Oldest Caribbean Democracies Shackled to their Colonial Past
Ambassador Curtis A. Ward
(9 August 2021) — Jamaica’s celebration of 59 years of independence gained from Great Britain on August 6, 1962, also is a celebration of its democratic traditions now spanning two generations. Trinidad & Tobago, gaining independence a little over three weeks later, also celebrates its 59 years anniversary and its unbroken democratic history. But even as the people of these two countries celebrate political independence and emancipation from slavery during what has become for Jamaicans six days of celebration (Emancipation Day – August 1 to Independence Day – August 6, or ‘Emancipendence’) Jamaica and T&T are yet to achieve full nationhood. After 59 years as independent democratic countries, both remain shackled to their colonial past.
Jamaica is not the final arbiter of its jurisprudence, and its allegiance to its colonial master remains a blight on the country’s independence. The UK Privy Council (The House of Lords) sitting in London remains both Jamaica’s and T&T’s court of final resort. It lords over the justice systems of both countries. The irony for T&T is that the Caribbean Court of Justice intended to replace the House of Lords is sited in Port of Spain. The people of Jamaica and T&T are being denied easy affordable access to final justice.
As for Jamaicans, the queen of England resident in Buckingham Palace, represented by the Governor General who resides at Kings House in Jamaica’s capital city, is the Head of State of Jamaica. Trinidad & Tobago made that break from Great Britain in 1976 when it became a republic. I applaud the government and people of Barbados, already having accepted the CCJ as its highest court, is now moving expeditiously to make the final break with Great Britain. Notably, Barbados gained political independence on November 30, 1966, some four years after both Jamaica and Trinidad &Tobago.
Ironically, Jamaican governments, particularly when led by the People’s National Party, are strong global advocates for the right of self-determination and defend the inviolable sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states. As a former ambassador and deputy permanent representative of Jamaica to the United Nations, I experienced firsthand this advocacy and the respect it generated globally for Jamaica. Yet, many will argue, myself included that as a nation Jamaica is yet to complete the process of independence and full sovereignty. I join with those who call on our political leaders to remove this anomaly in our nation’s construct and to do so before the 60th Anniversary of Jamaica’s independence on August 6, 2022. I implore other Caribbean democracies, which are also former British colonies, to also sever these incongruous ties to Great Britain.
Notwithstanding the myriad issues with which Jamaicans have had to cope with since independence, Jamaica can be proud of its adherence to democracy. Jamaica is the oldest democracy in the Caribbean and its democracy remains strong. In its 59 years of independence Jamaican democratic institutions have been strengthened, preserved, and zealously guarded by the people and successive governments.
We cannot become complacent. We must always be mindful of the fact democracy is not assured. The people must always hold their governments accountable and reject creeping autocracy which we have become all too familiar with in some countries in the region. The recent experience in the United States under the autocratic Donald Trump leadership, which I have highlighted numerous times in The Ward Post, should be a warning to all of us. The people across the Caribbean must protect democracy and the freedoms and personal rights it guarantees, including freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of peaceful protest, freedom of religion, access to equal justice under law, and the protection of human rights. In a democratic society all elements of human security can and should be not just a dream but reality.
Of the big four of the Northern Caribbean, only Jamaica and the Dominican Republic can be counted as democracies. The latter, after 134 years as an independent country, finally became a democracy in 1978. The country’s turbulent history experienced a plethora of military coups and military governments, amid U.S. military interventions and occupations. The Dominican Republic while not a perfect democracy, and no country is, have made significant progress as a democratic country.
Haiti, the oldest independent country in the Caribbean, since 1804, has seen only brief periods of democracy. There are numerous reasons why Haitians have been denied the potential benefits to be derived from a functional democracy, some of which have been discussed elsewhere in The Ward Post. These won’t be enumerated here, but among the critical factors are weak or nonexistent democratic institutions, lack of a culture of adherence to the rule of law, corrupt power-craving leadership, lack of successive governments’ responsibility to ensure basic human security for all the people, and a history of outside interference in the internal affairs of the country. While the future of democracy taking hold in the country is remotely possible, we must not lose hope for the people of Haiti.
The fourth of the Northern Caribbean big four, Cuba, gained independence in 1902, with what is described as a U.S. dictated constitution which retained the right of intervention by the U.S. in Cuba’s affairs with supervision over Cuba’s financial and external affairs. Cuba has been ruled by dictatorships of the right and left, but never by a democratically elected government. The Cuban people have survived over six decades of a devastating U.S. economic embargo but is vulnerable to external shocks and global pandemics. While lauded my many for progress made under difficult circumstances in certain areas of human development, there is no denying that the Cuban people are denied most of the freedoms we who live in democratic countries take for granted.
As we have seen in recent reports, there are many among the Cuban population yearning for these freedoms and demanding changes in the country. While recognizing that outside influences impact on civil disobedience in Cuba, we should not underestimate the natural inclinations and desires of the Cuban people for the natural freedoms. In a globalized world with instant communication networks, the Cuban people are not isolated or insulated from the benefits of democracy. They will continue to advocate against restrictive authoritarian and autocratic governments.
Freedoms come with a price and the responsibility of all of us to ensure they are never taken away from us. We must protect the right to choose our political leaders and governments. We must ensure that our political systems are not corrupted to deny the population the right to vote in free and fair elections. And we must hold our governments accountable, always.
© 2021 Curtis A. Ward/The Ward Post
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