September 17, 2021

Three Caribbean women leaders

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Portia_Miller_ShootBy Henry Srebrnik From Journal Pioneer

In the past 20 years, three Anglophone Caribbean countries — former British colonies — have been governed by women. Two of the nations are island states, while the third, on the South American mainland, faces the sea.

Portia Simpson-Miller is currently the prime minister of Jamaica and leader of its left-of-centre People’s National Party (PNP), which currently holds 42 of the 63 seats in the House of Representatives.

Simpson-Miller has called an election for Feb. 25. Her government has attracted more than $1.1 billion in foreign direct investment since 2012. In addition, the country has been enjoying a period of low inflation, though the high unemployment rate remains a worry.

She pointed to her government’s “painful economic adjustments, including taming the monstrous debt” she inherited from the previous Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) administration.

Simpson-Miller hopes to make Jamaica a republic, replacing the British monarch as head of state, as the country this August will celebrates 50 years of independence.

She was first elected to parliament in 1976, serving as a cabinet member in various PNP governments, under Michael Manley and P.J. Patterson, from 1989 and 2006.

She became party leader and prime minister in March 2006 upon the Patterson’s retirement. However, she lost power to the rival JLP a year later, and served as leader of the Opposition until winning the December 2011 election.

In Trinidad and Tobago, the People’s Partnership Party (PNP), an alliance of smaller groups led by United National Congress (UNC) won a landslide victory in May 2010 against the incumbent, People’s National Movement (PNM).

The PNP won 29 seats against PNM Prime Minister Patrick Manning’s 12, making Kamla Persad-Bissessar Trinidad’s prime minister. She had defeated the UNC’s founder, and former prime minister Basdeo Panday, for leadership of the UNC four months earlier.

For decades, both government and opposition politics were dominated by men who came to be viewed as insensitive and out of touch with the people. In the run-up to 2007 election, won by the PNM, Persad-Bissessar had been marginalized by the UNC “boys club,” even though she had served as minister of education and then attorney-general between 1999 and 2001 in Panday’s 1995-2001 government.

Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar established a Ministry of the People, “where groups of concerned citizens can take their grievances and be heard” rather than having to resort to “demonstrating on the streets.” Also, a new Ministry of Food Production was created to help struggling farmers.

Persad-Bissessar was voted out of office last September, as the PNM won 23 of the 41 seats in the House of Representatives under their new leader, Keith Rowley. She is currently leader of the opposition.

Janet Rosenberg Jagan, who died in 2009, was president of Guyana from December 1997 to August 1999. She was the wife of Cheddi Jagan, an Indo-Guyanese politician who was premier of British Guiana from 1961 to 1964, prior to independence.

He would later serve as president from 1992 to 1997, and upon his death was succeeded by his wife.

But Janetshe was not simply a spouse inheriting her late husband’s position. She took part in labour activism along with her husband and was a co-founder of the Marxist-oriented People’s Progressive Party (PPP), serving as its general secretary from 1950 to 1970.

The other main party, the People’s National Congress (PNC) was dominated by Afro-Guyanese.

She was elected to the colonial House of Assembly in 1953, but she and Cheddi were jailed by the British authorities, who were concerned about their alleged Communist sympathies.

Janet Jagan was elected to Guyana’s parliament in 1973, eventually becoming its longest-serving member.

Cheddi Jagan became president of Guyana in 1992. Upon his death in March 1997, Janet became leader of the PPP and won the December 1997 presidential election in her own right. She resigned due to ill health in August 1999.

Last May, David Granger, an Afro-Guyanese running for the Alliance for Change, won the presidency, ending 23 years of rule by the PPP.

All three women have made significant impacts on their respective nations while in office.

Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island

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IMAGE: Portia Simpson-Miller

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