There is a tendency on the part of commentators on things local to refer to the early 60s—to 1964 especially—as the period that delivered the Saint Lucian soul as today we know it. Their arguments are not always meritless. I, on the other hand, persuaded by often nightmarish evidence, determined a long time ago that our chameleonic ideas about morality, how we perceive ourselves and others, our standards such as they are, our convenient assessments of Saint Lucia now and tomorrow, among a host of other undeniable proclivities, are consequences of occurrences between the mid-70s and the late 90s. The following, taken from my book Lapses & Infelicities, offers some justification for my conclusions.
Something about the first session of parliament after the 6 April 1987 elections hinted at surprise. The newly elected representative for Gros Islet and Leader of the Opposition was among the first to be seated. Resplendent in blue pinstripes and polkadot tie, Julian Hunte seemed preoccupied; as if he, too, sensed something ominous in the atmosphere. His team started arriving minutes after him: the former opposition leader Neville Cenac, who had experienced little difficulty retaining the Laborie constituency; erstwhile agriculture minister Peter Josie; retired schoolteacher George Regis; Cecil Lay, for whom the Vieux Fort North constituency was close to private domain.
Then there was Baden Allain, a lawyer more famous for his quick temper than for his wit; Remy Lesmond, a building contractor; and Evans Calderon, the former attorney general in the Winston Cenac government, central figure in the 1982 conflict of interest debacle that finally forced then prime minister Winston Cenac to hand over to interim replacement Mikey Pilgrim.
The government side had barely settled down when the prime minister, John Compton, announced his disappointment with the latest election result. He said he had no other alternative but to return one more time to the polls. Several hours later, he addressed a public rally in William Peter Boulevard, a brisk five-minute walk from the steps of the Castries market, where hundreds of Labour supporters awaited the latest word from their leader.
While Compton regaled his largely United Workers Party audience with his conveniently salted account of Hunte’s failed attempt at seducing one of theirs to his side shortly after the election results were announced, the SLP leader addressed what he referred to as the prime minister’s palpable contempt for the electorate. Had the Labour Party won the election, said Compton, a certain insurance company stood to collect from the government several hundred thousand dollars. No need to identify the particular firm, no need for evidentiary support. Everyone was self-convinced the company in question was Hunte’s West Indies General.
Ten days before the elections, said Compton, a local insurer sought to guarantee victory for the Labour Party. A deal was struck involving a loan to the party and the multi-million-dollar government building under construction. “The election had not yet taken place,” Compton said, “but already the corruption had started. The Labour Party was born in sin and it will die in iniquity.”
Warm-up exercises over, he moved on to the night’s heavy stuff: “Looking at my own party, with things standing at 9-8, I will not be able to discipline any member of government. Any of them could cross the floor and destroy the rest of us. I want a government of people I can trust, men in whom I have confidence. When I go abroad on behalf of Saint Lucia, I don’t want to pick up the phone in the middle of the night to hear someone telling me one of my MPs has defected. I want to be backed up by the authority of the population.” Obviously what dominated the prime minister’s mind was treachery.
Meanwhile, on the other side of William Peter Boulevard, the former interim prime minister was being true to form. “It would be an easy matter to bring down a 9-8 government,” he crowed. “We did it once, we can do it again.”
Considering Hunte had invested much energy—to say nothing of a small fortune that many claimed was his own money—toward changing the SLP’s cannibal image,
Pilgrim’s statement was shocking. In the ears of his over-excited audience, however, it sounded like sweet, sweet rock’n’roll. “Yes, yes!” went the devil’s chorus. “We can do it again.”
Hunte was at the microphone on the steps of the Castries market when word reached him that the prime minister had announced the date of the next elections: April 30. In truth, much of what was spewed from both sides in the days before Saint Lucians returned to the polls for the second time in less than a month amounted to refried beans. However, one statement dominated the rhetoric: “Given the opportunity, I would choose Compton on crutches as my prime minister over Julian Hunte!”
Judging by the results of the most recent general elections, Odlum’s sentiments were shared by thousands of other Saint Lucians. On the other hand, when the choice was between Odlum and Hunte, Odlum lost hands down. Once again, his PLP had failed to win a single seat. Voters stuck by their initial assessment of the other candidates and scored Compton and Hunte as before: 9-8. It remained to be seen whether Compton would accept the second poll and resign, or whether he would order a third.
Four days later, the House reconvened amidst the usual pomp and ceremony. All eyes were on the vacant opposition seat that should’ve been filled by Neville Cenac, for many years affectionately known as “the heart of Labour,” by his own measure a stickler for promptness.
His late arrival reactivated earlier rumors that he and Julian Hunte were at loggerheads. There had also been much speculation about Cenac’s immediate future, including that he planned to defect, but few took such talk seriously. After all, few had forgotten his public declaration that UWP stood for “United Wreckers of the Poor.” Besides, at a rally in the north of the island, shortly before the April 30 elections, he had reassured concerned loyalists that he remained as ever true to their cause, to the extent that he would lay down his life for them. As for those who remained distrustful of him, he had just five words: “Hang me if I cross!”
The House had already prayed to the Almighty for unity and was in session when he arrived hand in hand with his wife. Immaculately decked out in a gray suit that matched the color of his frizzled hair, he carried a tan leather briefcase in his free hand. While his wife took her seat in the guests’ section of the chamber, he seemed unsure where to settle down. The look in his eyes suggested panic, a fish out of water. Or maybe they reflected the internalized effects of the booing, bellicose crowd
that had greeted him on arrival outside the House. He knew his blood was in the water. It remained to discover how hungry were the sharks.
Cenac had no way of knowing that shortly before Hunte arrived at the House he had received confirmation of his worst suspicions, and issued special orders to his fellow opposition MPs. When Cenac materialized at the entrance to the chamber some of them seemed suddenly to take an unusual interest in earlier ignored House documents. Some leaned back in their chairs, eyes shut, perhaps hoping to appear bored. Others simply stared straight ahead, as if spellbound.
On the government side, Neville Cenac sheepishly lowered his skinny frame between newcomer Stephenson King, who had twice trounced Mikey Pilgrim, and Desmond Brathwaite; who had sent a devastated Jon Odlum home to his big brother. At the end of the session, by which time he had been declared Minister for External Affairs, Cenac asked for and received without question the Speaker’s permission to address the House. As he stood up to read his address, his former brethren of the red cloth rose as one from their leather chairs, bowed to the Speaker, and filed out of the chamber, muttering insults as they went.
Cenac started with a recollection of his professional history: stints at Radio Saint Lucia, at the district court, in the public service. He cited several prominent citizens whom he said would readily declare him a man able to work with “all kinds of people, regardless of their affiliations.” Despite that he and Julian Hunte were from opposing parties when they were elected city councillors, he recalled, they had both enjoyed a fruitful working relationship.
“We were like brothers,” Cenac said. He paused, picked up a silver goblet from the table in front of him. His hand seemed to tremble as he half-filled his glass and lifted it to his lips. After replacing the glass on a small tray near the water container, he put his hand inside his jacket, extracted a white handkerchief and twice dabbed his pursed lips.
“Mr. Hunte . . . and we must be careful always to say Mister when referring to him, was then the mayor of Castries,” he recalled. “He is on record as saying I never gave him any trouble. Never. I was determined to do a good job at the council, regardless of political differences.”
He said he did not have just one reason for turning his back on the party of which he had been a lifetime member. On the contrary, he had “many, many reasons.” In 1984, when he was still in a position to do so, he had brought about “a fundamental change” in the Labour Party’s constitution, so that Hunte’s ambition to be political leader might be accommodated. Still unsatisfied, Hunte then demanded that he be given a senate seat.
“I refused,” said Cenac, on the ground that there were others more deserving and already in place. To demand that one of them step down in the interest of Julian Hunte’s “unquenchable thirst for power” would’ve been to invite more trouble for the party. “So, as my punishment for not cooperating, I was persecuted, tormented, derided, humiliated.”
As if that were not enough, Cenac observed, soon after Hunte was appointed political leader “he started campaigning in my constituency with a view to replacing me. But the young people of Laborie remembered that when he was secretary of the Saint Lucia Cricket Association he refused to consider players from the village for a place on the national team. He said they were too flat-footed.”
Cenac recalled being summoned one evening to a meeting at his leader’s private residence. “He had decided that he had to have a motorcade the next day and so he demanded that each representative provide ten transit vans from our respective constituencies. Almost two hundred vehicles,” Cenac pointed out, “at a cost of around $30,000. I couldn’t help wondering where the money would spring from. When I desperately needed funds for my own campaign he said there was none to spare.” Then there was the hot-button issue of the office of Leader of the Opposition.
“When he brought that up,” Cenac revealed, “I told him his home was hardly the best place to discuss a matter of such political importance. Besides, we were not properly constituted. The decision would have to be made by the entire party executive. Well, the political leader protested vehemently. He said the matter could not wait. Ah, but I insisted.”
Having discovered, presumably late in the day, that “politics is like a game of snakes and ladders,” the UWP’s latest catch was saying something about the road from Jerusalem to Bethany being littered with “cut-throats, brigands and treasure hunters” when Hunte re-entered the House chamber ahead of his fellow opposition MPs. Several times the validity of Cenac’s recollections were challenged by Hunte and his team—until the stern-faced House referee intervened.
The Leader of the Opposition reminded him that the particular session of parliament had been convened to discuss the 1987 Estimates of Expenditure, not so the new foreign affairs minister might justify his traitorous defection. An obviously affronted Wilfred St. Clair Daniel, Saint Lucia’s most experienced House Speaker, retorted: “Well, you have only just returned to the chamber. Honorable Members walked out without showing the normal courtesy. Therefore, whatever may have transpired in the your absence, Honorable Members are in no position to refer to it.”
Twice he had permitted Cenac additional time to complete, without interruption, his privileged denunciation of his former party colleagues. Regardless of how warranted were his protestations, the new Leader of the Opposition would receive no support from this House Speaker. He was on his own.
Postscript: In 1996, in a speech to mark his self-serving off-loading of Julian Hunte as leader of the Saint Lucia Labour Party, new shepherd Kenny Anthony (doubtless with Marc Antony on his mind) sought to pacify the disgruntled among his inherited flock. He tearfully regretted the conspicuous absence of the former leader: “The ideals we cherish have been nourished by successive leaders. Few of them stand out. But Julian Hunte does. The burden of leadership was entrusted to him in difficult times [no mention here of the entruster]. Morale was shattered, hope nonexistent, betrayals rife, our party bankrupt. Twice in 1987 he brought the government within inches of our grasp. He had the will and the temerity and the courage to cleanse our party of charlatans and frauds. His resignation, painful and sad as it may have been for him, his constituents and others, has allowed new possibilities to emerge.”
Months later, at the end of an unforgettable campaign, the new possibility now fully emerged, he and his Labour Party won 16 of the 17 seats in contention. A delirious Julian Hunte ran under his own flag—and lost his deposit. Among Kenny Anthony’s more memorable references to his predecessor’s “stand-out” leadership of the SLP: “Keeping in mind all he did for the people of Gros Islet was pay for their coffins, Hunte should’ve been an undertaker!”
To cite yet again the irreplaceable Christopher Hitchens: “History is more of a tragedy than it is a morality tale!”