“Whose country is this?” Angelle Cameron shouted to a crowd gathered Monday morning along the road near the Governor’s Office.
“Ours!” the crowd yelled back.
“Whose country is this?”
Ms. Cameron was helping lead a protest that drew more than 200 people to oppose the Commission of Inquiry’s recommendation to partially suspend the Constitution, dissolve the elected House of Assembly, and implement United Kingdom direct rule for at least two years in order to expedite governance reforms.
At one point, protestors including Deputy Speaker Neville Smith, Junior Minister for Tourism Sharie De Castro, and Sixth District Representative Alvera Maduro-Caines sat in the road and blocked traffic for several minutes.
However, they moved after discussions with police officers, and march organiser Bishop John Cline soon asked attendees to protest peacefully and allow traffic to pass.
In a series of speeches, Mr. Cline and other protesters strongly opposed the potential UK takeover, insisting that the territory can solve its own governance problems without temporarily sending home elected leaders.
“They want to tell us that we are not capable, and that we do not have the necessary competency to run our country,” Mr. Cline said. “We are saying that we will not surrender our rights.”
Demonstrators displayed signs, garnered honks from passing cars, and sang along to songs including Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up.”
What the report says
The protest highlighted the tensions that have been building since the governor announced on Thursday that the COI had recommended direct rule for at least two years.
Though many of the Monday protestors suggested direct rule would be a step backwards in the territory’s journey toward self-government, COI Commissioner Sir Gary Hickinbottom stated the opposite in his report.
“With a particularly heavy heart, I have concluded that, unless the most urgent and drastic steps are taken, the current unhappy situation — with elected officials deliberately ignoring the tenets of good governance giving rise to an environment in which the risks of dishonesty in relation to public decision making and funding continue unabated — will go on indefinitely,” Sir Gary wrote. “In my view, that is wholly unacceptable.”
He added that that UK government has a responsibility to protect the people of the territory from such abuses, and to help them “achieve their aspirations” for self-government.
“I have concluded, with some considerable regret but ultimately very firmly, that for the current situation to continue will adversely affect those aspirations by delaying (or even entirely preventing) progress towards such self-government as a modern democratic state,” he wrote.
Members of the public also voiced their concerns at a town hall on Sunday at Althea Scatliffe Primary School, where a panel of community leaders facilitated discussion about how the suspension could affect the future development of the territory.
Reverend Dr. Michael Turnbull, president of the Hope Foundation BVI and that evening’s moderator, said it was important for the people of the territory to honestly tell those in power what they want to happen in the wake of this investigation.
Panellists included Pet Planet VI Managing Director Amberly Crabbe, who said the VI is at a “crossroads,” with important decisions to be made by Amanda Milling, the UK minister responsible for the overseas territories. Ms. Milling first visited the territory in March, and she returns this week to engage in discussions with VI leaders.
“It is very important for us to make our voices heard,” Ms. Crabbe said. “Now is not the time for us to be afraid to speak up if we are against the suspension of our constitution. Now is not the time for us to second guess. Now is not the time to be divided in any aspect. We are all united.”
Acting premier’s perspective
Acting Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley — who did not attend the Monday demonstration — said Friday that he doesn’t believe a partial suspension of the Constitution is necessary for the VI to reform the governance issues described in the COI report.
“What I believe is in the best interest of the people of the Virgin Islands is an enhanced cooperation mechanism or framework between the governor and the government to swiftly implement recommendations under a very tight timetable without resorting to direct rule,” he said.
Dr. Wheatley urged members of the public to “read the report with an objective eye in terms of strengthening our systems of government under a democratic framework of governance, as opposed to draconian measures that would set back the historical constitutional progress we have made as a people.”
But others have been more open to the report’s recommendation to implement temporary direct rule — and the reforms they believe it could bring.
“I do not like the situation that the governor has to step in, but I have very little faith in the people that are there now,” Portia Venzen wrote in a Facebook post during the town hall debate. “They have demonstrated that they have no spine in helping to clear up this mess before it [got] this far.”
See the May 5, 2022, print edition for full coverage.