Barbados and Venezuela
A curious irony seems to be emerging from some of the more progressive thinkers in Barbadian society that have been prominent in their calls for agitation against this DLP government.
The argument has been made that several of the bases on which this Government has been elected have changed to the extent that it is now justifiable that it be asked to seek a fresh mandate. Among these bases are the suggestions that this Government narrowly won an election which was influenced by an unusually high level of monetary coercion as well as promises which have now been broken.
This article will not attempt to debate the validity of these issues but is instead drawing a comparison between the attitudes toward public protest in Barbados which is being presented as necessary, while as it relates to Venezuela, similar people are arguing that public demonstration should not be seen as a challenge to the legitimacy of the Maduro regime.
Since this issue is fundamentally related to our perspective on the legitimacy of a government, is useful to draw from the peculiar example of the regime of PM Maurice Bishop in Grenada.
The Bishop administration is peculiar in the Caribbean since it was not elected but was widely seen as legitimate if such is measured by Grenada’s participation at the UN and CARICOM. This legitimacy was influenced by the fact that the Gairy administration that preceded Bishop’s was not widely seen as legitimate even though it won an election just prior to Bishop taking office. Certainly much of the concern over Gairy’s lack of legitimacy was related to concerns about his sanity, but it is equally arguable that Grenadians evaluated his mental condition in an election and gave him their approval.
Similarly, the ease with which Bishop was able to gain power in a coup that was virtually bloodless speaks volumes about the extent to which the elected government of his predecessor Gairy was considered illegitimate.
The Grenada scenario is replicated across the world in places like Cuba and Pakistan where revolutions have brought leaders to office who were/are seen as legitimate and in some instances popular.
Then there is the case of China which unlike Grenada has never had a tradition of democracy, but whose governments have always been seen as legitimate, both before and after Tiananmen Square.
These examples illustrate the extent to which “legitimacy” while being influenced by elections, is by no means exclusively derived from an election no matter how free or fair that election is.
In both Barbados and Venezuela, recent elections confirmed the incumbents and in both instances there is a prevailing view that the incumbent used their resources to influence the outcome. In both instances there is, however, a healthy tradition of the incumbent using its advantage to influence the outcome in its favour, which is acceptable within reason. In both cases, however, the actual policies of the incumbents are now being challenged by sections of the community that feel justifiably aggrieved and it is striking that Maduro won his election by 1.5 per cent, while the DLP’s here lead is 1.4 per cent.
Since both governments are seen as legitimate, the issue becomes one of the conditions under which this legitimacy should be challenged by public protest or rather when such protests are to be taken seriously or dismissed as the actions of subversives.
This article cannot definitively answer such questions but would suggest that these matters are relative. This relativity is central to the assessment of the extent to which public protest is as an indication that a government is unpopular and there are several relevant considerations.
Foremost among these is size and it is appropriate to recall President George W. Bush’s comments that anti-war protests were akin to a “focus group” and not reflective of public opinion.
Ironically public opinion polls also suggested that he was unpopular which mirrored the popular support for him in the election that he won. In that instance the size of the protest understated the extent to which the American public was dissatisfied.
In Venezuela, the protests have been continuing for months and have already claimed 34 lives. This agitation is large and reflective of a deeply held passion within the heart of the body politic. Here in Barbados there has been no protest, but this should not be interpreted to mean that people are happy.
Certainly no two populations are the same and while public protest might be fashionable in some societies, others might be inclined towards a different type of agitation; hence the size and intensity of a protest might not always communicate the legitimacy of the cause.
The foregoing has attempted to communicate the complexity of the conditions under which remonstration takes place and the extent to which such actions can be both a reflection or a perversion of the public spirit.
It would therefore be highly inappropriate to quickly conclude that public demonstrations which claim the lives of 34 people are not the clearest indication that something is wrong. Worse yet is a situation in which the regime in question won by a margin like 1.4 per cent or 1.5 per cent of a population or were marginally unpopular like Bush.
It is for these reasons that most democracies have enshrined the right to protest so that the popularity and indeed the legitimacy of a regime can be constantly evaluated during after and in-between elections.
It is therefore nothing short of hypocrisy for some to call on Barbadians to “speak out” while similar folk are questioning the legitimacy of those who are challenging Maduro.
• Peter W. Wickham ([email protected]) is a political consultant and a director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES).