Letters & Opinion

Beckles: Don’t shoot the Pelican in mid-flight!

Image of Earl Bousquet
Chronicles Of A Chronic Caribbean Chronicler By Earl Bousquet

Monday, March 29, 2021is indelibly inscribed in history as the day Lamar Avenue (in Dallas, Texas) was renamed Botham Jean Boulevard in honor and living memory of the 26-year-old young Black, Bright and Energetic Saint Lucia-born Caribbean immigrant killed in September 2018 while eating ice cream and watching TV in his own apartment, by a White police officer who claimed she mistook his apartment for hers.

It was also the day the trial started in Minneapolis of Derek Chauvin, a White police officer who knelt on George Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes and snuffed his life out on May 25, 2020 despite him repeatedly crying out ‘I can’t breathe!’

That day too, Vice Chancellor of the University of the West Indies (The UWI) Sir Hilary Beckles, delivered his version of ‘History Will Absolve Me’, a four-hour speech delivered by Fidel Castro in October 1953, in his own defense, at his trial for masterminding the attack on the Moncada Barracks that sparked the beginning of the end of the Fulgencio Batista dictatorship.

The renaming of the Dallas boulevard and unveiling of street signs in the area where the apartment he lived (and died) in and the police department are located, will not bring Botham back.

But even if the name is changed again a century from now, even if his killer continues to escape the earned legal noose, enough people will have seen the signs and his name will have been inscribed on so many addresses over such a long time that ‘Nuff People’ will never forget who Botham Jean was and how he died — and why the boulevard was renamed after him, with ‘Nuff Respect’ by the City.

The start of the trial of the first of the four officers charged with George Floyd’s death after his family was awarded US $27 million (EC $73.17 million) by the state will not bring him back, but the trial (being broadcast before the jury of world opinion) is one in which the entire US Justice System is on trial – even though it began sounding like it’s the dead Floyd on trial.

The Vice Chancellor’s speech on Monday fit the realm of one in which the speaker felt sufficiently aggrieved to have been moved to offer a ball-by-ball, wall-to-wall justification for continuing in a job he feels he has done well-enough, during his first term, to be allowed the usual traditional courtesy (enjoyed by predecessors) of an easy expected transition to a second.

Beckles had earlier been everything but directly accused of shaping The UWI into his own image and likeness and was never formally charged with focusing too much of his and the university’s time and resources on fulfilling CARICOM’s quest for Reparations from Europe for Slavery and Native Genocide.

Instead, he was accused of using the age-old extensive powers of the position of Vice Chancellor to empower himself in ways that do not fit with the new definitions of Governance and Sustainability – and of leading The UWI into but being unable to rescue it from an existing or impending financial crisis.

A Commission appointed by Chancellor Robert in 2019 – a group of distinct regional judicial, legal and education experts in related disciplines headed by retired Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) President Sir Denis Byron and including Barbadian jurist Sir Elliot Motley and OECS Director General Dr Didacus Jules — to inquire how the university was ran during Beckles’ first six-year term had completed its report and recommendations.

But its findings were considered as (and/or suspected of having been) ‘prematurely published’ just ahead of the January 21, 2021 meeting of the University Council, when and where it was (conventionally) to have been presented.

Since then, the Vice Chancellor was under virtual siege.

He’d won a hard-fought battle to stop the report’s adoption in January, but the Council’s next meeting is scheduled for April 30 – one day before his current contract expires.

The report has been seen and heard — and treated accordingly — by silent backers of the ‘two sides’ as: ‘An objective, fair and balanced assessment and review of cold facts that highlights many uncomfortable truths…’ or ‘A well-varnished but hardly-masked mechanism to gag and handcuff the Vice Chancellor for his Reparations Advocacy and end his fulfilment of the mandate CARICOM Heads of Government gave him in 2013, two years before confirming his appointment as UWI Vice Chancellor in 2015.’

Chancellor Bermudez, carefully guarding against being loudly accused of being ‘Out to turn The UWI into a new private sector product Baked-by-Bermudez’, has remained totally silent and invisible, absent from the public space on responses to the Commission’s findings.

But fellow Commissioners have come out in collective defense of The Chancellor against what they regarded as unfair allegations based on ‘Race’.

In the week following Sir Denis Byron’s press release and video statement appealing for unidentified persons not to ‘conflate’ the issues, there were also some interesting but unsuccessful pleas from alleged ‘academic middle-of-the-roaders’ for ’The Reparations Issue and Sir Hilary’ to be ‘left out of’ or ‘divorced from’ the ‘central issues of Governance and Accountability’ and ‘the university’s future Financial Sustainability.’

By last weekend, though, it was virtually impossible to divorce Sir Hilary Beckles, the Chairman of the CARICOM Reparations Commission (CRC), from the position he also holds and Vice Chancellor, as his supporters and defenders rallied behind their man.

This week began with a slew of related statements from the contending forces:

The Chancellor’s defenders again accused Beckles of deliberately confusing the issues, engaging in ‘historical blackmail’ and ‘behaving like an intellectual Trump.’

Beckles’ however got support from announcement on March 15 of his appointment to serve as an expert on a United Nations Higher Education project, as well as from four inter-campus student leaders, the Chair of the Five Islands Campus Council, two CARICOM Leaders (Prime Ministers Gaston Brown of Antigua and Barbuda and Ralph Gonsalves of St Vincent and the Grenadines), a global note of approval signed by over 142 academics – and a US $25 million grant from a generous Silicon Valley entity towards an innovative IT program initiated under his watch.

The Vice Chancellor, in his hour-long March 29 self-defense submission on UWItv Global this past Monday, all but threw the gauntlet at his prosecutors, seriously smiling through his case with meticulous point-by-point deliveries about what he inherited, what his mandate was and from whence The UWI cometh.

The West Indies Cricket historian offered an unbelievably unscripted virtual power-point account of his stewardship From Day One to Today and his Visions for Tomorrow.

Citing the first steps along the relative New Silk Road constructed to, in and with China that helped prepare The UWI COVID-19 Task Force ‘to help save thousands of lives’, the Vice Chancellor referred to his prescription for conversion of The UWI’s ‘Reputation to Revenue Generation’ – and concluded that the soaring Pelican should not be shot down in mid-flight.

He insisted The UWI’s role and place in the leadership of the Caribbean’s quest for Reparations from Europe is in keeping with its activist role over 72 years since being originally established as a medical school to help repair the parlous state of the region’s health after centuries of colonialism.

Try as it may, The Commission will continue to find it difficult, nary impossible, to not appear to have set-out to transfer the Vice Chancellor’s most important powers to The Chancellor, whether to ‘democratize governance structures’ or, as accused, ‘to create a new corporate governance module without considering the implications of their recommendations – or the inevitable response.’

The Chancellor (et al) seem to continue to see the report as a whole basket from which to pick the best cherries when the supreme Council meets on April 30 to revisit the Report — and virtually decide on Beckles’ occupational health and safety for the next six years.

At least two influential regional newspapers – T&T Express and Jamaica Gleaner – have called for the Report not to be hurriedly adopted, in whole or in parts, but instead be tabled in the Jamaica parliament and the court of the Caribbean public’s opinion.

Sir Hilary attacked the very notion that he is Bad News for the UWI and it will take more than Herculean efforts for his proverbial prosecutors to even start thinking of deconstructing it for argumentative purposes.

The Chancellor’s defense team may continue to appeal to the traditionally judicious aspects of Caribbean character in consideration of their submissions, but from the arguments presented, precedents cited and illuminations painted, their work might have only just started.

As for the Vice Chancellor, he’s not about to pull brakes.

‘We won’t ask Usain Bolt to stop in his tracks to tighten his lace…’, he said in his final summation, adding:

‘We are on the right path, with the right tools for the moment…

‘We are moving forward with the future as ours…

‘And we will not be distracted!’

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