Rosie Douglas’ premature demise after only eight months in office has sparked a flood of soul searching unprecedented in the history of Caribbean politics. Amidst the groundswell of mourning and eulogies, epigraphs and commentaries, one theme seems to reverberate in the analysis about the late Prime Minister’s life. As echoed by correspondent Charles Harding, in an article printed in the Tropical Star on October 4, 2000, Rosie Douglas has left without stamping his mark on Caribbean politics and with little to show in his own country. Warming to his theme, Harding proceeds to compare the achievements of other Prime Ministers, most notably Robert Bradshaw of St. Kitts, Dr. Eric Williams of Trinidad and Tobago, Grantley Adams of Barbados and Forbes Burnham of Guyana, all of whom had similarly become deceased while in office with Douglas’s seeming lack of accomplishments. Douglas comes up short even with a comparison with Dame Eugenia Charles who Harding credits for inspiring the US intervention, which restored political order and democratic rule in Grenada in 1983.
Harding’s assessment of the legacy of Rosie Douglas is unfair on a number of counts. Bradshaw, Williams and indeed Burnham enjoyed such longevity in their respective domains as to establish an autocratic rule within the democratic traditions they purported to espouse. Grantley Adams’ tenure as Barbados Prime Minister was relatively short, but he became deceased in the second five-year term in office. Furthermore, many of these leaders enjoyed political power during a period of great political change in the region, most notably, the formation of a West-Indies Federation in the 1950s or the attainment of political independence in the 1960s and 1970s.
Furthermore, the legacy of Prime Minister Douglas must be measured not by comparing his goals while in office with the accomplishments of other Caribbean leaders but by his initiatives within his brief tenure in political office. The vision adumbrated within this short period; that of a closer association with Europe, the enfranchisement of expatriate Dominicans in the Diaspora, the propagation of the island as a tourist destination for African Americans, open relations with Cuba, the solicitation of funds from non-traditional sources of aid such as Libya, represents an unprecedented desire to move the island forward. The recognition that the miniscule island states do not and cannot enjoy a modicum of comfort without some accommodation with the International community. If Rosie Douglas did not live long enough to reap the harvest of these initiatives, he similarly did not possess the unmitigated desire to remain in office at any cost, which accounts for the longevity of many Caribbean leaders.
The legacy of Douglas cannot therefore, be measured by the two hundred and forty days he spent in office. To do so would be to ignore the twenty four years he endured, from 1976 to 2000, in which he was inextricably intertwined with the political developments of the island. Douglas left an indelible mark on the island’s landscape, from the attainment of independence in the 1970s, the cultural renaissance in the wake of political independence, the realignment of political forces in the 1980s and 1990s to the ascendancy of the Dominica Labour Party in the year 2000.
Douglas returned to the island in 1976 at a propitious time in the island’s history. The Black Power Movement in the early 1970s had led to a serious questioning of the island’s hierarchical social order, trade union activism had almost ground the island’s economy to a halt and the Dread crisis posed, in the eyes of the political establishment, a serious threat to the social order. In 1974, the Eugenia Charles led opposition, teamed up with Premier Roland Patrick John to give the notorious Prohibited and Unlawful societies Association Act (The Dread Act) and the Pradial Larceny Act unanimous passage in the island’s legislature. To adequately protect private property interests against the perceived insurgency from the left, the island’s securities forces were beefed up with new personnel and equipment.
Gratuitous violence against adherents of the Black Power Movement and state sponsored killings of members of so-called unlawful societies paved the way for Patrick John’s electoral victory in 1975. The Dominica Labour Party captured 16 of 21 seats in the island’s House of Assembly, and under the guise of socialism, the John regime set upon the task of first consolidating and then perpetuating itself in power. In April 1975, it proposed a number of policies ostensibly designed to lay the groundwork for a more equitable society. These included:
An effective system of price and supply control
A system of import substitution
The establishment of a Comprehensive Social Security scheme
The development of a 200 low-income housing scheme in the Bath Estate area.
These initiatives continued in 1976, the year of Douglas’s return to Dominica. Increased taxes on the wealthy, import substitution, the establishment of a national service along the lines of that in Guyana were all, in the words of Finance Minister Vic Riviere, necessary and urgent in order that the worker, the little man, may be able to gain substantial control of the economic structure, concomitant with his political influence and participation. John formally declared his government to policy embraces the philosophy of socialism not of communism; nor of confiscation of property or land. This was followed by the DLP’s famous Salisbury Declaration in 1976 to keep the ball of independence rolling into the appointed day of self determination in 1977.
THE ADVENT OF ROSIE DOUGLAS
Into this ideological and political fray, Douglas descended in 1976. The left was reeling from the cumulative attacks from the Patrick John government and from the right. They were left splintered and uncertain about the appropriate response to the labour government. Many were supportive of the rights to self-determination of all colonial peoples but others had serious and justifiable concerns about the John government. Political Independence with John at the helm seemed unpalatable even to the most hardened radical while to others, it was an objective to be pursued regardless of who held the reigns of power.
Douglas’s arrival on the island led to the ascendancy of the latter view among the island’s radical intelligentsia. His views on the John question were simple. John was at best an irritant; someone whose significance paled in comparison with the inevitability of political independence. Ideologically, Rosie, in his book Chains or Change, had lamented how the majority of the island’s arable land was in the hands of a few big landowners including his father. That John specifically rejected any systematic land distribution schemes did not really matter. To Douglas, political independence was a historical necessity, which transcended any other consideration.
To many, Rosie Douglas’s focus on this question was the result, ideologically speaking, of an infantile disorder. A good socialist focuses on the class struggle and fought for the day when the proletariat would supersede the ruling class on the island. Without resolving the class question, political independence would do nothing to ameliorate the working class from the thraldom of the island’s bourgeoisie. Seeking independence before addressing the class question was an act of ideological heresy, according to some of Douglas’s critics.
The ideological justification for Douglas’s support of political independence as soon as possible can perhaps be found in C.L.R. James’ brilliant 1948 essay, The Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Problem in the USA. In that essay, James took issue with the orthodox view among the radical intelligentsia in the U.S. that the independent struggles of Negro people had only an episodic value, which had to be subordinated to the struggles of the labour movement. Rather, he relied on Lenin to advance the view that the dialectic of history is such that small independent nations which are powerless in the struggle against imperialism, nevertheless can act as one of the ferments, one of the bacilli which will bring on to the scene the real fundamental force against capitalism – the socialist proletariat. Political independence for former colonized peoples was therefore the precedent to unleashing the socialist revolution on the Dominican society.
THE DRIVE TOWARDS POLITICAL INDEPENDENCE
Douglas was the prime architect in mobilizing island wide support for political independence for Dominica between 1976 and 1978. Along with Bernard Wiltshire, Pierre Charles and other political adherents, he established a series of Peoples Independence Committees around the island with the main bastions of support for independence being Portsmouth and Grandbay.
These committees were successful in politicising youth on the island, to a degree unprecedented in the island’s history. Issues of the Granma became common reading fare among the disenfranchised segment of the island’s population while lectures, meetings and discussions about the anti-colonial struggle in Africa garnered support for independence to a degree previously held to be unimaginable.
In Roseau, a study group, Cadre #1, based at the home of Hilarian DeJean, established a political beachhead in the island’s capital and with its own newsletter, engaged in ideological warfare with its nemesis, the Young Freedom Movement. At the Sixth Form College, where Bernard Wiltshire served as resident tutor at the UWI Extra Mural Department, proselyzing of students was conducted in student meetings, the school’s news magazine and lectures by the charismatic Wiltshire.
The groundswell of support for political independence engendered by these efforts ultimately paved the way for the granting of political independence in 1978. Even the conservative New Chronicle, grudgingly conceded in 1978 that the activities of Douglas made independence a little more palatable to many Dominicans. Indeed in July 1978, an advisor to the British government visited the island to assess public opinion and concluded that he met no more than one or two people who were opposed to independence.
The enormity of this political achievement cannot be overestimated. Between 1976 and 1978, Roseau remained the cradle of conservatism on the island. The New Chronicle adhered to a consistently anti-independence stance while the Roman Catholic Church’s leadership, in an unholy alliance with then Governor Sir Cools Lartigue and government minister Henckell Christian, sounded dire warnings about the encroachment of communism on the island. The Dominica Freedom Party published a 1977 booklet Think It Over, in which it cautioned that the island would remain stagnant if independence is attained under the Labour Party Leadership.
The Left, and more specifically the leadership of Rosie Douglas, was able to deliver the one condition precedent to Britian’s acquiescence to granting independence to Dominica – widespread public support. Despite holding the majority of seats in the island’s legislature, the DLP had only garnered 49.32% of the total votes cast in the 1975 general elections. In October 1977 and again in April 1978, the House of Assembly voted in favour of independence with a margin of 16 to 5 but those results did not reflect any popular support for independence. In May 1977, the British government ruled out the holding of a referendum to gauge public support for independence. The groundswell of public support generated by Rosie Douglas broke the back of the anti independent forces in Dominica and persuaded the British government to accede to the demands for political independence in 1978.
The British government did not need much persuasion. Colonialism in the 1970s was an anachronism. Dominica had little economic value to the metropole and instead engendered an insatiable need for colonial assistance. The island had little or no strategic value and was at best a vestigial part of a bygone age. Independence would stanch the flow of horrid colonials to the mother country from one other Caribbean country. Public demand for independence paved the way for Britain’s assent to the prospect of independence in Dominica on November 3, 1978.
Even before that milestone however, the John government showed how little it was committed to the formation of a new society along equitable lines, following political independence. In early 1978, it dismissed Ferdinand Parillon and Mike Douglas, two of the most progressive members of its government. It placed members of the left under police surveillance and adopted a distinctive pro investment stance. By 1979 this would culminate in the sale of 45 square miles of land in the Portsmouth area to a Texan, Don Pierson, and it was only through the mass protest and rebellion engendered by Rosie Douglas and his brother Michael, that this unconscionable contract was rescinded.
It is clear therefore, that Rosie’s legacy should not be assessed by his brief tenure in office but by his impact on the political and social landscape of the island. In the 1970s, he had a significant impact on the independence movement. In the 1980s, he would focus, through his linkages with the Castro government, on educational opportunities for a significant number of Dominican students.
Editor’s note: This article was first published by the Dominica Academy of Arts and Sciences. It is republished here with permission on the occasion of the 12th anniversary of his death.
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