Building Political Power in the Caribbean Youth

We need to encourage young political leaders to fight hegemonic, ageist powers within the state while not marginalizing non-political youth groups.

“Partisanship when we are united in our powerlessness is not a starting point for justice and social change,” says Amílcar Sanatan (front, center). | Photo: Amílcar Sanatan

By Amílcar Sanatan

Youth membership in nongovernmental organizations is unfathomably low and throughout the English-speaking Caribbean, there is no vibrant youth “movement” as seen during the 1960s and 1990s. There is a general lack of confidence of youth in the National Youth Councils in advancing their cause. Most significantly, the critical distance among wide sections of young people have from the political process – a mix of disenfranchisement and downplaying the significance of the state – undermines their citizenship and agency in the development process. More than ever, as one of the most organized youth institutions in the region, political youth arms need to challenge the party leadership internally to empower youth in the decision-making process and build consultative and caucusing mechanisms with activist youth organizations in order to translate the voices of youth into state policy.

As part of political decolonization, the emergence of mass political parties was best placed to usher independence in the period of nationalism during the 1940s and 1960s. While scholars have noted the role of political unionism in the nation-building process, where the middle and intellectual classes made a coalition with the union-organised working classes and poor majority peoples, in most English-speaking territories, what is less noted is the mobilisation of the new political leadership and youth movements of the time whose nationalist visions and aspirations matched the energy of the youth with independence on the horizon. By the 1960s, with the expansion of access to secondary school education and the population growth of the youth demographic, youth unemployment and a political mood of revolutionary and social change brought about new progressive youth movements in the region. The Black Power student leadership and the National Joint Action Committee in Trinidad and Tobago, the political Marxist group, the New Jewel Movement in Grenada or the New World Group intellectual organization in Jamaica and Guyana are examples of this development. Political youth arms need to see themselves as allies with youth movement building while the youth movement must convert its membership and resources into political strength.

Today, many leaders of the political youth arms within the major political parties suffer from marginalization within the party structure. This neglect and wider feeling of not being taken seriously contributes to the ghettoization of youth politics. Some youth political leaders feel that they are relegated to the role of raising funds and assisting in election walkabouts to mobilize other youth. They are very aware of the failures of the party to translate the youth arm’s politics to the power of decision-making. Very soon, they come to the realization that the political party relies on the youth arm as a means to acquire political power but it is not the vehicle through which it is maintained.

As buzzwords of “youth empowerment” are thrown around in rallies and manifestos, young political leaders are taught that silence is an exercise in political wisdom, but there are examples that run contrary to this culture of silence. In Trinidad and Tobago, a 2015 open letter from the Youth Congress of the Congress of the People requested the removal of the political leader of their party in light of his “failure” to maintain the political party’s “identity.” The group also addressed the political leadership’s sidelining of the Youth Congress. In the same year, Raymond Pryce of the People’s National Party spoke out against the perceived “retiring of under-40s” youth parliamentarians by the party in his address to the biennial congress of the PNP Youth Organisation. Party executives later advised that his criticisms should be made internally – a practice not mechanically followed by senior politicians in their articulation of public differences within a parliamentary caucus. History has been less kind to radical youth in the region. In the 1960s, the People’s National Party leadership ousted the radicalized Young Socialist League membership from the party. One decade later, history was in the process of repeating itself when the progressive youth of the PNP Youth Organization were at odds with the centrist and bourgeois orientations in the midst of Michael Manley’s populism.

The failure of youth politics is tied to a number of trends that happened over a longer period. Political parties have co-opted student guild leadership, especially at the University of the West Indies throughout the Caribbean, at the expense of independent and confident youth political representation. What is the point of guild politics if it only serves as a means to make you visible for your own political careerist means later on? Globally, there is a thrust toward the professionalisation of youth leadership. This professionalization of youth places emphasis on administrative leadership, networking and entrepreneurship and makes a decisive break from grassroots activism.

“Professional youth associations” and “young professional think-tanks” are the latest bourgeois insurrections of the mass political parties, drawing on the aspirations of the expanding middle and educated classes but usurping political power to the top through means that run parallel to the party’s grassroots ladder. In the region, among a generation of the most qualified and educated youth leaders, both political youth arms and national youth councils’ raison d’êtres are called into question. We have produced a generation of very qualified “leaders” who campaign on their résumé but have lost the soul of the youth movement.

While some youth political representatives are corrupted by the taste of the crumbs of power or simply prove ineffective in delivering on a visionary agenda for youth in development, this may be a result of political naivety instead of political misconduct (or maybe this assessment is too kind). This naivety leads them to believe that walking the tight-rope of politics will lead them to the safe end of political power where they would finally empower other youth voices; what they ignore is that their self-disciplining at the political party level simultaneously disciplines youth political voices in the decision-making structure and process. Ultimately, silence, elitism and distance from activism and progressive politics work to deepen the exploitation and neglect of youth.

Young political leaders are not automatically transformational leaders because they are young. However, Caribbean political leadership is still woefully short of serious representation of leaders born after national independence in their respective territories. Every election cycle, senior political leaders boast of a National Youth Policy in draft and implemented forms that remain ghost documents to the majority of the population. National Youth Councils are under-resourced or their independence is corrupted by party officials infiltrating the youth machinery. We need to encourage youth political leaders to fight hegemonic and ageist powers within the state and not diminish the value and autonomy of non-political youth institutions. The youth arms of political parties occupy a special position, not because they are young, but because they are open to seeing the political landscape differently.

As a youth organizer on the left, I work with all youth organizations across the political spectrum to help engineer a political discourse that addresses the problems of the youth and advance their dreams. Partisanship when we are united in our powerlessness is not a starting point for justice and social change. We need to work with each other or else the youth will be the ones to suffer and endure the frustrated dream of national independence and Caribbean freedom.

Amílcar Sanatan, interdisciplinary artist and writer, is a Research Assistant at the Institute for Gender and Development Studies and coordinator of the UWI Socialist Student Conference at The University of the West Indies, St. Augustine Campus. Reach him on Twitter @amilcarsanatan