2016 Revisited!

Few expected what followed the fall-out from the June 6, 2016 general election.

The year began with news good and not so good—but mainly bad. With much of the citizenry, the pregnant particularly, concerned about the worsening word on the Zika virus, and with news fake and otherwise of confirmed cases in neighboring Martinique, Venezuela, and Miami, national epidemiologist Nahum JnBaptiste declared Saint Lucia spared. Nevertheless he advised that all steps be taken to eliminate breeding grounds for the Aedes Aegypti, the mosquito blamed for spreading the virus. JnBaptiste also recommended sleeping under bed nets, using insect repellents and wearing attire that covered as much skin as possible. On the other hand there was the fall-out from IMPACS, from which there seemed to be no escape. By official account, the island’s government had repeatedly turned a deaf ear to the State Department and the European Union’s demands that reported “gross violations of human rights allegedly carried by the Royal Saint Lucia Police in 2010-11” be brought to a “credible judicial resolution.”  Citing arrangements under the Leahy Law, the U.S. government had in retaliation ceased economic and other assistance to the police force in 2012. The consequences on the RSLPF and the citizenry were quite obvious.

Also in January a delegation of ambassadors from the UK and France, following a meeting with the Saint Lucia government, had convened an unprecedented conference with the local press at which the officials revealed the prime minister had pledged to resolve not only the IMPACS problem but also to do everything possible to ameliorate the situation at the Bordelais Correctional Facility, where several people had been incarcerated for over a decade without even a trial date. The Saint Lucia-based French ambassador was especially concerned about a citizen of his country charged with murder, who he said had been treated shabbily by the justice system. The ambassador revealed that his government had run out of patience with local authorities. Moreover, that the prime minister had been given what amounted to an ultimatum: prosecute Eric Sommer or set him free!    

The Kenny Anthony government was under further pressure locally after it came to light that the administration had in 2015 secretly appointed a UK-based Saudi billionaire named Walid Juffali as the island’s diplomatic representative on the board of the International Maritime Organization, headquartered in London. The matter came to light via online revelations about the Arab’s marital problems: his second wife, an American model named Christina Estrada, was seeking a divorce settlement of several million pounds. But Juffali’s lawyers claimed their client was beyond the reach of the British courts, thanks to immunities afforded him as Saint Lucia’s representative at the IMO.

Estrada would prevail. A judged ruled that the Saudi Arabian’s presumed diplomatic immunity was in the circumstances irrelevant. With local elections imminent, the fall-out from the Juffali trial would generate a political sandstorm in Saint Lucia—especially after it emerged Juffali had absolutely no experience with maritime matters, and had never once attended a meeting of the IMO. Neither did he set foot at his divorce trial in London. It emerged he was too sick to leave his bed at a Zurich hospital. Weeks after the court awarded his ex-wife several million pounds and real estate that Juffali owned in England, the Saudi billionaire succumbed to cancer.

The month ended as it started, with still more fallout from IMPACS. While the island prepared to mark Nobel Laureate Day, a ritual going back to the late 80s, the prime minister grabbed the national spotlight in an attempt to “clarify the U.S. position on the prosecution of those alleged to have engaged in extra-judicial killings during the tenure of the former [sic] United Workers Party,” on the premise the so-called clarification would “help the people of Saint Lucia and the officers of the RSLPF better understand the position of the United States in this difficult and complex matter.”

It seemed an unnecessary exercise. On January 12, just two days before the earlier cited meeting of ambassadors here, the U.S. Embassy in Barbados had commended “the government’s initial step in 2014 by inviting IMPACS to conduct an investigation into allegations that members of the RSLPF committed extra-judicial killings from 2010 to 2011.” The embassy had also stated in a press communiqué its increasing concern that since the issuance of the IMPACS report in March 2015 “progress on pursuing justice in these killings [of 12 citizens deemed to be criminals, according to Prime Minister Kenny Anthony] had halted . . . Despite the significance of human rights, national security concerns and Saint Lucia’s reputation, the government has made no meaningful progress toward criminal prosecution in ten months.”

The embassy described as disappointing news the recent public statement by the Director of Public Prosecutions that her office had not been provided with the files relating to the IMPACS report, neither necessary resources, “thus precluding further prosecution.” Also of concern to the U.S. Embassy was that “four years have passed since these violations of human rights first surfaced and due process is yet to be served.” In short, there was nothing about the U.S. Embassy’s position so fuzzy as to require clarification. From the start all the State Department had ever wanted was an investigation of the allegations against members of the Royal Saint Lucia Police Force and a follow-up credible judicial resolution.

Meanwhile there was the DPP’s own public statement at a press conference shortly before she set out on pre-retirement leave in December 2015, at which time she revealed that the IMPACS report—much of which the prime minister had read on TV before it had been received by the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions— contained nothing capable of standing up in court.

January saw the passing of beloved sportscaster Brian McDonald, even as Grynberg and IMPACS continued to dominate the news. But there was a small distraction: the unnecessarily controversial appointment of former HTS news presenter Jade Brown. Another pleasant note: St. Kitts-based Justice Lorraine Williams was declared STAR Person of the Year! Alas, the Nepalese students, lured here by allegedly false promises, continued to complain about our snail-paced legal system. But there was the good word that Derek Walcott had been declared first son of the soil knighted on home turf—an  accolade of not much significance, at any rate, in the country where the order was created.

The year was halfway over, with little change for the better. IMPACS continued to drop its rotten eggs all over Helen’s “simply beautiful” face. Contributing to the transmogrification was news of yet another suicide, this time of a 25-year-old woman. The prime minister took time to meet Raise Your Voice secretary Catherine Sealys and director Petra-Jeffrey Nelson, a group dedicated to fighting for the rights of women in distress. Then came the March bombshell that the murder-accused Frenchman Eric Sommer had been released after four years at the Bordelais Correctional Facility. (Some legal authorities claimed he never should’ve been charged in the circumstances . . .)

The fall-out was swift. By diverse avenues including Facebook, Newsspin, and the letter columns of accommodating newspapers Saint Lucians at home and elsewhere, as of one protesting voice, screamed about “preferential treatment for the white man!” Some claimed without evidence that intense pressure on the local authorities by officials at the highest levels of the French government had resulted in the abrupt resolution. If only they knew how close they were to the truth! There was no time to hear from Sommer himself. Within hours of the shock verdict he was on a jet plane headed for home, where crime suspects are considered guilty until proven innocent. The ambassador expressed his gratitude to the government of Saint Lucia.

Came the month of May and music was in the air; another jazz festival, yet again underwritten, whether or not they liked it, by taxpayers. In all events there was more talk of impending general elections than about the fact that since its inception in the 80s the festival had undergone a sea change. It was as much related to jazz as, say, bowling is to snorkeling. It might more appropriately have been renamed Caribbean Music Festival. What remained the same was the resounding silence surrounding the money unaccountably spent on promoting the events, performers’ fees and the cost of staging the various productions, to say nothing of the returns from the output by taxpayers.

Meanwhile the political atmosphere continued to heat up, much of the artillery aimed at the leader of the United Workers Party, Allen Chastanet. To hear the platform rhetoric it seemed at one point that he and his father were in dire need of armed bodyguards; at the very least body armor. The UWP was still at war with itself when the prime minister announced Polling Day: June 6, 2016—with almost twelve months of his 5-year tenure unserved. Even the governor general was caught off guard. But the biggest surprise turned out to be the UWP’s 11-6 victory!

Another happy note: Boo Hinkson, arguably the island’s premier guitarist-singer-composer, received from the Queen the OBE award for his contributions over the years to local music. We were more than happy for the opportunity to feature on this paper’s front page the beaming recipient with his proud wife Donna at side (October 15, 2016). Speaking of royalty: in November Britain’s Prince Harry paid his first visit to Saint Lucia, in time to participate in a ground-breaking ceremony related to a racetrack in Vieux Fort. Prior to the prince’s arrival there had been a brouhaha involving a local reporter and the new prime minister, triggered by an online publication that seemed to suggest Prince Harry would be staying at a resort owned and operated by members of the prime minister’s family. Actually the prince stayed at another hotel, at any rate, one day—Butch Stewart’s Sandals Grande. The earlier cited hotel was undergoing scheduled renovations at the time of the royal visit.

The year ended in celebratory mode. A benefit for the beleaguered Royal Saint Lucia Police Force, organized by the prime minister’s wife Raquel Chastanet, proved a roaring success—as did the launching of Derek Walcott’s book with renowned painter Peter Doig, “Morning Paramin.” The event took place at theYard bookstore, before an appreciative audience of local writers and celebrities, as well as many with a sense of history who profited the opportunity to see in person the increasingly reclusive literary goliath. Also gracing the occasion with their presence, Saint Lucia’s prime minister and his wife.

Regrettably IMPACS and the much older Grynberg controversy continued to haunt the corridors of power—at great cost to police morale and the economic future of this nation that more and more is dependent on a seductive overseas image!

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