Observations of a Caribbean-American Political Activist: with Errol Louis in Mind.

Rock Hermon Hackshaw

Ten years ago, Bill Clinton signed into law an anti-terrorism measure, that has turned out to be one of the worst pieces of legislation impacting on the Caribbean and Latin-America. One of its provisions included repatriating immigrants-both legal and undocumented- for  infractions here. It also expanded deportation programs which targeted those undocumented, even though undocumented aliens are amongst the most law-abiding (with the obvious exceptions, of course) of people living here. Within a year, some were deported for as simple a thing as jumping the subway turnstile in New York City. Initially, there were many who seemed to see no problem in all this, after all, if you are residing in a host country, it behooves you to obey the law - probably, even moreso than if you were still residing in the country of your birth. Well, not really. Only one country saw the deeper problem that this new policy would manifest. That country was Argentina.

There are very few areas where I respect conservatives, in their theorethical approach to politics. In general, I consider myself a moderate. Sometimes I am on the "left" of an issue,  fewer times am I on the "right". Most times, I stake out a comfortable middle ground. I do not walk around with  blind-fealty to some position on the political spectrum. I don't try to favor the progressive, conservative or liberal approach, I look for the "correct" approach to political issues. I would acknowledge that this is a rather subjective standard (since "correct", has to be my "personal" definition), but isn't everyone playing a similar game?

Conservatives basically argue that when you change things, you often end up with bigger problems than the ones you attempted to correct /fix /solve /resolve /alleviate and such. Thus, they suggest a more cautionary /measured /piecemeal approach to problem-solving. Oftentimes, this is too slow. Especially for young people, who are usually more idealistic than pragmatic. On this issue however, it seems that a slower approach would have been the correct one.

When Clinton signed the bill, no Caribbean or Latin-American officials were consulted. In retrospects, the congressional hearings leading up to this bill, were lacking in input from political leaders of this hemisphere. It is well documented that American foreign policy in this area, is heavily flavoured with American-arrogance (read Eduardo Galeano). Nowhere in the legislation, were there monetary provisions, to aid poor countries in helping returnees / deportees transition themselves. Nowhere in the bill could you see an analysis of the impact of returnees/deportees, on the home-countries.

What  imaginative politicans in Argentina saw was, that the hardened criminals amongst the returnees - some of whom had been away from birth or early childhood, and who had developed all their criminal ways in the USA- would be forced back into a life of crime on their return. This was obvious since they had no links, few familial-roots, and  fewer connections to the country, after all those years abroard. They felt that even the soft-core criminals would be so tempted. In Argentina, the elected officials went to work. They started programs meant to re-absorb, re-acclimate and refine returnees. They took a compassionate approach to the problem. They started job training/readiness/development/placement programs, with returnees in mind. They addressed their physical and mental- health needs. They provided some of the relative social-services, needed for the "re-introduction phase" of all this. Housing and economic-development were among the areas addressed. It all worked. Argentina has suffered the least since this new US-policy was implemented.

The other Caribbean and Latin-American countries had no such program. Maybe they lacked the resources needed to undertake this visionary project, or maybe their elected officials just didn't see it coming down the tracks like a runaway freight-train: an explosion in crime. Over the last decade, crime in this hemisphere has  changed the way ordinary people live in profound ways.

  To say that Clinton's signature on that bill has had a cataclysmical effect on the region is to understate the obvious. What is sad however, is the fact that mainstream media in the USA has ignored all this, over the past decade. It is hardly ever written about. The fact remains that over the past ten years, the islands of Trinidad, Jamaica and Haiti, have joined the lists of the top-twenty murder capitals in the world. Likewise, Mexico, Columbia and Guyana, where murder and mayhem is commonplace. In this region, Columbia, Mexico, Trinidad and Haiti are 1-2-3-4 in kidnappings.

 Over the last ten years, the region has seen a rise in murders, kidnappings, robberies and rapes. There has been an increase in white-collar crimes also. In some instances  we have seen more than a one-thousand percent increase in high crimes, during this period.  In Peru, less than 25% of all murders are solved. In Trinidad and Tobago it's less than 33%. Witnesses to crimes are intimidated to the point that authorities now hold some of them in protective custody, depending on the profile of the case. Who would have thunk this ten years ago?

Resources that could be better applied to fighting Aids/HIV, are now being utilized by governments fighting crime. Militias have now joined police-forces in this endeavour. Soldiers are pulling double-duty, they are now working in law-enforcement  also.  Issues of poverty, education, enviroment, health and housing, are taking a backseat to the war on crime. National budgets are taking a hit. Priorities are breing re-ordered. Inevitably, the ordinary law-abiding people are suffering the most. They are suffering in  international silence.

 Six years ago, the CIA projected that the population of Trinidad and Tobago would drop from about 1.5 million to about half in 30 years. When  I read that projection, I wondered wheter or not  their experts were suggesting, that the Aids problem would reach epidemic porportions there. After all, some projections went as high as one person in every fifty having the virus. Now I wonder if maybe the spiralling crime rate was not filtered into their calculations. For an island that is roughly 2000 square miles in size, a rate higher than one murder per day is  more than tragic.We shouldn't have to tolerate one murder per week even. But this is what is happening now, and it has been proven that returnees ( deportees) have fuelled the spike in crime stats, not just in Trinidad and Tobago, but all over the region. 

 When you talk to officials from the region , they bemoan the fact that the USA has failed  to win the war on drugs. They say that american-demand fuels the market for drugs. They also say that deportees from the USA have exacerbated their  local crime-problems. They plead for help from Uncle Sam, but to no avail. They talk about the numerous guns on the streets, and ask from whence they came.

This all brings me to a column written by Errol Louis which  appeared in the New York Daily News last week. In this column he showed that Republican officials  have allowed upstate regions, to tally prisoners as residents, during the census count (every 10 years), in order to increase their representation at all levels of government. It also helped them recieve more resources/aid from said governmental bodies and agencies. 

There are many things disturbing about this, firstly; it is dishonest.  Most prisoners return home after their bids, and usually home is downstate- in the innercities. Studies have shown that over 80% of the prison population comes from  less than 20% of the Assembly districts, with Brooklyn and the Bronx topping the list. Secondly; the resources that are stolen by this false counting, shortchange the residents in the urban areas where help is most needed, and this is criminal. It is also immoral. Thirdly; that politics in New York is more about power accumulations, rather than about problem solutions. And this is a shame. We need to change this paradigm.

 In New York, we need some officials like the ones in Argentina. Officials who anticipate problems long before they occur, and as such seek solutions in a pro-active (not reactive) way. Officials who are honest. Ones who are really thinking about their communities first, and not primarily about themselves.

This brings me back to Errol Louis again. You see, when Errol first appeared on the Brooklyn political scene, he was refreshingly welcomed. He was a male black ivy-league graduate, who was willing to give-back to his community, instead of running off to corporate-America  selfishly chasing "the big bucks". Along with some other youngsters, he opened a credit union in Bed-Stuy. After he left the credit union position, he then decided to run for the city-council seat in the 35th district. In the primary election, he came in second to the incumbent Mary Pinkett(deceased). The year was 1997. One of the people he handily whipped in that race was James Davis. Four years later the incumbent was term-limited out, and Davis won the seat by defeating six opponents. Regrettably missing from that race was one Errol Louis. I think Errol would have won that race. And I am not saying this without some authority, since I was a consultant /advisor  to James Davis (deceased), for many years.

 It was said that the main reason Errol chose not to run in 2001, was because his Trinidad-born parents  had convinced him to leave politics.  In their estimation politics was too dirty a game for as  fine  a young man as he. He has since moved into journalism, having heeded the parental advice. Last week I was out of the city, and while playing aound with the remote control of my hotel's television set, I caught Errol on CSPAN articulating issues salient to the black community. I have seen him on television many times before. He often deals with political issues and events.  I am usually impressed. I first met Errol about a dozen years ago, and I am more convinced now than I was  even then, that he would make a fine elected official. I hope he reconsiders  entering the political arena again. I think he should run for public office again. I say this with all due respects to his parents and with the utmost in humility. I do believe that Errol could be a refreshing addition to Brooklyn's somnambulent delegation.