Your local road is full of potholes and desperately needs work. What do you do? Well, you go and block a bigger road. At least, that’s what the people did in the pleasant village of Calibishie, Dominica. I had to traverse fallen mango trees and burnt-out clunkers just to get eggs and bacon, an experience that most people will never have.
Earlier this year, I traveled to the small Caribbean island nation of Dominica, and in between witnessing the elegance of the rain forests and the beauty of the black sand beaches, I was treated to a piece of Dominican history. There was a public protest in the village where I was staying, the first protest that any of the locals could remember. For years they had been waiting for the government to fix the local road as promised, to no avail. One hot day in April, they were fed up.
“We need this road fixed, and we need it now,” said Nap, my trusted guide and friend, who knew everyone and everything about the island. “So, we protest today, and we will keep doing it until the roadwork starts.”
Fixing the road was a campaign promise from the previous election. In Calibishie, votes don’t come easy, and this repair was badly needed — not so people could drive faster or because their low-riding sports cars were in danger, but because without it they simply couldn’t lead their lives.
“My grandma can’t leave the house,” said a young woman. “Driving is too bumpy for her, and she couldn’t walk that far or that steep. Spending a day on this is what I can do.”
Several others told me about cars destroyed by potholes that remained unpatched. Farmers had a hard time bringing their wares to the market.
Calibishie is situated on the northwest coast of Dominica, in a T-shape that stretches along the shore, then up a steep hill to Calibishie Ridge. The road up the hill was the one in question. I walked down the hill to the shore regularly, but this morning, at the intersection with the main road, I saw at least a hundred people gathered at the intersection. They were the people I usually saw working in the supermarket, the school, the restaurants and snackettes. It seemed that everyone in town — except the police officers — was spending one day of their lives to protest. A group of dedicated men had blocked the main road with trees and cars during the night and set some produce aflame. It was now up to the rest of the village to make sure no cars could pass.
Police were dressed in camouflage for the occasion, armed with American-made M16s, and they drove pickup trucks paid for by Hugo Chávez. Countries like Dominica take money from whoever offers it to them — you’ll find drug police with sidearms and body armor paid for with American money, shining new Venezuelan schools, EU-funded farm access roads, and Chinese building projects, amongst others. Officially, this is foreign aid; unofficially it’s quid pro quo to advance any political goal. The U.S. wants to limit drug transits in and out of the country, and Venezuela successfully convinced Dominica to join the ALBA. International politics are very visible in Dominica, even in the equipment of paramilitary-esque police officers.
Guns loaded, the police looked like they were coming to break up the party, and the village crazy had told a group of tourists that it might get dangerous. I told the group to ignore him, but I couldn’t stop the fear forming in the back of my mind. If I had been back home, it would have been justified. I was in the midst of a protest that severely limited transport for the entire country, amongst a population tired of their government, and a government with guns. Your favorite analogy about pressure cookers or lit fuses fits snugly into this scenario.
But nothing bad happened that day.
Even after police cleared up one of the roadblocks and some locals cut down yet another tree to replace it, everyone went about their business and kept calm. The locals introduced me to non-violent yet physical protest, and while anger and resentment loomed, it didn’t change the fact that nobody here would think of harming anyone else. The stereotypically relaxed Caribbean lifestyle that doesn’t seem to exist anywhere did exist that day in Dominica.
Any statistic tells the tale; despite high poverty, crime is low and mostly limited to the drug trade, murder rates are half the US rate and one tenth of the rate in Puerto Rico. On the flip side, the economy isn’t so great. A Canadian bar owner had to make sure meticulous work was done before lunch, before Mary Jane came around. A retired British botanist told me that banana farmers refused to work more than twice a week after the Crown stopped subsidizing production in the early ‘90s. From macroeconomics to mortal citizens, the Caribbean lives on in Calibishie. Everyone was completely laid back, even the guys with the loaded guns. After a while, I had no problem understanding that the village crazy deserved his label as a badge of merit.
The day went by, police came and went, roadblocks were removed and reapplied, angry drivers complained, and finally, local news covered the event and got everyone cheering. After almost ten hours in the sun they were all still there, about half of the famed 300, when nightfall came at about 6 p.m.
The roadblocks were still intact when Hon. Rayburn Blackmoore, Minister of Public Works, arrived. After a prolonged speech in the dark, drowned out by megaphone noise and hollering from the crowd, everyone went home and the road was cleared of all debris within hours. I couldn’t hear it, but I was later told that the village was promised about $100,000 to get the work started, and it was to start in three days. The people of Calibishie got what they came for. This road was needed to improve their lives, for some even faced the brink of poverty or the inability to live as masters of their own lives. Such a simple and often overlooked piece of infrastructure that creates so much opportunity makes for a protest well worth having.
Lastly, don’t forget: If you ever need a new road, just block a bigger one. You’ll have your money by the end of the day.