in terms of international examples, we were taking the first steps in the direction that the European Commission went.
“I think we faithfully reflected the feeling of the people of the Caribbean as to what the future should be like in a whole series of areas and in this particular area of institutional reform. As its chairman, I presented it and argued for the heads of government taking the first steps to implement it.”
Sir Shridath said late Guyana President Forbes Burnham, who invited him to return home to draft the independence constitution and assume the role of attorney general, was among the Caribbean leaders who became obsessed with power.
“Burnham changed as I have seen other Prime Ministers change with power,” said Sir Shridath. “Being Prime Minister wasn’t enough and this was the beginning of the parting of the ways. He wanted to become an executive president and I was convinced that was the last thing Guyana wanted. I was the attorney general and Minister of Justice and he knew that it couldn’t be done while I was there.”
Sir Shridath believes Burnham played a major role in facilitating the campaign for him to become the second Commonwealth secretary general from 1975 to 1990.
Dr. Mohamed Shahabuddeen, who succeeded Sir Shridath and now resides in Canada, drafted the 1980 constitution that made the president an executive post.
“My successor produced the constitution that Burnham wanted,” said Sir Shridath. “It was wrong then and it’s wrong now. Guyana is going through a particularly torrid period due essentially to that constitutional change I resisted for a long time and eventually couldn’t.”
Earlier this month, Guyana’s president, Donald Ramotar, took the rare constitutional measure of “proroguing” parliament for a maximum six months to halt a non-confidence debate, leaving the 65-member national assembly suspended but not dissolved.
The move allows the ruling People’s Progressive Party/Civic government to negotiate with the opposition-controlled parliament on a legislative agenda without calling early elections.
After attending Harvard Law School for a year as a Guggenheim Fellow, Sir Shridath settled in Jamaica with his family and was practicing law when Burnham contacted him in 1965.
“He reminded me he had just won the elections and said he badly wanted to set up a government that’s inclusive and competent,” said Sir Shridath. “It was a tortuous process for me as we had just gone to Jamaica, I was doing well, the Jamaicans had accepted me and the family was happy. How do you say no to land? I did try to say no, but to no use. I however made conditions that I would not be a party member and I would not attend parliament and I got those.”
After Guyana attained independence in 1966, Sir Shridath was appointed Minister of State in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and later Foreign Affairs Minister.
“My life changed, I was in a new world and I loved it,” he said. “It was challenging and pioneering and what was different for Guyana then was that we had a cause. We had a border dispute with Venezuela so it meant that this young country had to go out into the world, whip up support and counter Venezuela’s aggression with diplomacy.”
In the 624-page book, Sir Shridath wrote emotionally about the short-lived West Indies Federation and the 1961 Jamaican referendum, which pro-federation advocate Norman Manley lost to his cousin, Sir Alexander Bustamante, who was against the alliance.
“Norman Manley inspired me as a young law student in London with his vision of a united Caribbean or federal nation,” said Sir Shridath. “For him, federation held the prospect of Jamaica becoming part of an independent West Indies. He really did fire me up as a young man to the point where I decided to do my LLM (Master of Laws) dissertation on federalism in the West Indies. And, yet it was the same Norman Manly some years later who, as Prime Minister, decided to have a referendum which he lost and ended the life of the federation. But, to blame him for it, I think, is too easy because he didn’t go into the referendum to lose it. He went in to win it. He made a bad political miscalculation. He thought he would win the referendum, save the federation and he would in the process hold off his political opposition which was his cousin.”
Glimpses of a Global Life, which is an analysis of major problems and challenges that dominated the Caribbean, the Commonwealth and the world in the 20th century, reflects Sir Shridath’s equanimous personality.
“My thought was that I should not inject emotion into it and it should be factual and objective and invite those who read it to provide the emotion in their reaction,” he said. “It’s partly because I have never been given to positions that are harsh and unchangeable. I have a natural disposition to see the other side and to think of the other argument. Maybe that’s part of my legal training. I wasn’t writing a polemic. I wanted to give the facts as they are.”