The Long, Tortured History of Absentee Parliamentarians One hundred and ninety-five years ago, in the venerable House of Lords, the Earl of Shaftesbury “laid on the table the report of the committee appointed to inquire into the precedents relative to … Continue reading
America’s Grand Hustle
Picture, if you will, a crop – let’s say tomatoes – being grown on farms and sold to consumers worldwide. Now imagine if one country – let’s say the United States – declared that (1) the importation of tomatoes into the USA was illegal; (2) it would take political and economic measures against any country that grew tomatoes; (3) it would fund the eradication of tomatoes in other countries, and use military hardware to destroy tomatoes or interdict tomato shippers; and (4) any foreigner convicted of growing, selling, eating or otherwise possessing tomatoes would be forever denied entry into the USA.
Imagine also, that while the USA erected this impenetrable wall to foreign tomato imports, the growth and consumption of American-grown tomatoes was actually legal within American borders, and that individual US states were making millions of dollars from the sale of American tomatoes. Picture successive American presidents admitting to eating tomatoes, and talented American scientists working assiduously to improve tomato yield and sweetness, even while American helicopters were spraying and destroying tomato crops in competing markets.
Well, in this hypothetical world of legal and military barriers to the international trade in tomatoes, the World Trade Organisation would be up in arms. It would be a violation of every principle of free trade, and a particularly egregious violation, at that. To actually ban goods as illegal outside of your borders, but make those same goods legal and tradeable within, would be the most nakedly aggressive form of protectionism ever conceived in the history of global trade.
But if you simply change the name of our imaginary crop from tomatoes to marijuana, what emerges are the contours of America’s Grand Ganja Hustle – one which will position the USA as the leading and dominant producer of marijuana for years to come.
How big is marijuana in the United States today? The answer to that question is mind-boggling.
An estimated 102 million Americans – one third of the population – have smoked marijuana at least once in their life. In 2012, California was estimated to have 70,000 – 75,000 acres of marijuana under legal and illicit cultivation. California was also estimated to be home to 75% of America’s domestic ganja cultivation, at the time. That means that in 2012, the USA had roughly 100,000 acres of Ganja being farmed outdoors, to say nothing of the massive indoor marijuana cultivators that produce special blends and carefully controlled ganja strains.
To put that 100,000 acres of American weed in perspective, bear in mind that the entire acreage of Saint Vincent AND all of the Grenadines is roughly 96,000. In other words, if every square inch of SVG was one big marijuana farm, it still wouldn’t match the amount of weed grown in the USA today. Interestingly, of the three “drug crops” – marijuana, opium and coca – marijuana is the only one grown within the USA. That makes it a little more difficult to blame Colombians and Afghans for your drug problem. It also makes legalization of Ganja a little easier and more profitable to American politicians.
In fact, despite the hypocritical hand-wringing about Vincentian marijuana production, the United States is currently growing roughly 250 times more weed on outdoor farms than we are here in SVG. With the rapid expansion of access to legal Ganja in the USA, that disparity is likely to increase dramatically.
Let us also examine the quality of the American product. The chemical in marijuana that makes you high is called THC (short for Tetrahydrocannabinol). In the trippy, hippy days of the 1960s, when America enjoyed its first national flirtation with marijuana, the average THC content of Yankee weed was less than 1%. By the 1990s, American weed had THC of under 5%, making it far inferior to Caribbean offerings. Today, the average THC of American marijuana exceeds 10%, and many specialty strains can reach 25 – 40% THC, inducing highs typically achieved with “hard” drugs like cocaine and heroin. The THC content in Caribbean and South American Ganja – while increasing – is not growing at nearly the same rate as Yankee weed, where chemists, botanists and tinkerers are contributing to a vibrant and uninhibited research community. While Jamaica has done a fair amount of pioneering and important research on the medicinal properties of marijuana, the United States has cornered the scientific market on improving the yield, variety and potency of Ganja through innovative farming and production techniques.
[Medicinal Ganja alert: THC is proven to increase appetite, decrease nausea, decrease pain perception, and decrease pressure inside the eye (useful in glaucoma treatment). Another, less-hyped compound in Ganja is called cannabidiol, or CBD. CBD doesn’t make you high, so it is less sexy to Ganja marketers. However, CBD is purported to contain antimicrobial, antioxidant, neuroprotective and anti-epileptic properties, as well as the ability to slow the metastasizing of certain types of cancers].
In true capitalist fashion, the amount of weed grown in the USA – and its potency – has rapidly increased in response to the overwhelming local demand for the product. Today, American law is catching up with the economics of supply and demand. Twenty of the USA’s 50 states (plus Washington, DC) have now relaxed regulations on marijuana, allowing for either medicinal or recreational use. While the American federal government protects their closed national market by declaring marijuana to be a restricted Schedule I substance, and thus illegal to grow or possess, Americans are walking into legal marijuana dispensaries in 20 states and walking out bags full of high grade Ganja.
In short, America has seen the future, and the future is weed. Everyone else (with the notable exception of Uruguay) is living in the past. Every year that other countries delay in matching the USA’s stance, they will lose competitive ground to American herb, and cede market dominance and millions of dollars to the USA’s weed trade. The 20th Century was the era of “Big Tobacco” as a powerful and profitable industry, with US$500 billion in global annual sales and $35 billion in profit. The United States now is betting that the remainder of the 21st Century will be the era of “Big Spliff.” No other country is as advanced in the mass production, dispensation and branding of marijuana as the United States. Their scientific research on potency, growing techniques, strains and seeds is also leaps and bounds beyond anything that is being conducted anywhere else in the world. By the time the rest of the world gets around to legalizing Ganja, the United States will not be importing weed, but exporting all sorts of exotic and high-potency strains to all corners of the globe. No other country will be able to compete.
A 21st Century Banana?
Any conversation about the legalization/decriminalization/medicinal use of marijuana eventually gets around to speculation about how much money could be made if the laws were relaxed. In the United States, some economists predict that a nationwide legal marijuana trade would immediately produce a US$40 billion market, while generating an additional $15 – $20 billion in taxes (assuming you’d tax Ganja the same way you tax cigarettes). The American state of Colorado is expected to earn a solid US$98 million this year in taxes on their recreational marijuana sales.
In 2012, authorities in the Eastern Caribbean seized 19.19 metric tons of marijuana, 1,526 spliffs, 3,526,305 Ganja plants, and 25,264 cannabis seedlings. By all accounts, the majority of that Eastern Caribbean weed originated in SVG. If you apply the rough rule of thumb that authorities only seize 10-20% of the Ganja grown, you’re talking about 100 – 200 tons of Eastern Caribbean marijuana. If you accept that number, it becomes clear that SVG is exporting almost as many tons of marijuana as bananas. (We exported 180 tons of bananas in 2012).
Needless to say, a ton of weed fetches a bit more than a ton of bananas.
Reported US street prices for Marijuana vary widely and wildly, ranging from $350 – $9,000 per pound. On the other hand, a ton of bananas is currently trading at US$925. This means that a mere three pounds of low-quality weed fetches more money than 2,200lbs of high-quality bananas in the USA. Yes, gentle readers: in the USA, at today’s prices, cheap Ganja is over 800 times more valuable than good bananas.
Those per-pound prices translate to rough street value of US$770,000 of per ton for the lower-quality strains of marijuana. At that lowest (bush weed) value, the Eastern Caribbean’s Ganja exports could have an American street value of US$75–$150 million. Depending on the potency, quality and marketing cachet of VincyGreen, that street value could be exponentially higher. Of course, VincyGreen is not exported to the USA, but rather to CARICOM and the European Union (Martinique and Guadeloupe). But the numbers are instructive, nonetheless.
These figures make even the most moralistic law-maker salivate. At a time when Caribbean prime ministers and American mayors are barely paying their bills, the idea of multimillion dollar economic injections are undeniably tempting. If we accept the assertion of the US State Department that the overwhelming majority of Eastern Caribbean Ganja is Vincy-grown, then total sales of marijuana could’ve financed the construction of the Argyle International Airport – without a single loan, sale of land, or foreign grant – in under three years. Our GDP, currently hovering around EC$2 billion, could suddenly balloon 20% to $2.4 billion – taking our per capita GDP from $19,000 to $24,000, and leapfrogging the average wealth of Dominicans, Grenadians and Saint Lucians.
There’s only one small problem with these gloriously rosy projections about the impact of legalized marijuana on our economy: they’re completely fictitious.
Undoubtedly, the national production, export and taxation of any cash crop will have an economic benefit. But the truth is that we have no mechanism to estimate with any degree of accuracy just how significant that benefit will be. There are very few economic models for transitioning from an illegal crop to a legal crop, and there are a number of fundamental questions that are simply unanswerable at this point in deciding how much money legal marijuana would contribute to SVG’s bottom line.
First, the current high price of marijuana is premised on its illegality, and the risks inherent in brining it from the farm to your eager lips. Were Ganja to become globally – or even regionally – legalized, it’s safe to say that the price would fall precipitously. Let us look, for example, at a snapshot at the average or approximate prices of a few cash crops, in US dollars per metric ton:
As you can see, one of those prices is not like the others. Marijuana is 230 times more expensive than tobacco, the other “smoked leaf” on the list. That is not a sustainable price disparity, and clearly a product of the challenges involved in growing and distributing an illegal product. (To buttress this point, the price per ton of Cocaine is at least US$7millon per ton. Cocaine, of course is not a cash crop. It’s a processed product).
If the price of legal Ganja falls to tobacco-like levels, then the potential economic benefits fall dramatically. At US$750,000 per ton, the Eastern Caribbean’s US street value of our 2012 Ganja production was US$150 million. However, at $4,300 per ton, that $150 million plummets to a mere $860,000. If the per-ton price of legal Ganja falls below that of tobacco, then we might as well devote our available cash-crop land to cocoa.
Second, we must recognise that SVG has a comparative advantage in the illegal Ganja trade. Those comparative advantages do not translate to a legal export market. What makes SVG such an attractive and dominant force in illegal Ganja cultivation and trade? Let us count the ways: Mountainous interior; difficult access; far from the road network; small, independently-run and non-mechanized farms; primary export via small pirogues and go-fast boats; unregulated growth and non-existent standards; and the list goes on.
Unfortunately those are the same characteristics that would make SVG unattractive and uncompetitive as a potential market leader in legal Ganja production. They are the same factors that have made our global competitiveness in bananas such a tricky proposition. Once you factor in the American head-start in the race to produce and market lucrative strains of marijuana, the Vincentian comparative advantage all but evaporates. Historically, SVG has, at different times, embraced sugar, coffee, cocoa, cotton, arrowroot and bananas as our primary cash crop. Every time, farmers have had to confront the limitations that made those Vincy-grown products uncompetitive on the regional or global market. Could Ganja be different? How? Why?
Without a clear comparative/competitive advantage, what is the long-term future of legal marijuana in SVG? No one can confidently predict at this point, but there is certainly the very real possibility that Ganja will be SVG’s modern-day banana: extremely profitable initially, before tapering off when global competitiveness increases and preferential access decreases.
For weed to follow the economic trajectory of a profitable and sustainable cash crop, then the next 10 to 15 years would be essential to establishing lucrative legal Ganja exports and market share. Marijuana would still be illegal to produce in many countries, so we wouldn’t be competing widely. We could protect the Caribbean Ganja market from competing exports in the same way that the USA has cleverly protected its local market. And we could creatively market the exotic/forbidden nature of marijuana with various forms of branding and Ganja Tourism. (Tours of local, organic, cooperative Ganja farms? VincyGreen™? VolcanoWeed™? Or maybe “MountainTop Ganja™ – Organically grown in the clouds: We grow it high, to take you higher!”)
If SVG and the wider Caribbean are not among the early adopters of legalized/decriminalized Ganja, we will be left behind in exploiting its economic potential. If we belatedly reform our laws after waiting for the rest of the world to move on this issue, then Ganja will not even be our 21st century banana, but instead our 21st century mango: Something that everyone consumes locally, but is rarely exported, and seldom purchased in retail outlets. No one in SVG is getting wealthy selling mangoes.
Who’d Get Rich?
For all of the hundreds of millions of dollars that have likely been made from Vincentian marijuana, it has not made very many people wealthy. With a few notable exceptions, Vincentian Ganja farmers are still eking out a rather modest living from their illicit exploits. The vast difference between the wholesale price of Vincy weed and its retail price in Martinique, Saint Lucia and Barbados reflects the markup charged by shippers, middlemen and resellers, and often doesn’t translate to the man in the hills. Money is lost to law enforcement interdiction, dishonest middlemen, and foreign “bosses” for whom many farmers toil.
Vincentians are definitely making money from Ganja. Just not as much money as you might expect.
Let’s assume Ganja was 100% legal to grow and sell. Who would profit from that growing and selling? Certainly the Government would make some money on taxes and licenses. Surely a few farmers with large landholdings currently lying fallow or dedicated to less profitable crops would get a few dollars. But what about the existing marijuana farmers in the hills? Could they compete with legitimate cultivators? Do they own land that they could farm once they were evicted from the hillside Crown Lands that they illegally occupy? Would large foreign conglomerates enter the Vincentian market to manage the growth, export and profit of weed, as Amajaro has done for cocoa? Once freed of the constraints of illegality, would the regional competition grow and stifle our local Ganja market? After all, we grow less cocoa than Grenada and export fewer bananas than Saint Lucia. Who’s to say we’d retain our market leadership in marijuana?
In addition to taxing and regulating Ganja, the Government would obviously save money on police interdictions, court actions, hospital visits and surveillance costs associated with law enforcement. The State would probably see an increase in Ganja tourists in the same way that the Netherlands does. Maybe our pejorative label as the weed capital of the Eastern Caribbean would be lifted, which, in and of itself, would have value.
But if the primary economic value of legal Ganja would be simply to shift the majority of its earnings from local, rural farmers with limited options to the coffers of the State and already-established farmers, is it worth it? You could argue that, once legal, marijuana would be cultivated more widely, leading to a much larger pie to be divided among more people. But is that true? We have 300 – 400 acres of marijuana under illegal cultivation. We have about the same amount of land currently legally cultivated with bananas, and less than that for arrowroot and other root crops. Who’s to say that Ganja will get any bigger than it already is?
I don’t have the answers to these questions. Hopefully CARICOM will help. The recently-concluded CARICOM meeting in SVG decided to establish a Regional Commission “to address issues identified in relation to marijuana use.” Hopefully those “issues” extend beyond medical, legal and social impact studies; and also make a clear-eyed assessment of the expected economic impact of marijuana at various stages of deregulation. The Regional Commission is expected to report its findings to the CARICOM Heads of State and Government in less than four months. Maybe by then we’ll know whether marijuana is an economic panacea or a pipe (chalice?) dream.
(See Part 1: The Environmental Apocalypse)
(Third and final part coming next week)
Two days after SVG experienced its worst flooding in a century, I travelled up the leeward coast of Saint Vincent to survey the damage. The trip, for me, was more than an exercise in disaster tourism. It was an opportunity to educate myself on the scale and scope of the damage, so that I could accurately convey to bilateral and multilateral partners the nature and urgency of the assistance we needed. Also, I wanted to be able to answer a question that was gnawing at the edges of my consciousness, and one that would surely occupy the minds of those we asked to support us:
How could a mere three hours of rainfall cause so much death and destruction?
The complex answer to that question lay at the crowded intersection of meteorology, geography, topography, poverty, history, poor planning and plain bad luck. The World Bank tells us that SVG hasn’t experienced that much rain in that short a period at any point in its recorded history. The rain fell most intensely in rural communities, where historical underdevelopment and an inhospitable terrain forced people to perch houses precariously on mountainsides and in riverbeds. Our 28 damaged or destroyed bridges, and our road network, simply were not designed or engineered to accommodate the historic deluge that we experienced. Some of the deceased – like those in the tragically affected Nanton family and my own family member Raymond Gonsalves – might have survived if their homes were simply built ten or so feet to the left or right, as landslides did not devastate entire villages, so much as they seemed to target individual households within a village.
But there was another element to the damage that played a lesser, though still significant role in the tragedy. A common sight amid the twisted metal and crushed concrete of ruined infrastructure was another, more curious, presence:
Not trees – uprooted, with twisted trunks and broken branches (though there were plenty of those too). But logs. Standard lengths, stripped of branches, and neatly cut by cutlass or chainsaw. These logs clogged swelling rivers, and acted like high-velocity battering rams as they hurtled downstream and downhill into bridges, pipelines and homes.
Where did these logs come from? Some were the product of illegal logging, where people venture into the hills to cut trees for resale to furniture builders, and their own construction needs. But far more, according to the area’s residents, came from the farmers “in the hills.”
The Ganja farmers.
Marijuana, illegal throughout the Caribbean, isn’t grown on easily accessible farmlands, for obvious reasons. SVG – which boasts a mountainous, remote, yet fertile interior – has always been an idea locale for enterprising Marijuana cultivators. As Marijuana has become a big regional business, fuelled by growing demand in nearby, more affluent islands, Ganja-growing conglomerates have been putting more and more Vincy acreage under cultivation. A few years ago, the (conservative) estimate was that over 300 of St. Vincent’s 30,000 acres of forest was being used to grow Ganja. It is undoubtedly much more than that today. This means more clearing of high-altitude farmland, more logging, and less protection for our steep slopes and downhill villages.
Add once-in-a-century rainfall to increasingly unprotected mountainsides; and the landslides aren’t hard to predict. Combine that with hundreds – if not thousands – of cut logs lying loosely on those same unprotected hillsides, and you have a recipe for disaster.
We have this image of the noble Ganja farmer in our collective consciousness, which – although it has some elements of truth – is increasingly at odds with the emerging modern reality. He is not the subsistence farmer he once was – he is growing for export. He may not be the solitary, independent, free spirit he once was – now he has employers, workers, suppliers, shippers and markets to satisfy. He is probably not the humble pacifist he once was – now he can also be a hyper-competitive, gun toting, booby-trap setting, eye-for-an-eye warrior. He is less often the devout Rastafarian he once was – he now is the producer of a cash crop, and his end user is more likely some drunken partygoer in Martinique, Barbados or Trinidad than it is a righteous consumer of a holy sacrament. Let’s face it: SVG’s Rasta community does not need 300 acres of weed to meet their local religious and medicinal purposes.
More than any of this, today’s Ganja farmer is not necessarily a caring steward of our precious natural environment. He is just as likely to be a slashing, burning, logging destroyer of centuries-old indigenous forests and other flora and fauna. An eradicator of habitat and nesting areas for our unique and endangered Saint Vincent Parrot. Not to mention being a mortal threat to the lives, livelihoods and infrastructures of his friends and family members who live in the communities beneath his wonton environmental destruction.
In the month before the floods, I raised these environmental concerns on two separate occasions with some of the members of the “informal farming sector,” and with some of their primary advocates and defenders. The response I received was a predictable refusal to squarely acknowledge the environmental impacts of their actions, and a desire to turn the conversation towards the legalization of Marijuana. If Ganja were legal, the argument goes, these farmers would come down from the hills, put away their chainsaws, and plant on the flat and fallow farmlands that were once home to our booming banana business. The forests would return, the parrots would nest, and the illegal logging would be reduced to a trickle. They told me that nobody wants to be in the mountains for months, away from family, removed from modern amenities, fighting with rival planters, and afraid of the next “Vincy-Pac”-style law enforcement action. It is the system that has driven them into the hills – a system of laws, underdevelopment, the legacy of the WTO’s antipathy to Caribbean bananas, and limited options for personal growth and development. Change the system, by legalizing Marijuana, and voila! the problems I complain about will disappear.
They may have a point. They do have a point. But it is a point that is equal parts reality and hopeful utopian conjecture. How close are we – realistically – to the full legalization of Ganja? Will decriminalization of small amounts for medicinal/home use allow for mass cultivation of Ganja in open farms below the 1,000 foot contour? Do the men in the hills actually own or have access to any of these low-lying farms? In an environment where Ganja cultivation and export is legal, what would be SVG’s competitive advantage, and what is to stop Ganja going the way of bananas as a once-lucrative cash crop that is produced more cheaply elsewhere? Who’s to say that the illegal export model will translate smoothly to the regulations, pressures and expectations of a legitimate production regime?
Also, fundamentally, we cannot ignore the fact that farmers have “squatted” on 300+ acres of forested Crown Land and converted it, with their own sweat equity, into fertile farmland. The price of that land – $0.00 per square foot – is hard to beat down on the flats. Who’s to say that anyone will simply abandon the land and cede their farms to the encroaching forest once Ganja is legal? Wouldn’t they continue to work those lands, with legal or other illegal crops, in the way in which they have become accustomed?
Many of these questions I’ll explore in more depth in parts 2 and 3 of this posting. But neither those questions, nor the overarching issue of legalization/decriminalization, get us any closer to solving our pressing environmental problems in the short term.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation has told us that the Christmas floods have denuded over 10% of our indigenous forest cover. A lot of that deforestation was exacerbated by, or directly related to, the behavior of the Ganja farmers. And a lot of those trees – whether cut or uprooted – remain on the mountainsides, waiting for the next bit of bad weather to come careening downhill towards vulnerable towns and villages. Without mentioning Ganja specifically, Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves calls this deforestation problem a “ticking bomb” in Saint Vincent’s interior. This ticking is only going to get louder, and the bomb bigger, without action from all sectors of society – including the farmers themselves.
The environmental cost of continued logging and poor forest management by Ganja farmers cannot be ignored. If the farmers themselves do not play a role in mitigating the potential effect of their deforestation and farming methods, then the Government will have no choice but to act even more aggressively in controlling the illegal activities in the hills. The argument that the Ganja farmers “aren’t hurting anyone” rings hollow when a government is faced with a double-digit death toll and a reconstruction bill that is almost 20% of GDP. Was this death and devastation all the fault of Ganja farmers? Of course not. Not even close. But the contributory role played by the deforestation and logging must not be swept under the carpet, either.
What can be done today, in a sociopolitical environment where the State has obvious difficulties in formally engaging with a sector of society that is openly flouting the law? Quite a bit, actually.
First, farmers must agree to a moratorium on clearing additional forest cover for Ganja cultivation. There must be a total freeze in further deforestation. The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has a pretty solid aerial view of how much forest has been cleared to date. Farmers need to be made aware that the next acre of forest removed will have severe, interdiction-style consequences. Some existing farms, based on their location, may simply have to be surrendered.
Second, forestry officials and farmers must cooperate in the identification and disposal of logs and fallen trees. We’re talking about close to 4,000 acres of inhospitable mountainside that is either denuded after the flood or under Ganja cultivation. The simple fact is that the Government does not have the human or financial resources to deal with a problem of that magnitude on its own. Cooperation – unofficial though it may be – is vital.
Third, the Government must attempt to actively court funding from environmental agencies and NGOs that have an interest in combatting deforestation. We must try to persuade the FAO, UNEP, UNDP, the UN-REDD programme, the Nature Conservancy, etc., to overcome their squeamishness in dealing with “the Marijuana issue” so that we can get real money and expertise on the ground to help manage this problem. These agencies and organisations cannot only help us financially, but their personnel can be effective interlocutors in dialogue with the farmers. Politicians and Government personnel may have the stench of Babylon’s System or be accused of spying for future raids and eradication campaigns; but an FAO official could more credibly talk about terraced farming, managing water runoff, and soil conservation.
Fourth, the Government must continue to beef up its forestry and environmental divisions, with funding, human resources, and stronger legislation. A lot has been done to date in all three areas, but the increase of logging and climate change volatility is outpacing our ability to keep up. Roughly one third of mainland Saint Vincent is forested. That forest is under threat. We must increase our commitment to this aspect of environmental stewardship.
Fifth, the nascent conversation that is just underway about the legal framework surrounding Marijuana in the Caribbean must also focus on how we will deal with the existing growers and exporters. Everyone is talking about whether the innocent teenager with a spliff should be prosecuted. But no one is talking about the supply chain that begins with a large-scale Ganja cultivator in the mountains of SVG. Ganja isn’t grown by the stalk in backyard gardens anymore. It’s grown on mini-plantations. Any emerging regulatory framework must encompass both the consumer and the producer of the product.
Sixth, as implied in every other point here, we need to talk. Not to apologise or antagonize or defend or deny, but to deal with the very real fact that an informal activity in SVG has grown to the point that it is affecting the environmental health and disaster preparedness of our country – at a time of increasingly volatile and dangerous climate change. These conversations have to begin in earnest. They can be informal, backdoor, clandestine, or whatever. If the USA can have peace talks with the Taliban, if the Syrian Government and Islamist rebels can negotiate in the midst of a war, then certainly all of us Vincentians can sit down and have a sober collective discussion about how to resolve this gathering environmental threat.
I called this posting “This is NOT a Marijuana Blog.” And it’s not. The mountainside farmers could’ve been growing tomatoes, for all I care. It’s an environmental posting. And its message is simple:
Leave the trees. Move the logs.
(Part 2 next week)
Civil political discourse is dying a messy public death in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. In an increasingly partisan climate, political chatter is at its peak, but civility at its lowest ebb. People with opposing political viewpoints don’t even engage each other in conversation, much less debate. We talk past each other, we shout at each other, but rarely, if ever, talk to each other. And when we do, the conversation – if it can be called that – is polluted with personal attacks, baseless accusations, and relentlessly vicious negativism.
There is nothing new in that paragraph. Nothing unique to SVG either. This is the condition of the modern world, of the perpetual campaign, of talk radio and Internet bloggers; of spin-doctors and campaign advisors; of scarce benefits and spoils. It is the logical byproduct of competitive western electoral democracy, freedom of speech, and a sensationalist sound bite culture. Almost every country in the modern western world is afflicted with this condition. We all struggle with the side effects of increasing politicization of thought, coupled with democratization of media.
Yet, in SVG, the death of political civility seems somehow messier, its murder more vicious. Part of that reason is size: Our population is so small, our islands and villages so tiny, and our families so interconnected, that the venom engendered by political tribalism is much more personal and in-your-face.
In SVG, in the past, such proximity would mean that neighbours would only disagree once every five years over the month-long “silly season” of a General Election campaign. However, in an environment where electoral campaigns never truly end, and where each camp is constantly fanning the flames of partisan discord, this proximity, and familiarity, breeds a simmering contempt that permeates the social fabric.
Mind you, my lamentations on the disintegration of civility have nothing to do with a desire for us all to get along, or to agree with each other. Far from it. Disagreement is not only healthy, but necessary. Debate is to be desired, contrarians celebrated, viewpoints valued. But it is the tone and tenor of the discourse that is so deeply distasteful. Today, our discourse is so toxic that no two people with differing political opinions can stomach listening to each other. In an environment where a disagreement or a differing philosophy is cast as a life-or-death struggle against tyranny or backwardness, each side retreats to the comfort of its respective echo chamber. There is no exchange or cross-pollination of ideas, and we are, collectively, the poorer for it. [For a contrary view, see this opinion].
I could go on. But describing our current malaise isn’t the point of this post, nor is it particularly interesting. We all feel the deteriorating climate of civility in SVG. Let’s not belabor the point.
The aftermath of the Christmas Floods has crystalised the terms of an apparent suicide pact that exists among our political mass parties, civil society and the press. Each party to this suicide pact has committed itself to various courses of action and inaction, which, whatever their narrow individual benefits, combine to create massive impediments to a political discussion free of nastiness, name-calling and negativism. Of all the cross-cutting and overlapping narratives that define any group’s purpose and personality, let me highlight three that help to bring this point into sharper relief:
NARRATIVE #1 – The NDP’s “Bribery” Narrative
The NDP has lost the popular vote in four consecutive General Elections, but has never conceded graciously. A standard trope of NDP mythology is that the ULP is corrupt and dishonest, and that it clings to the reins of power through an unholy trinity of intimidation, victimization and bribery. (This, despite the fact that the ULP’s first two popular-vote victories were achieved while in the opposition: a position wholly unsuited to intimidation, victimization or bribery).
The results of the 2010 elections, which the NDP fully expected to win, have been particularly difficult to swallow for the party. After an initial declaration that the results were invalid and illegal, the NDP settled on a narrative that has come to define its post-2010 existence: “We had that election in the bag until Hurricane Thomas came along, then the ULP stole it from us with blatant bribery and purchasing of votes using hurricane relief supplies.”
Settling upon the “Bribery” narrative was very comforting to the leadership and core supporters of the NDP. Primarily, it allowed them to sidestep the internal soul-searching and reform that would normally accompany any major political party coming off its fourth consecutive popular defeat. If the ULP victory was due solely to the happenstance of a storm and a surge of last-minute relief supplies, it means that the NDP was defeated by bad timing, not bad strategy/leadership/candidates/message/etc. As such, no need to disturb the internal status quo of the party. Between 2005 and 2014, there has been almost no change to the upper echelons of the NDP party structure and leadership. The “Bribery” narrative also placated the party’s dispirited rank-and-file, whose ever-increasing hatred of the ULP and its leadership is impossible to reconcile with Labour’s continuing electoral triumphs.
As such, it has been instructive to witness the NDP’s near hysterical response to the heartbreaking tragedy and destruction of the Christmas Floods. After an initial, statesmanlike response in the hours immediately following the storm, the NDP is increasingly descending into a state of tone-deaf political warmongering that is out of place and ill-timed. It is, however, understandable: having conjured up and convinced itself that the bogeyman of “storm relief bribery” is real, it must be politically terrifying to see another epic disaster befall the electoral swing states one year ahead of the next polls.
However, the impact of this narrative on our civil discourse is devastating. Imagine, for a minute, that the NDP had decided instead that the reason for its multiple defeats was a failure to properly articulate its vision; or a failure to offer a sufficiently compelling alternative to the status-quo. The intervening years would have then been spent refining the articulation of a vision, or trading honestly in the marketplace of ideas. Maybe even listening to the ULP, to understand what themes and visions seem to have resonated with the electorate over the last 15 years.
But having convinced themselves that the election was “bought” with bribes, the NDP has dealt itself and political discourse a double blow. First, if the ULP is merely a crass wholesale buyer of votes, there is nothing to be gained by engaging the party in a reasoned debate. Instead, above anything else, it is imperative that the NDP be vigilant, to avoid future “purchases” of elections. Reasoned engagement, at the party or parliamentary level, becomes superfluous.
Second, if the voters themselves are simply mindless lemmings who are easily swayed by last-minute plywood deliveries, there is no need to structure a policy to engage them intellectually. Since it is difficult for an opposition party to outspend the State in a nationwide bribery campaign, and since the electorate is simply a collection of votes for hire, the logical opposition strategy is to deter the government from distributing assistance, distract from the effectiveness of such distribution, highlight any inefficiencies in the process, and embarrass individuals from accepting any such offerings.
Apart from the obvious, elitist, disrespectful view of the voting public that they aspire to represent, such a narrative and outlook reduce political discussion to a series of baseless accusations and far-fetched conspiracy theories. It ratchets up the levels of inter-party distrust and paranoia to such levels that it fatally poisons the well from which goodwill and civility normally spring.
NARRATIVE #2 – The ULP’s “Counterpunch” Narrative
Despite the ULP’s enviable string of electoral triumphs, its recent history is not without anxieties and missteps. For one, the party’s share of the popular vote, while dominant, has been slipping steadily since 2001. Left unchecked, this trend leads inexorably to a return to the opposition benches. For another, the resounding “No” vote on the constitutional reform referendum was a sobering reminder that the party is not infallible, and that trust in the political leader is far from absolute.
But those anxieties, when coupled with the pugnacious personalities of the party leader and Chairman, have themselves given birth to a civility-affecting narrative: “The ULP only ever loses a fight when it doesn’t fight back.”
Exhibit “A” in this narrative is the stinging loss in referendum campaign. While the “Yes” Vote campaign was not, strictly speaking, a ULP campaign, the major figures on either side of the debate split along party lines (with the notable exception of Parnell Campbell, QC). The inability of the “Yes” vote to cross a 50% threshold, much less the 67% required for its passage, was viewed by many at the time as the death knell of the ULP’s time in government. History proved otherwise, but one of the enduring lessons and narratives emerging from the referendum campaign was that you don’t win a political fight in SVG with one hand tied behind your back. No matter how high-minded your arguments, you can’t talk your way out of a brawl. If a guy punches you in the nose, punch him back. Harder.
During the referendum campaign, ULP leader Ralph Gonsalves forbade wearing party colours and ordered party members to avoid any attempt by the No Vote/NDP to lure them into partisan political mudslinging. Take the high road, was the instruction, and focus your comments and advocacy strictly on the merits of the proposed new constitution. The result was a mountain’s of unanswered NDP political attacks and an island flooded in yellow “no” t-shirts, with nary a red jersey to be found.
The loss cemented the “fightback” narrative, whose seeds were first sown with the creation of the ULP Radio Station, StarFM. Before StarFM, the only overtly politically-controlled radio station was NDP’s Nice Radio. The NDP, given voice by the slanderously gifted EG Lynch, was hammering the ULP with a barrage of below-the-belt potshots and ridicule. Nice Radio, then and now, wasn’t doing much exposition of issues or changing of minds. But it was effective in shoring up a wobbly NDP base, and in drawing increasing listenership from political junkies of all political stripes. Even diehard ULP supporters could ruefully quote Lynch’s most colourful attacks verbatim, because listening to Nice Radio briefly became SVG’s favourite guilty pleasure.
The answer, of course, was to fight fire with fire. StarFM took flight, providing an effective counterpoint to the NDP’s air war. While Star, on the instructions of the legally savvy ULP, took great care not to cross the line of defamation with the frequency and glee of an unconcerned and unconstrained Nice, the tone of the competing stations – from hosts to callers – were often indistinguishable. (My personal opinion is that the Star hosts are of a much higher quality, generally, than Nice – particularly since Lynch’s departure – but I concede that my view may well be a product of political bias and personal friendships).
Political radio stations, unlike nuclear weapons, have no deterrent effect. We lob partisan bombs back and forth at each other from the relative comfort and security of our respective echo chambers. ULP’s access to its own radio station, combined with the pressure to stay interesting on a daily basis, and the “counterpunch” narrative, means that no loose talk or stray comment from the other side is left unanswered. The “counterpunch” narrative compels the elevation of skirmishes to battles and battles to wars, each of which must be individually – and convincingly – won.
The result is a political divide in which one side refuses to listen, and the other side listens only to refute and ridicule. The implications are as obvious as they are unfortunate.
NARRATIVE #3 – Civil Society and the Press’ “No sellout” Narrative
Like most small island states, SVG does not have a particularly strong set of, homegrown, influential, civil society organisations. Beyond churches and labour unions, the pickings are relatively slim. Very often, the memberships of local NGOs are microcosms of Vincentian society: small and politically divided.
In many societies, Civil Society and/or the press can be counted upon to be the adults in a room full of squabbling politicians. An economic think-tank can refute this or that claim from a political party. A reputable human rights body could shine a light on victimsation or discrimination (or he absence thereof). A scientific body could settle a dispute about how a common weather system could metamorphose into a one-in-500-year event. And a courageous, opinionated, but basically impartial press could dig beyond the simple reporting of competing “he said/she said” political statements and keep the parties honest, if nothing else.
But our local NGO community has a narrative too: “in the long run, our group’s credibility is more important than any individual political dispute. So unless you want to be called a sellout, bootlicker or backward lackey, its better to be silent than weigh in on any partisan squabble.”
There are numerous NGOs that are – correctly or not – viewed as politically partisan. Their pronouncements may play well internationally, but are automatically disregarded on the local scene (more on this in another post). They are rubbished as impotent and ineffectual contributors to any civilized discourse.
Those few “non-aligned” NGOs guard perceived independence and impartiality with such jealousy that they are afraid to put it to good use. But in refusing to get their clothes dirty, Civil Society places itself in its own echo chamber: a tiny world of pseudo-intellectuals who quietly bemoan “what politicians do” or “the way people think” without doing a single thing to effect any meaningful change or expand the influence of the non-governmental sector.
In ensconcing themselves in an imaginary ivory tower of impartiality, these Civil Society actors abandon the very role that they are collectively designed to play. In their cowardly retreat from the possibility of criticism, they cede all political debate to political parties. These parties, fighting without a referee, lacking respect for their opponent, and confident in the knowledge that no third party will call them out on their excesses, slide predictably down the rabbit hole of incivility.
No political party will unilaterally disarm in the face of constant enemy fire. Civil society (and the press) must find a way to lead us back to civility. Such leadership will be messy. It does not mean a disdainful aloofness that places self-appointed Civil Society leaders on pedestals above those of popularly-elected politicians. It does not mean heaping scorn on the populism and pugilism that must form part of any competitive Western democracy. Nor does it entail placing genuine disagreement in a stifling straitjacket of civility that elevates style over substantive disagreement. Civil society and the press must encourage debate, while having the courage to name and shame those who depart from the bounds of decency, honesty or integrity.
The first step, therefore, is for the “non-partisan” sectors of society (assuming they exist) to abandon their “no sellout” narrative and insert themselves squarely into the local political discourse. Once engaged, they must demand a level of genuine, reasoned interaction between the political parties, while simultaneously seeking ways to chip away at the narrow narratives that stifle civil debate.
That said, let’s be real: Politicians are trying to score intellectual as well as emotional points; to harness energies and tap wells of joy, fear and discontent. Those with neither the stomach, the work ethic nor the aptitude to engage in political combat must resist the temptation to sit in the idle comfort of their armchairs and arbitrarily judge the actions and motivations of those who offer themselves in the service of their nation.
Competitive politics in a small island democracy cannot and should not be an academic debate or seminar. Nonetheless, our context, our interconnectedness, and our Caribbeanness means that our disagreements must occur against the backdrop of good faith and good-natured exchanges: substantively serious, passionately political, and geared towards producing a clear winner and loser. But, leavened always with humour, common decency, and a recognition that we will be seeing each other later in church, the rum shop, the cricket game, the fete, the beach, or at our next family gathering.
These are not the whiny pontifications of a wimpy, mealy-mouthed liberal who can’t take the heat but won’t leave the kitchen. Far from it. I am unabashedly partisan, firm in my political support and convictions, and personally invigorated by the clanging of ideological sword and shield. But even in real war, there are rules (no nuclear/chemical/biological weapons, treat POWs with respect, don’t torture, wear uniforms, etc). No less should be expected of and demanded by SVG’s political combatants.
We can lift our game. And clean up our act.