Each year our Caribbean countries celebrate with great pride and joy their independence. We stand through ceremonies and listen to our leaders speak about the importance of democracy and the values on which our nations were founded. We hear of promises of a new era, one in which our people are empowered, one which is filled with social and economic opportunities.
I listened to such speeches with great amusement. Beyond the traditional fanfare, military parades, and knighting ceremonies, are we truly operating as free people?
One doesn’t need to put on investigative spectacles to see constant reports across the region of alleged corruption, payoffs, and cronyism. Self-interest continues to drive many of our political leaders. From the halls of the United Nations, where a former Antiguan ambassador was arrested, to our local Parliaments where we hear of tax money being directed to individuals and companies with direct or indirect ties to the same Parliamentarians, I ask: What is this new era we as a people are being promised? In which direction do you wish to see our region and people move?
For many decades, the governments within the Caribbean Community have been operating with little accountability to the people who voted them into office and on whose behalf they were supposed to act. How often have we had to put up with broken promises? How often have we seen elected officials act in ways that clearly contravene the spirit and meaning of our Constitutions? How often have we seen the cries of the weak and disadvantaged among us go blatantly unnoticed by those who took oaths to protect the vulnerable?
But as troubling of these errors and omissions in our systems of governments and governance are, perhaps the most frustrating aspect of life and living in our parts of the world is the opaque law-passing procedures in existence in all of our countries. That actuality frustrates this writer because, after all, our system of laws is probably the most important single factor that could spell doom or gloom for our small and highly susceptible island states.
By comparison, in almost all western countries, governments are obliged to provide information to their citizens, under freedom of information acts. With the exception of national security matters, United States’ politicians are compelled to provide their diary and account for their whereabouts every day.
The Act’s tag line is “the law keeps citizens in the know about their government.” The US government, in 2014 received over 700,000 requests from citizens for information. Where does this requirement exist in the Caribbean? How easy is it to get information on the activities of our governments and politicians?
After all, government ministers and some of our leaders travel overseas on taxpayer funded trips and we the people are hardly in the know with respect to the purpose of the trips and the outcomes. Yet, we live in truly democratic societies where our freedoms are guaranteed and protected!
Moreover, in the Eastern Caribbean, not only do we lack such basic democratic principles, but the laws being passed by our Parliaments rarely encompass consultation. Why has that situation been allowed to perpetuate for so many years? Have we the people become so disillusioned that we are now conditioned to accept any and all things done in our names by our politicians?
Where are the Parliaments’ websites showing what is being discussed and what has passed in the Lower and Upper Houses that will soon become the laws of the land? Why, in the OECS, for example, do we find out about banking acts and the likes only after they are passed? Where are the sensitisation workshops and town hall meetings to flesh out details pertaining to matters of national concerns that are soon to become major policies or laws that will affect our entire countries and peoples?
Clearly, when we as serious and responsible people of the Caribbean reflect carefully on the lack of accountability of our politicians and those in leadership positions in society; the absence of any meaningful consultation with the people before major pieces of legislations are brought before, debated in, and passed by our various Parliaments; and our inability, by law, to access information on all of the things our governments claim to do in our name and on our behalf, one rudimentary questions pops up: Are we really free?
As we celebrate our political independence and as other countries within the Caribbean Community do likewise, let us take some time off for sober reflections on all aspects of our daily experiences. Let us examine ourselves in a sincere manner and ask whether or not we are satisfied with the directions in which our countries are heading. Let us ponder about the future of our children and grandchildren and the kind of environments we are leaving for them to shape their own future.
And while we do all these things with the ultimate goal of creating “a new era” for ourselves and our countries let us all accept and appreciate that to be really free means not only independence from a colonial power, but freedom for all people to know what their leaders are doing in our names and on our behalf!
(Dr. Brian Francis, a former Permanent Secretary in the local Ministry of Finance, is currently a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Economics at the Cave Hill Campus in Barbados of the University of the West Indies)