The former Minister of Education Mr. Louis George on Thursday morning January 2 passed away at his Micoud residence, following a long illness that cost him both his legs and confined him to a wheelchair.
I had the pleasure of interviewing the forthright MP at his ministry in January 1988, less than a year after the April 1987 general election. His victory in the battle for the Micoud North constituency had barely been confirmed when a shocking rumor caught the wind, especially in Castries: following negotiations with well known Labour Party campaigners Louis George had agreed to cross the floor into the Red Zone!
Always a fiery and controversial figure, and amidst persistent rumors he planned to dump the UWP, Mr. George had declared during a rally that politics was “a way of life in Saint Lucia.” Moreover, that many long-neglected supporters were “no longer prepared to settle for crumbs” and were seriously reconsidering their loyalty to the United Workers Party.
I was present at a televised press conference 100 days after his 1987 election victory, when Mr. George said the not yet declared Nobel winner Derek Walcott had taken more from Saint Lucia than he had contributed to Saint Lucia’s development.
Not even his Cabinet colleague Romanus ‘Billy’ Lansiquot was safe from Mr. George’s often caustic comments. At one point he told reporters the health minister’s fund-raising efforts on behalf of Victoria Hospital were proving a pain in the neck to other organizations that depended on the generosity of local businesspeople.
“Everyone is saying he or she has no money left after contributing to the hospital fund,” he said. Then there was the time the Cabinet colleagues clashed over Mr. George’s remark that “just because Butch Stewart has employed some Saint Lucians in a few menial jobs doesn’t mean he runs this country!”
At his own subsequent press conference Mr. Lansiquot reminded his fellow MP that there was “no such thing as a menial job!”
As I say, my 1988 interview with Mr. George took place on the evening of 26 January, a Tuesday, at his ministry, then housed on the top floor of the Adjodha Building, corner of Micoud and Laborie Streets. I found him quite different attitudinally from his other party colleagues who were, for the most part, distrusting of the press. Indeed, he demonstrated a radicalism more synonymous with the opposition Labour Party, then led by Julian Hunte (a recent recipient of a knighthood!).
STAR: It seems to me you don’t quite project the established image of the UWP as the businessman’s party. Have you been told this before?
George (chuckling): Well, yes. Some people have asked outright how I became involved with the United Workers Party. My enthusiasm has much to do with my commitment to the people of my area. I came in at a time when Rodney JnBaptiste was on his way out. There was much talk about who should take his place and I don’t mind telling you the choice of Louis George didn’t sit well with certain people who imagined they had a say in the matter. Before all of that I had been a teacher at the Micoud Secondary. Because of certain frustrations, I quit in 1977 in favor of a lucrative job with Geest Industries, following studies at the Eastern Caribbean Farming Institute in Trinidad. I decided to go into politics in 1982, after much pressure from people who had been impressed with my record as chairman of the Micoud village council. The matter of which party I should represent was never an issue. Micoud is predominantly UWP; the choice was automatic. But I’ve always insisted on being my own man, while adhering to party principles. In the final analysis it’s the electorate I must answer to; not party bosses.
STAR: Especially after the most recent elections you were publicly perceived as one of the young Turks; one of a group of four or five determined to redirect the UWP, if not take it over completely. What happened?
George: When we came in . . . I’m talking about Eldridge Stevens, Peter Phillip, Brian Charles, Clarence Rambally. I mean, here we were in a 14-3 situation. I was always pointing out to the other guys the fact that we were moving into a new era of politics and if we were going to effect any changes, we had to stick together. We, well, there were six of us. We successfully negotiated with the more established people in the party the matter of discussions involving only Cabinet members. That was not a popular topic, as you can imagine. The departure of Phillip, Rambally, Stevens and so on had a negative impact on the future of our party.
STAR: The public considers you quite controversial, especially after your statement about politics in Saint Lucia being a way of life.
George: I was surprised my comment about biscuits and crumbs proved so controversial. It was widely interpreted as a threat. Maybe that’s because I said it at a time when there was so much talk about the 9-8 election result. But my intentions were honorable. I think it’s only fair to say the Micoud constituency has always supported the United Workers Party. The dissatisfaction I spoke of is no longer a private thing. People are now asking: What’s in it for me? You go to Jamaica or Trinidad and you don’t have to be told which constituency is the prime minister’s. For fifteen years, Micoud has been represented by a prime minister. But what do you see there indicative of that? By my statement, I meant to get across the warning that I was not prepared to pay for things beyond my control, things that prevented me from delivering my promises to the people who had elected me.
STAR: Did your statement cause you internal problems?
George (chuckling)): Oh, no. Not at all.
STAR: How about your line about politics being a way of life?
George: It was a pointed remark, aimed at the shadow education minister.
STAR: But you’d said it before at a rally.
George: It had nothing to do with nepotism. Politics is what it is. I didn’t make it so. It’s an acknowledged reality. A man’s political future depends on how voters perceive him. The reality is I am more likely to break my back for the people of my constituency than I am for the people of Gros Islet, even though I want all of Saint Lucia to prosper.
STAR: How difficult is it to get the government’s message to a people still as illiterate as ours?
George: Illiterate or otherwise, people have expectations, especially where their children are concerned. Our main drawback centers on the unavailability of funds. Practically all the things people want demand money: schools, playing fields, jobs and so on.
STAR: What do you say to people who fail to understand you shouldn’t have more children than you can afford to house, feed, clothe and educate?
George: My views regarding our increasing birthrate are well known. The illiteracy situation doesn’t help. But we also have to deal with superstition and religious beliefs. I talked with someone in my constituency about the number of children
she was producing. She said: “You see me, when God wants me to stop having children, he will!”
STAR: At what point does the government say to the church: Hey, preach your stuff preacher man but we are going to run the country as reality dictates? Most people are not into this business of silently enduring horrors in hopes of reaping their reward in some afterlife. It’s a fantasy that has meaning only on Sundays!
George: Here’s another reality: a politician’s future depends on how his constituents perceive him. This country is largely Roman Catholic. Politicians who ignore that fact do so to their detriment. You introduce measures you believe are for the benefit of all the people. But then the church disagrees. What do you do? Politicians really find themselves between the devil and oblivion.
STAR: The birthrate isn’t the only fly in the ointment. There is also our country’s appetite for alcohol.
George: I’m very concerned. I share the health minister’s [Romanus Lansiquot] views regarding local alcohol consumption. Some situations were allowed to reach the point of no return. Now, there is need for drastic remedial action, regardless of how unpopular. Alcohol has found its way even into the school system. We’ve taken some decisions: schools are not permitted to hold functions where alcoholic beverages are served. But there’s the problem of young people consuming alcohol off the school premises. We are counting on parents to play their part, as well as vendors and the police.
STAR: It doesn’t help that the legal drinking age is 16. In the States it’s 21—even though you are allowed to drive at 17.
George: Is that so? That certainly is worth bearing in mind. It doesn’t help that Radio Saint Lucia daily bombards the population with encouragement to consume more alcohol. Some of those ads are aimed directly at our most illiterate.
STAR: Then again the government benefits from the sale of alcohol. Without support money from the alcohol producers there’d be no local sports activities.
George: Recently we had a mock parliamentary session during which the problem of teenage pregnancy was debated. We need to step up our activities. We need to shock the public into a new awareness of our problems, including drug abuse and alcoholism, which affect the whole country. We will have to decide whether the revenue gained from selling alcohol is more important than the nation’s health!
We at the STAR take this opportunity to express our condolences to Mr. George’s wife and other relatives. A more in-depth account of the political life of Louis George will appear in a future issue of this newspaper.