February 25, 2011 § 3 Comments
Who lives there?: Only 70,000 people. Over 90% are black Afro-Caribbean but there are some interesting ethnic minorities: as well as a small European ancestry group there is a small and unmeasured but significant Indo-Caribbean community, and over 1000 American Medical Students of the Ross University School of Medicine on the island. Most significantly Dominica is the only island in the entire Caribbean where a significant and still culturally distinct Carib community still exists.
The Caribs were the aboriginal inhabitants of the Caribbean but have in all but a handful of cases elsewhere, either been wiped out or subsumed by other groups. As we will discuss later, on Dominica there is a Carib community with a strength of around 3,000 living in the 15 square km Carib territory on the east coast.
About 80% of the population are Catholic, almost all the rest Protestant. The official language is English but, due to the considerable French presence in the region and during the island’s history the local creole contains a very significant French element. There is still a noticeable linguistic difference between the (significantly French) creole spoken on most of the island, and the (considerably less French) creole spoken on the former plantations and holdings of Rose’s Lime Juice Company – where the workers were imported en mass from Monserrat.
An aside: Dominica is not to be confused with the Dominican Republic. Dominica is the nation on the tiny southern Caribbean island of Dominica; the Dominican Republic is on the western half of the much larger northern Caribean island of Hispaniola. Residents of both are however known as Domincans, which can lead to confusion. To aid matters they are supposed to be pronounced differently: those from Dominica placing the emphasis on the third syllable (Dominican) like the name of the country whereas those from the Dominican Republic pronounce it more as a fairly flat English adjective with the stress, insofar as it is anywhere, on the second syllable (Dominican). However the difference is subtle and many (particularly Anglo Saxons) don’t really respect it, so it can be confusing.
How does the system work? (the theory): Whilst a member of the Commonwealth (and also the Francophone) Dominica is a Republic (unusually). It is an odd sort of republic where the Realpolitik means that whilst the President may sound very powerful, they aren’t at all. Indeed the President is a powerless figurehead.
The President is a consensus figure nominated by the Prime Minister in consultation with the leader of the opposition and ratified by Parliament. Once in place they cannot be removed for a five year term and, in a chicken-and-egg kind of situation, appoint the PM. As such it is important that the PM carefully choose someone who won’t rock the boat.
The Prime Minister, whilst technically appointed by the President, is, of course, the leader of the party that can command a majority in the legislative. The legislative is Unicameral, is called the House of Assembly, and serves five year terms. Twenty one seats are elected by First Past the Post and these members are referred to as “regional representatives”. These regional representatives then vote on whether to themselves elect nine extra members or let the President appoint them. The norm is for them to allow the President to appoint them, and when this is done there is a constitutional convention that five be appointed on the advice of the PM, and four on the advice of the leader of the opposition. These extra nine members are referred to as “senators” but there is no material difference between a senator and a regional representative.
In addition the house elects a Speaker, and if this speaker is not already a member of the house then they join as the thirty first member with full voting rights (although convention is that they only use that power in the event of a tie – when they cast it with the Government). Finally there is one extra ex-officio member with no voting power who acts as the clerk of the house. That is usually the Attorney General, unless they request and nominate someone else.
The Prime Minister appoints a cabinet, all members of which must be members of the house, and only three of whom can be senators.
Dominica has a developed domestic judicial system. Above this sits the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court (at least one member of which must be Dominician). Above this sits the British Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.
Dominica has a highly developed system of local government – in part to incorporate Carib demands for greater autonomy. Each town (village in rural areas) has a council with eight members elected by FPTP, whilst central government appoints a further five. They serve three year terms and have considerable power including the power to pass by-laws and raise revenue through property taxes. However, as many of the services themselves have been centralised of late this power does not mean as much in reality as it used to.
The Carib territory is governed as a local council except that it has slightly more powers (more by default than by statute) and a slightly different system of appointment. The term is for five years and none of the members are appointed: there is a territory wide vote for chief and smaller constituency votes for the six other members of the Carib council. The chief then exercises power over the administration of the Carib communal farming system (all land in the territory is communally owned and held in the name of the Council) and acts as the official representative of the Carib people to government.
How does the system work? (the practice): After every election the losers mount vigorous court cases claiming that the vote was rigged. However these are invariably thrown out and external observers maintain that the system is entirely fair. However, as the system is primarily FPTP and the number of members is small, landslides are common and it is not uncommon for there to be more opposition senators that regional representatives.
The government has tended to stay out of Carib affairs and leave it to the Carib chief. The Chiefs have of late been concerned about losing their cultural identity and have gone to extreme lengths to preserve it – banning non Caribs from living in the territory. One chief (unsuccessfully) attempted to ban intermarriage. The Carib area is still the poorest area in Dominica by far – only 50% of Caribs have electricity.
How did we get here?: Dominica was claimed by France and occupied in 1635. However its rugged coastline gave the native Carib people many hiding places from which to mount raids on the invaders and, deciding it was more trouble than it was worth, the French abandoned the island in 1660. However both the British and French attempted to extract timber at various points for the next few decades.
France again tried to settle the island at the beginning of the 18th century. It was much fought over, and changed between a British and French possession on three occasions, whilst at least two further French invasions were thwarted.
The British started on democratising Dominica early: establishing a legislative in 1763 and giving black people the vote in 1831. In 1838 black representatives were able to form a majority and a government; becoming the first place in the British Caribbean to achieve this by a good 120 years. Of course it was too good to last and in 1865, under pressure from white plantation owners, the British introduced a half-elected-and-half-appointed system of government. It would be another 93 years before the black majority would once again rule Dominica.
However Dominicans were not going to take minority rule lying down, and the pro-democracy Representative Government Association enjoyed widespread support throughout that time. In addition the Caribs, never entirely quiet, were petitioning for greater autonomy and this led to the 1930 “Carib War” – possibly the world’s most over-hyped war – in which two Caribs were accidentally killed, five police officers were lightly beaten, and the Carib chief was made to apologise and hand over his ceremonial sash (twenty years later it was given back). To say this was misreported is an understatement: the Times front page claimed the capital of Dominica lay in ruins, and this fed the developing idea that Dominica was trouble.
The British response was to move its administration around a lot: it became a Leeward Island in 1871, a Crown Colony in 1894, and a Windward Island in 1937. Then it joined the West Indies Federation in 1958; when that fell apart in 1962 it became its own British colony again. That was never going to work, and Dominicans finally got independence in stages: becoming an “Associate state” in 1967 and getting full independence in 1978.
By then economic development problems were chronic and two hurricanes in swift succession in 1979 didn’t help much. So the first few years of democracy were chaotic. However, by 1980 there was a stable government in place under Eugenia Charles – the Caribbean’s first female PM. She ruled for fifteen years, and whilst she was by no means loved by all, she certainly steadied the ship. There have been rough economic times almost constantly since, but for all that Dominica remains to this day a stable, democratic, and reasonably developed country.
It was almost very different. 1981 was supposed to have seen the “Bayou of pigs” invasion. This hair brained scheme would have seen two American and Canadian mobsters and Ku Klux Klan members, and their army of white supremacists and mercenaries invade and install a former Dominican PM: Patrick John, as leader. As a quid-pro-quo John would then allow Dominica to become a “fascist gangster’s paradise” with a Nazi government (the suggested new flag for Dominica was a swastika) – which would turn a blind eye to all organised criminal activity – no matter how blatant it would be. In other word Dominica would become like a pirate port of old – but with Nazis.
To say the invasion was poorly planned was an understatement. One half of the organising force – Mike Perdue – was a con-man,and a compulsive liar whose web of deceit meant that: a) the boat they were supposed to board never showed up b) the captain of the replacement boat was under the misapprehension he was working for the CIA and so didn’t feel the need to keep his activities secret from law enforcement and c) most of the “army” were there under various different false pretences and when this started to emerge then, to say the least, the team failed to gel. All members of the conspiracy were arrested before the boat left New Orleans.
Everyone involved served lengthy jail terms although John, once he was out, rebuilt his reputation based upon his youthful footballing prowess and has served as President of the Dominican Football Association, and a FIFA member, for fifteen of the last seventeen years.
Who’s in charge?: There is a two party system in Dominica.There is the centre-left (formerly hard left) Dominica Labour Party and the centre right (formally centrist but gradually drifting into the empty political space) United Workers’ Party.
It used to be a three party system but, since Charles’s resignation in 1995, her centre-right Dominica Freedom Party has struggled to maintain itself. They have been allied to the Dominica Labour Party for eleven years now – and have virtually entirely lost their independent identity. In the beginning that alliance was pragmatic – they needed it to maintain a Government in 2000 – but it made no sense politically and so it cost them electorally. From that point forward the DFP felt that an alliance with the DLP was the only way they were ever going to win seats – but even so they haven’t won any in the last two elections.
At the 2009 election the DLP won18 of the elected seats and the UWP 3. They opted to allow the President to appoint the senators and so the total party strength should have been 23-8. However in response to their belief that the vote had been rigged two of the three UWP members refused to take their seats and the UWP refused to appoint senators. Subsequently, after their seats were deemed vacant and by-elections were called the UWP abandoned their protests, rejoined parliament, and appointed senators. They easily retained their seats in the subsequent by-elections and so the 23-8 balance was retained.
The Prime Minister is Roosevelt Skerrit and the leader of the opposition is Hector John (no relation of Patrick). The President was last appointed in 2008 when Nicholas Liverpool was reappointed for a second term. A career diplomat, he is formally a member of the UWP.
Another key politician on the Island is the external Speaker, the independent Alix Boyd Knights. She is both the first woman elected to that position and its longest serving holder, having had the role for over 11 years. Garnette Joseph is the current Carib chief.
What does it look like?: It is a fairly typical Caribbean island, but is arguably more rugged and rainforest covered than others. It has arguably the world’s largest boiling lake:
What are the issues?: The economy is not doing too well, it is over reliant on bananas and global banana prices have been falling for some time. It has been on the verge of a financial crisis for almost all of its recent history but has almost just about avoided it. That said it has the lowest GDP in the eastern Caribbean. Its tax free status has resulted in it having been hit quite hard by new anti-tax haven legislation.
A good source of impartial information is: there are some great resources online. The Dominican is a news magazine with a large, if rambling, site with a treasure trove of different resources. Whilst not so newsy there is also a lot of information on the sites Lennox Honychurch and a virtual Dominica
A good book is: Bayou of Pigs: The True Story of an Audacious Plot to Turn a Tropical Island into a Criminal Paradise tells the incredible story of the 1981 non-invasion. Apart from that there’s not much on the politics, although it is covered as part of Lennox Honychurch’s comprehensive The Dominica Story: A History of the Island
When are the next elections?: Elections were held in 2009 and are next due in 2014. The President will be elected in 2013.