Laughingstock at home, ridiculed abroad?

Special Advisor in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Vaughan Lewis

For most of our lives, we have known each other. If not similarly erudite, still we had been fellow students of St Mary’s College when, unforgettably, he carried in his mouth the largest silver spoon mine eyes had ever seen.
No surprise that in the intervening years Vaughan Lewis and I had engaged in a round or two of bloodless sparring: at an early stage of my career writing about politics on this Rock of Sages we’d locked horns over something that doubtless must’ve seemed important to at least one of us at the time, even though I cannot now retrieve the details from my memory banks.
Oh, but I recall with lapidary exactitude the climactic show-stopping sledgehammer that on the occasion he had dropped on my then youthful and somewhat inflated head.                 “You’re a pretty intelligent guy, Rick,” he smiled knowingly, “considering you spent so little time at school!”
Funny, huh? I can hear you howling, dear readers—even those of you who couldn’t have known until now that Vaughan had slyly referenced my famous expulsion from St Mary’s, the best thing that ever happened to me. The experience had taught me that there exists in our world a particular breed of sheep every bit as predacious as wolves. Believe it!
But back to Vaughan’s recalled showstopper. Even I had been forced to acknowledge, albeit ever so reluctantly and only to myself, that the impeccably delivered throwaway line had packed the power of a prime-time Muhammad Ali uppercut to the nostrils.
Some two decades years later, by which time we both had marked our respective turfs here and there, an opportunity for revenge dropped serendipitously in my lap during an uproarious off-stage give-and-take (to this day we’ve managed to remain cordial and respectful toward each other) centered on his relationship with a certain former educator.
With one eye on his fawning entourage (as usual looking forward to another pesky bug about to be crushed underfoot), I said: “As you once reminded me, Vaughan, I may have spent too little time in school but your problem is that you’ve never left the classroom. At sixty-something you remain as ever scared to death of your school principal!” Yes, he laughed, as did his little group in turn.
I sometimes wonder whether what his own party colleagues wrote about Vaughan Lewis immediately following the 1997 general elections had unhinged him. I daresay, few men could’ve been so savaged and yet remained unscathed. If as party leader and prime minister he had been taken apart limb by limb by the then opposition Labour Party, if the well-remembered picongs about his sobriety were just as often heard in school yards as at the nation’s watering holes, well, no-issues small-island politics is what it is.
Oh, but to have the worst of what the Labour Party put out about him validated by his own, then taken several steps further down the toilet, I ask you, dear reader, who could withstand that and remain, well, normal? Compton may have been quite wrong
when he claimed Vaughan knew not the difference between political opponent and enemy.
It’s more likely that Vaughan knew very well the one from the other. It is more than possible that he never perceived as his enemy the man who had given him the opportunity at least to be a pretend prime minister. But this is not the time to go into that.
All of the above has been recalled in an attempt to establish whether, as I’ve suggested, Vaughan Lewis actually retains an irrational fear of school principals. Could he be even more fearful of a school principal dressed up as a prime minister? You ask: Why would he? And I say: How should I know? I never claimed to be a shrink! Better to ask what it might mean if my suspicion should prove valid?
For one thing, we’d probably have to ask ourselves whether anything he says in his current circumstances is trustworthy. How can the nation know when the words Lewis speaks are his own words and when he is expressing what he imagines are the thoughts of a certain school principal turned prime minister—on whose smile Vaughan’s cushy existence relies?
Consider the following by the current prime minister, shortly after he replaced Vaughan Lewis in 1997: “Our approach to management of this country is so different from that of Vaughan Lewis that I doubt whether he even understands what we are doing. He did not know how to do it in 1996, he does not know now—and he will never know.” [My italics]
The assault on Vaughan’s intellect does not end there. Obviously, his well-decorated meticulous examiner had devoted much time analysing Vaughan’s strengths and weaknesses before putting in writing his assessment of the former manager of Saint Lucia’s affairs, economic and otherwise.
I quote yet again the current prime minister’s words, taken from The Rainbow’s Edge: “One of the major failings of the Lewis government was its inability or unwillingness to plan, set targets and achieve them. If you do not set targets, then how can your performance be measured? Vaughan Lewis did not have the confidence to set economic objectives and targets and to devise policies to achieve them. Good management means having vision and foresight, setting targets and planning ahead. Lewis failed to recognize the importance of these factors and there is little evidence that he practiced any of them.”
Moreover: “What is perhaps worse is that Saint Lucia’s reputation in the world was being dragged down along with Vaughan Lewis’ own reputation. It is one thing to be like him, a laughingstock in his own country, but when you are prime minister and you are ridiculed abroad as well, you can then take the whole nation down with you.”
Let us not waste limited space discussing Vaughan’s apparent miraculous metamorphosis in the stagnant waters under the infamous bridge to nowhere. Now that he is advisor to the government on foreign relations, let us hear what he has to say on this all-important subject. For the last several months he and his handpicked committee had been on special assignment, the government has confirmed, contemplating our relations with such as Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Venezuela, the United States, Britain and, I imagine, Taiwan and Beijing. According to the pretty lady whose face now serves the government’s public image, the special committee had finally put together a report—soon to be released, one would hope. Meanwhile, what does Vaughan Lewis have to say? Well,  for one thing, “the United Workers Party, when in office, did not inform Saint Lucians about the harsh truths of the world economy.”
He therefore offers the following eye-opener: “The challenges which our country faces today should have been well understood by our people in the period 2006 and the end of 2011. That time was what we call a time of transition; a time of changes in the world which would surely have a bad effect on our country’s progress, unless we took positive action. But did you notice that nobody in government spoke to you about such things?”
Well, did you, dear reader? Or were you, like so many other fed-up Saint Lucians, looking to better days? Seems to me that in his 2009 Budget Address then prime minister King had bemoaned the fact that things worldwide were deteriorating rapidly and that Saint Lucia was experiencing inescapable economic impact. As if this were not already quite obvious!
I recall King reading the following from his Budget address: “I cannot help but reflect on how much and how quickly the world has changed since I delivered my first budget one year ago. On reflection, growth in the international economy has changed to recession, optimism has become pessimism, confidence
has turned into uncertainty, trust among financial institutions has disappeared into oblivion and now replaced with distrust and their willingness to underwrite business expansion and development has all but withered away.”
Then there is this from the 14 April 2011 Throne Speech (ritually written by the day’s prime minister or one of his “best-brains” surrogates) some seven months before the year’s elections:
“A survey of the global landscape at this time reveals a pretty grim state of affairs. While not attempting to chronicle every international event, some obvious examples come to mind: disasters, natural and man-made, in different parts of the world; unrest in several countries, particularly in the Middle East and in North Africa as populations rise in their quest for democracy; factional violence almost descending into civil war; a humanitarian disaster in the Ivory Coast; spiraling prices of oil and petroleum-regulated products with their knock-out effects on every other sector of society, particularly in the transportation and energy sector; increasing food prices, the near collapse of some economies, causing them to approach regional and international institutions for bailouts . . .”
The finance minister had also observed the following: “Banks and businesses throughout the world have failed at an alarming rate and economic activity in the global economy as a whole is on decline.
“The implications for Saint Lucia and the Caribbean are serious, considering our dependency on tourism, primary commodities, trade and development finance. This ensuing year will be a difficult one for Saint Lucia and Saint Lucians. It is a year for belt-tightening and prioritizing. It is a year for sacrifices and one for truly being our brother’s keeper.”
Meantime, there were the self-serving ritual agitation, the mindless  union demands (as now, sadly) that more blood be drawn from the dried-up public jugular—and the tongue-in-cheek promises of “better days are coming!”
So much for Vaughan’s claim that Prime Minister King kept the bad economic news to himself, as if in any event that were remotely possible—especially for this ostensibly dum-dum prime minister.
For crying out loud, in the period Lewis cited there wasn’t a news broadcast that did not center on the troubles in the Middle East, America’s housing problems, Lehman Brothers, Maddoff and the world economic crisis that already had started shaking up Europe. It would’ve been in any government’s best interest to blame outside influences for the misery suffered at home—whether or not “Saint Lucians are used to hardship!”
Of course, the crisis served the local opposition party, as it has opposition parties worldwide. With elections imminent, the last thing the opposition wanted to talk about was a world recession. When forced to comment, the usual response was, “Well, true, things may not be the best, but a thinking government can always put something in place.”
As we know now, the opposition saved its best lines on the recession for the 2012 Throne Speech. We know
what “something in place” really meant, but before November 2011 explanations were absolutely
unnecessary. Only faith in de leadah leadah was required. En Rouge!
For what it’s worth, the current prime minister recently assured Saint Lucians that the world economy will have returned to normalcy in “two years.” Not even in election mode have Obama and Romney dared to be half as outrageous. But then our prime minister had also promised our tourism will be “buoyant again in a year or two.” As the old Negro spiritual goes: “He don’t
plant cotton, he don’t plant taters . . . he must know sumpthin’ . . .”
But to return to Vaughan Lewis: I should warn that if some of what follows sounds a teeny bit kindergarten it might be because Dr. Lewis was at the time addressing the common people at a constituency conference. For him, no big words like “contextualize!”
“Between 2006 and 2011,” he informed his doubtless grateful audience, “the world went through financial difficulties. Economic recessions, they called it. The biggest countries in the world got into trouble. Just as Obama took up his job in the White House he found the American economy was sliding downwards.” (At least he spared us the now commonplace “sliding down a slippery slope.” Come to that, do economies ever slide upwards?)
We should revisit The Rainbow’s Edge, in particular, its author’s assessment of a certain former finance minister and prime minister. There is a familiar ring to it: “The Vaughan Lewis government failed to tell the people the truth about the statutory boards and companies owned by government. Most of them were badly managed and suffering losses . . . He left an amount of $20 million dollars at the treasury owed to individuals, businesses and overseas suppliers. Vaughan Lewis could not even manage the finances of his party. Stephenson King and his committee concluded that there was evidence of mismanagement of party finances that affected the party’s ability to implement effective change.”
Does the above reference to Lewis not sound like a recent assault on King delivered by the Olive Branch bearer? Here he is at any earlier time, referring to Lewis’ reelection as party leader: “They have searched and searched and now they have appointed that same Vaughan Lewis. The more they [sic] change, the more they remain the same.”
Not only has Lewis saddled King with the very burdens earlier placed on Lewis’ back by the current prime minister, the current prime minister has himself done as King’s party had done back in 2001: Despite Lewis’ alleged general ineptitude, his poor management skills, his tendency to keep important details to himself, his lack of charisma, not to say his love affair with the vine—it’s all there in At the Rainbow’s Edge—the author and current prime minister still considered him the best man to advise his government on matters of foreign policy.
Perhaps the most shocking of all the prime minister’s Lewis put-downs   is this: “This election is about leadership and change. The UWP has tried to convince us that their party has changed. They have promoted Vaughan Lewis as the change. Time and the experience of this campaign have shown that the UWP has indeed changed since the advent of Vaughan Lewis. But it is clearly a change for the worst. Never before have we seen such vindictiveness, such narrow-mindedness, such pedigreed arrogance in an election campaign.
“Many had hoped the entry of Vaughan Lewis into the political arena would have signaled a higher level of public morality and a higher tenor of political discourse and debate. There were some who thought that he would have attempted to clean out the rot, cut the patronage and excise corruption. Instead of rising to his historic opportunity, Vaughan Lewis sank to the lowest common moral and intellectual denominator. Even John Compton, at his worst, never sank so low!”
Nevertheless, Saint Lucians are expected to take as truth whatever the government’s advisor on foreign affairs might say on anything, including the economy and our relationship with countries that have been good to us in good and bad days?
At the recalled constituency gathering, Lewis recalled his boss’ lauding of China, “on course to become the world’s largest economy in the next few years and a super power in its own right.” Remember, the same source had recently stated the world economy would normalize in just two years. He had also promised our tourism industry will be “buoyant” again in maybe a year or two—contrary indicators notwithstanding.
(As I write, the big news on CNN centers on “China’s economic struggles,” with manufacturing “slowing amid global financial crisis.” The same news bulletin featured a shocking story out of Angola, where the Chinese are accused of widespread “kidnapping and human trafficking.”)
We also learned from Lewis the other Sunday that the British “are now telling us to wake up and smell the coffee, to begin to find our own way.” Only now, you say, Vaughan? They’ve been telling us precisely that from way back in 1979. They repeated the warning in relation to bananas some years later. But then the day’s government had assured farmers that “our friends will never let us down.”
Lewis offered this chestnut in relation to his old “enemy.” Just before the end of his life in 2007, said Lewis, Sir John had sought to make things right by recognizing China. You know the rest of the story.”
Oh yes, I do know “the rest of the story.” Alas it has more to do with China’s appalling human rights record, its takeover of diamond-studded sections of Africa, its well publicized treatment of native workers, its tendency to ignore home-grown workers in favor of employing what has been described as ‘Chinese slave workers’ on projects in countries it claims to be assisting.
Compton never announced at any time, let alone “before his death,” that having decided via a Cabinet conclusion to renew diplomatic relations with Taiwan, he’d undergone a change of heart in favor of Beijing. He said a lot about the present prime minister, however, unfairly or
otherwise, including that Compton feared, as farfetched as that sounds, he might be denied a state funeral. But then, let’s not be to hard on Lewis, who has carried more than his fair share of political crosses—and in all our dealings had never told me a lie.
Finally, it should be remembered that even as Vaughan was singing his somewhat off-key little suppertime ditty the other Sunday, looming over him, larger than life, was a former school principal who, with the stroke of a pen, could make things for Vaughan pretty dark indeed. Better to sing songs you might not like and keep the red fires burning.
En Rouge!

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