It had been in the making for weeks, months even. And on Wednesday, traffic in the city came almost to a standstill as placard-carrying protesters took over the busiest streets. Earlier they had gathered at the Vigie playing field with heavily armed police officers on hand. As I made my way to the field I encountered a woman who told me that she was headed for home. She was all for a good protest, she said, but politically motivated rallies and guns were not quite her thing.
I wandered past placards that screamed ‘Saint Lucia Not For Sale’. I bumped into people who complained that the demonstration route had not yet been closed to vehicular activity. If it had been a UWP rally, someone else assured me, “the roads would have been closed from morning”. I asked another woman who was standing near a pile of placards why she had decided to participate in the day’s protest. Her response was not immediate. First she consulted with her companion. Then she said she was demonstrating against “DSH, education, laptops, bursaries for students, and the increase in fuel prices”. Before I had a chance to prod further, the skies erupted and people scrambled for cover from the rain. I grabbed my umbrella and made my way onto the Vigie field where scores of red-shirted individuals were gathered around a truck loaded with speakers, obviously waiting for the march coordinators to give the green light.
Meanwhile gospel music and a song about Saint Lucian patriotism ran on a loop. The rain had stopped by then, and the thick crowd, placards held aloft, started to dance. The atmosphere reminded of the recently past silly season, carnival and a holy crusade. I scanned the crowd for the SLP honchos. Shawn Edward, Harold Dalson, Ernest Hilaire . . . but I spied no sign of Kenny Anthony, until last June leader of the Saint Lucia Labour Party. The hype girl armed with her microphone announced it was time to start marching. But before setting out many of the demonstrators held hands in solidarity and prayed.
With music drowning all other street sounds the crowd started marching down John Compton Highway, in the direction of Castries. If the aim of the organizers was solely to attract large numbers, they certainly achieved their goal.
“We stand as Saint Lucians and get easy to reclaim,” a voice bellowed from the loudspeakers. “We stand up as a patriotic people! We stand up against bad governance. This is not about party. This is about the people of Saint Lucia. Let us not allow colours to divide us.”
I picked up whiffs of conversations: “But is it really a protest if it’s led by the opposition?” one man asked, seemingly questioning himself. “I thought elections was over,” said another.
“We are marching for Maria Islands,” trumpeted Speaker Girl. “We are marching for fisheries. We are marching for the government printery. We are marching for the post office, for NICE, for the renegotiation of DSH. We want a new deal!”
As the crowd wormed its way past the waterfront government offices the names most often referenced were Guy Joseph and Prime Minister Allen Chastanet. As a Bob Marley track blared, the hype squad on the truck created their own remix: “No Chastanet no cry, No Guy no cry!”
The crowd seemed to grower thicker the closer it got to the city centre, with Speaker Girl inviting observers to “join us and stand up for Saint Lucia”. A few heeded her call. Others stood transfixed on the sidelines, or poked their heads out of government building office windows to take in the late afternoon spectacle. At the Castries market the former UWP government minister turned show host Richard Frederick emerged from the crowd and grabbed a microphone: “Today is a Saint Lucia day,” he yelled, “and if we don’t do it today, who is going to do it for our children and grandchildren? We need to stand up, we need to fight, and we need to ensure that Saint Lucia is reserved for the generations to come. Saint Lucia is not for sale!”
His appearance, evidently unplanned, was greeted with loud cheers. But as quickly as he had appeared, so he disappeared from view. The truck came to a standstill. Meanwhile Speaker Girl directed the protesters to get behind the “leadership of the party”. Conceivably she meant the only party openly represented: the Saint Lucia Labour Party. “We have a structure,” she reminded the huge gathering, to no avail.
At the next stop, just past the Central Library, Soriah Joseph picked up the mic. “We are here with a purpose,” she said. “If we did not have a purpose, we would not have been here. I am here because I look at this as a personal issue for me, and also a national issue. Our country is not really for sale. Our country is being given away for free. When you sell, you make a profit, you break even, or you make a loss. We are making nothing. I am here to stand on behalf of my children; I am passing on this earth, and I will be leaving shortly, but they are there to carry on the mantle.”
The crowd was surprisingly silent as she spoke: “I want everyone here to take a moment. it’s good we are all hyped up about what is happening, but being hyped up and not knowing what exactly is the DSH deal, you’re fighting a losing battle. That is the only way people will join us. You need to have the facts and information for yourselves.
“Empower yourselves with the information,” she went on. “Your passport should not be for sale. Your country should not be for sale. We should not have to pay back any developer money if he feels he does not want to stay in our country Saint Lucia. We are looking for accountability and transparency.” With that she urged: “Each one reach one, each one tell one.” She accused the government of not being transparent: “If what is on the internet is incorrect, why hasn’t the prime minister given us the right agreement for us to know what is in it?”
When I had the opportunity to talk with party leader Philip J. Pierre about the Labour Party’s post-protest plans he stated: “Well, I don’t think you can say that our protest is over. This is the first stage of our protest. I want to make it clear that the Labour Party does not want to create any disturbance of the public in Saint Lucia. All the Labour Party is saying is that the government was elected by the people, and the government must listen to the people. What we’re also saying is the government cannot take 900 acres of land, and give it to one man, some of it at $1 an acre, and refuse to discuss with the people how their land is going to be used, how it’s going to be utilized, and what is happening to them.”
Pierre reiterated that the opposition’s view was that the government should make the DSH agreement a document of the House. “Let the people’s representatives discuss what the prime minister says is the authentic agreement. Let us come to a conclusion of what’s good, and what’s bad. We are not against the development of the country, we are not against investment.”
He referenced the recently inked Range agreement, negotiated by the previous administration. “At the time the prime minister said we did it in haste. All we’re saying is, ‘listen to the people, stop victimizing people.’ We’re saying to the government, to the prime minister, he must disconnect himself from statements like ‘You just start to cry,’ and stop the victimization. Let us work together to develop the country.”
On Thursday evening the prime minister made a guest appearance on Rick Wayne’s TALK on DBS. No surprise that the host fished a comment on what he called the dueling marches.
Chastanet’s response: “They were totally different. Theirs was a protest meeting for which they had been preparing for weeks, maybe months. Ours was a meeting, mainly for people in the south, which is where the DSH project will be located. We did not bus anyone in for the march. In fact, the march was the idea of our supporters, not ours. If you notice, other than Stephenson King and Guy Joseph, the speakers were residents from the south. It gave us an opportunity to hear the different perspectives and to explain to the people of the south the agenda of this government. We knew we were going to be signing the Black Bay deal, so on the heels of my budget presentation, it seemed a good time to go down to Vieux Fort, Kenny Anthony’s constituency, and feel the people’s pulse. Our meeting in Vieux Fort was a celebratory meeting, not a protest march against what only they know.”
The prime minister promised that his government would undertake a series of town hall meetings “once the DSH agreement has been finalized”.