Tim Hector’s Legacy, for Antigua and Us

Against the Current, No. 107, November/December 2003

Paul Buhle

JULY IS THE month of the calypso tents in the drug- and AIDS-inflicted small Caribbean island of Antigua, with its predictably inadequate rainfall, a notoriously corrupt government, a U.S. Navy base — and a radical opposition movement mentioned even in some of the travel books.

This July, the talk of the annual competition was the ballad by Invader, Senior, “Don’t Cry for Me, Antigua,” about the leader of the radicals since 1966, Tim Hector. Until his death, he had been for nearly a quarter of a century the editor of a weekly tabloid, Outlet, read widely because of its faithfulness to the vision of regional unity and socialism from the bottom up.

As Hector often said proudly, he had comrades across the globe (including this writer). After extended treatment for heart problems in Cuba and the United States, he died at home in October, 2002, just shy of 59. Some of Invader’s verses ran like this:

I heard the tributes
Pouring through the land
On every radio
And TV programme
I saw you crying at my funeral
The whole nation mourning
A great man is gone
But when I was alive
I was demonized
Banded and maligned
As a communist
Arrested and jailed
Tear gas in me tail
I forgive but I can’t forget
You for this

So don’t cry for me
Don’t cry for me
My work on earth is done
I am now at a better place
Don’t cry for me
Don’t cry for me
Tell all Antiguans
To wipe de tears from their face
Because every election
I offer you my service
But you reject my plan I ever lost me deposit
But today I am so happy
I am in much better company
Don’t cry for me, don’t cry for me
I am happy with Garvey, don’t cry for me
CLR James and Manley, don’t cry for me
Antiguans weep not for me
But for your children and your country
Don’t cry for me, don’t cry for me
I try to feed you intellectually
You refuse my menu
For years you scorn me
We try to raise de level
Of your consciousness
To elevate my people
Was my sole interest
As I close my eyes
I was surprised
To hear the great things
They say about me

* * *

I am your Freedom Fighter
I am your Journalist
Teacher, commentator
Politician and activist
Fought to end apartheid
And colonialism
All my life I am fighting
To liberate all people
Now I am dead and gone
I am so shocked to learn
My works must be recorded in history

An Unlikely Story

Antigua, nine miles by twelve miles, would seem an unlikely setting for a great story. The entire Eastern Caribbean, never a hub of modern activity like Cuba and Puerto Rico, indeed hardly appears in the popular literature of Europeans or North Americans except as a tourist destination for fun in the sun and perhaps also sex in the shade.

The literary phenomenon of Antiguan native Jamaica Kincaid — and the sheer contrary individualism of her famed semi-fictional writings — seem to underline the impossibility of a coherent narrative here.

But that conclusion would miss much. Hector, moving through a life of furious activity into middle age and beyond, often reminded the reader that he stood upon the shoulder of others, including a few giants.

The first of these, the one closest to him personally and politically, is C.L.R. James. Another, from the following generations, is the martyred Walter Rodney, Hector’s generational cohort.

Emphatically a world figure increasingly recognized by younger scholars as such, James summed up an age in his thinking and his actions. He left behind at his 1989 death not only a large view of Caribbean history and life, but also a large view of the dilemmas in which humanity finds itself — and their solutions in the participation of ordinary people in all the decisions, economic as well as political and also ecological.

That vision, as old as the dream of the Golden Day before the existence of hierarchies, has fared badly in a bitterly disappointing twentieth century. But the dream outlives the century, and its last words have not been uttered.

C.L.R. James’ vision passed on to Hector was never devoted to leveling down, contrary to utterly false charges of “Russianism” against it by Caribbean politicians (and notably by his fellow Trinidadian V.S. Naipaul, who invented in “A Way In the World” a dishonest caricature of James so as to attack the reputation of the original).

The Role of Genius

Achievement of great things depended, in James’ wide view, also very much upon the role of individual genius, not of the genius individual in a vacuum, but the ways in which the writer, poet, musician, filmmaker, and the political revolutionary, could articulate the sensations and perceptions of the ordinary crowd.

James had been trained for this perception by a childhood and youth in seemingly backward colonial society, absorbing as much of British culture and the gifts of Greek antiquity as any precocious youngster might anywhere in the Commonwealth (and more likely than at home).

He had also been trained by the close observation of the society around him. As he grew to maturity, the unfairness of the rules that seemed to place the graceful black cricketer outside the bounds of formal aesthetics and even sporting history, a particularly informative passion of the young man.

Cricket helped James understand the disastrous effects of racism upon a whole society and (on a larger stage) how the uplifting of sport could also uplift a people.

This insight informed Tim Hector’s perspective, as did the grand conclusion following James that the Caribbean was no talentless backwater, but a single region in desperate need of a single, unifying confederation to overcome the minuscule size, resource limitations and otherwise permanent disadvantage of West Indian peoples in world society.

Hector commented glumly, late in life, that the long awaited common market and common interests of the region had finally arrived — not as hoped but rather imposed, as commercialization. The fat and listless society of consumers, imposed from the outside, made West Indians into nothing better than second- (no, third-) rate Americans or Europeans, with dramatically fewer life chances, more deadly diseases, more despair.

He returned frequently, examining this sorry outcome in process, to the moments of political truth during the 1940s and after, when things in the Caribbean might have gone a different way.

Caribbean’s Moment of Truth

One of Hector’s chief antagonists was notably also, for his early accomplishments, a personal hero: Vere Cornwall Bird. The Antiguan labor leader and politician who stood heroically against the British for decades, he guided the island into independence and meanwhile capitulated to the corruption offered by the British and the Yankees, grabbing a share of it for himself and his descendants. There hangs a tale.

The major moment of truth for the entirety the English-speaking Caribbean, after the slavery centuries and emancipation, was the 1930s and the near general strikes sweeping over the island from 1934 to 1939.

A few Marxists (including a small handful of pro-Russian Communists, but mostly others influenced by Garveyism, and coming back from New York) helped form unions and political parties aimed at eventual independence.

These strikes more than anything else made ultimate independence inevitable, despite the repression and in part because of the indignation that arrests and jailing brought to the public, middle class and working class alike.

They also put socialism into the picture, for despite the absence of anything like an organized Communist or Socialist movement (let alone Trotskyism), many of the leaders assumed a kind of socialist perspective, mostly by way of the British Labour Party but also touched by the explosive, Afro- and Indo-Caribbean cultures of collectivity.

Then came the war. British leasing of the islands to the United States, and a virtual occupation by Americans, brought unprecedented wage work for thousands of working men and women — and for sex workers, in very large numbers.

Strikes in wartime and the years shortly after, along with the rise of an often militantly political popular culture (most of all the rise of steel bands), firmed up the movements that made demands upon the British and upon the fading class of planters.

The same years saw the promising rise, and then the smashing of a militant regional labor confederation, destroyed by AFL and CIA operatives with the cooperation of political leaders fearful of offending the United States.

Back in Antigua, Vere Bird, a U.S. Naval base worker whose youthful background as a Salvation Army officer had helped train him in organization, and whose years as a small businessman had given him important alliances, bravely led an island-wide strike for higher plantation wages in 1950, defying the authorities and establishing his labor party as the force of the future.

Bird was no Eric Williams, C.L.R. James’ protégé who had written histories of the region and emerged as the great orator of the 1950s independence movement in Trinidad and Tobago. Nor was he a Cheddi Jagan, the East Indian peasant from British Guyana who earned a dental degree in the United States, and returned to form the first real political party in the colony, and the only important pro-Moscow party anywhere in the English-speaking Caribbean.

Bird claimed never to have read a book — but the island culture was so intimate that Tim Hector owned copies of the 1930s British Marxist magazines that Bird had annotated. Nonetheless, Bird resembled the region’s populists like Jamaica’s Alexander Bustamante or Trinidad’s Tubul Uriah Butler, who wavered between a kind of black nationalism and deeply conservative (even royalist) views, in what amounted to mass-based personal followings.

Encountering James

Hector, born in 1943, grew up in a fatherless and poor, but an intellectually aware, family: his mother and an aunt worked for the labor movement’s weekly newspaper; his grandfather, a retired policeman, encouraged a home atmosphere almost of a salon, where socialistic-minded pan (steelband) musicians met informally to organize themselves.

Precocious in the extreme, Tim taught public school for several years after his graduation (one of the youngest to do so), and then set off to Canada for college in 1965. There, in Montreal, he had the crucial engagement of his life.

C.L.R. James, who had been expelled from the United States in 1953, and practically driven out of Trinidad after editing the ruling party’s weekly for a little less than two years, had moved to Britain but traveled widely and was drawn to the West Indian graduate students who had come to Canada.

James, then in his savant stage as one of the last uncompromised survivors of the Pan African movement earlier in the century, articulated a mixture or synthesis of Marxism, Black Nationalism, West Indian and world culture (to name only a few key elements).

He envisioned the revival of a revolutionary Pan African movement responding to the failures of post-colonial governments, especially the failure (whatever the ideology adopted) to mobilize the populations on a permanent basis. This scheme failed, and Hector decided not to go back to graduate school and a professor’s future.

Antiguan politics was in crisis, and Hector was offered editorship of a new opposition paper. “The Trumpet” was doubtless influenced by James’ editing of “The Nation,” in Trinidad, seeking to create something both popular and political, but at least as much by the situation in Antigua. No one was exposing the corruption of the Bird government (the leader of the nation as independence was declared in 1970).

To cultivate a readership, any radical paper also needed real coverage of culture, from sports to popular music, with steady emphasis on black self-pride.

What Hector came to add, most particularly his own, was a weekly column full of sweeping (but never obscure) references to immediate events and the broad scope of history, as likely to discuss Shakespeare or Stokely Carmichael, cricket or structural economic crisis, but always coming back to the unique history of the Caribbean, as the producer of Europe’s wealth through the sweat of the slaves, then increasingly a backwater dragged down by monocrop economies and the archaic as well as fundamentally racist character of education, social services and an undying colonial mentality.

Failed Opposition and Tragedy

Several times over the next thirty-five years, Hector led efforts to form a united opposition to the Birds (who have remained in power steadily over two generations of the family, except 1971-75); and in each case, the would-be opposition turned out to be interested only in replacing the Bird machine with their own.

The ACM (Afro-Caribbean Movement), then the ACLM (the Antiguan-Caribbean Liberation Movement) gained little parliamentary strength.

In his last years, Hector had accepted a practical arrangement allowing him to work on regional sports issues, make broadcasts on local media outlets<197>and continue to denounce corruption. Meanwhile Outlet, published more or less steadily since 1980, continued to be viewed by nearly all as the one honest source of news and intelligent source of opinion.

With the decline of the Caribbean left, it also became the only socialistic Caribbean weekly in English, thus circulated and discussed widely among radicals in the region and the dispora.

For his pains and those of his followers, Hector was fired from a teaching job, arrested several times, and Outlet’s press torched, not to mention endless threats.

In a tragic event that was formally unrelated, but part of the degradation of island culture, his wife Arah Hector, a leader in the emerging women’s movement of the region, was murdered in 1989. He was badly hurt but undaunted.

Jamaica Kincaid sometimes swore to repatriate if Tim ever became Prime Minister. And it was a truism — I heard it from a hotel clerk — that Tim would become leader of the island, more than that, a leading figure of a unified Caribbean, “someday,” when the people were ready.

Bearing a heart defect since youth, Hector nevertheless organized, spoke, wrote and edited relentlessly. He had been close to Maurice Bishop, before the 1983 coup by Bernard Coard, the assassination of Bishop and the U.S. Marine invasion ended hopes for social transformation in Grenada.

He had been far closer to Walter Rodney, another quasi-disciple of C.L.R. James (perhaps equally close to the scholarly methods of E.P. Thompson), who sought to lead Guyanese out of Indian versus black racialism and into a different era  — until assassinated in 1979.

In the end, when the Left had been defeated across the region, Hector could look at Jamaican social democrat Michael Manley and Cheddi Jagan as decent men, hard-working and self-sacrificing organizers, whose experiments were denied by neocolonialism more than their own defects.

Renewal Desperately Needed

For his part, Hector sought to make again and again the point that James had stressed from the later 1940s: Nationalization was not socialism, and in the hands of a colonial-minded middle class became no more than the economic basis for their own consumerism and bureaucratic rule.

Worse, labelled as “socialism” it disgraced the word among the peasants (whose historic hopes for rural self-management was continually frustrated, its basis ruined by economic misdevelopment), urban workers and the expanding slum population alike.

The many strengths of the region’s masses — the sense of commonality, the vibrant popular culture, the increasing levels of women’s participation, the whole basis for modern politics in labor organization — were abandoned or turned against themselves.

Now, with Hector gone, the region is in worse shape than ever. The tourist boom, following the Cuban Revolution and climaxing in the 1980s, is ever closer to a bust. Resources, above all fish, have been badly and in some cases (where reliant upon coral formations) irreversibly eroded.

The “American Lake” (as U.S. presidents like to call it) has gone under a deeper shadow with State Department talk of a “timetable” for the end of the Cuban experiment.

And yet: the voice of radical transformation is not absent. Throughout (and continuing today), Outlet has maintained its fearless muckraking journalism, its keen sports coverage, and a wondrous mixture of humor, island gossip, and (being a British cousin) even news of the Royals.

Here, as it explains a thousand different ways, across the region capitalism is a failure, neocolonialism hardly more than a continuation of the slave system. A highly educated, modern population knows that something better is possible.

When Tim Hector died, prime ministers from across the region came to bear witness to his status as intellectual, moralist, sports leader, champion of the underprivileged. There was no mystery that the Caribbean future needed to be more like the vision of Tim Hector himself.

ATC 107, November-December 2003