“I have also gotten calls from people asking me if I am going to start a new political party. So, I am not going to cast anything in stone. … Anesia Baptiste and the people of this country will have to determine to a large extent my political future. But, as for me, I do not at all think it is over.”
KINGSTOWN. St. Vincent – Anesia Baptiste, who was recently fired from the senate, is tight-lipped about whether she has considered forming a political party.
“I haven’t given thought to what I would do in the future as yet and I wouldn’t want to answer that question yes or no,” she told I-Witness news in an exclusive interview on Tuesday.
In the one-hour interview, I-Witness News asked the 31-year-old politician — who has broken ranks with both the ruling Unity Labour Party (ULP) and the opposition New Democratic Party (NDP) — about her religion and politics, the process through which she was appointed to the senate, her fall out with the NDP in April, and her future in politics.
Baptiste last week held a three-hour press conference to respond to comments by Opposition Leader Arnhim Eustace and NDP Vice-President St. Clair Leacock on the heels of an 11-page letter she wrote to Eustace after the NDP adopted a policy that its candidates and potential candidates should not make adverse statements about religion.
Baptiste, who is a former assistant general-secretary of the NDP and until recently, was the party’s candidate for West St. George, was fired from the senate after she wrote the letter.
We began the interview by asking her about the press conference last week, at which she also called for Eustace and the leadership of the NDP to resign.
Q: What exactly were you hoping to achieve from the press briefing on Wednesday? What kind of outcome were you expecting?
A: What I hoped to achieve is a clearing of my name and character in so far as the misrepresentations of my character and of the facts leading up to my dismissal that I considered to have taken place when Mr. Eustace and Mr. Leacock spoke on that Monday programme of New Times – Monday April 23. … When I heard [their] comments, I felt there were certain misrepresentations I needed to clarify and, to an extent, I felt that I needed to defend my character based on the things that were being said about me.
Q: What are some of those things?
A: When I listened to St. Clair Leacock, he, in particular, gave the impression that I was of a certain kind of behaviour habitually. … I recall him saying things like this was not the first time that he had been brushed aside when he had addressed me on issues, trying to bring his wisdom and experience in politics to bare. … I felt I was being presented as this habitually arrogant and disrespectful person who never listens to authority. Mr Eustace told SVGTV the Tuesday night (April 24) when he was being interviewed that he couldn’t run the risk of having me get up in Parliament and making a statement that attacked the Catholic Church and I was shocked because I thought to myself, all of a sudden I had become a risk, whereas he had given me responsibilities for ecclesiastical affairs as the shadow minister. … I thought to myself that more was being made of the issue with respect to misrepresenting my character than just saying, ‘I fired her because I thought the letter was insulting.’ I think it was unfair to present me like that.
Q: About your Thusian faith, to what extent does you religion and your religious beliefs inform your politics?
A: I am not quite sure exactly what you are trying to ascertain from that question. But with respect to my issue of my view of other religions, I have always advocated religious liberty. And I have plainly shown and stated that I am for the protection of the right to religion of every single person. So that while I have my own particular theological views with respect to God and Christ, and say, for example, the Sabbath and Christian behaviour, etc., I do not, in any way, believe in hindering other people from having their views and practice. What I have clearly shown is that criticism of religious teaching or dogma does not constitute a hindrance or interference with another person’s right and freedom to practice their religion. Many a times, people have accused us of that kind of interference because they view criticisms as hindrance.
Q: We know that many people feel strongly about their religious faith and sometimes, if there is an issue where there is some conflict within, people use their religion to rationalise it and to aid them in making a decision. If you are going to make a decision and it conflicts with your politics, to what extent are you going to rely on your religion, rather than your intellect, to help you to make that decision?
A: First of all, I do not make a distinction because my religion is intelligent. … I do not put a distinction such as you have put in your question at all. What I am saying is this: in politics, you are dealing with all kinds of people, of different religious persuasions. When I have to make a decision politically, I have to bear in mind that the Constitution of the country guarantees the right to religion of every person. … My faith tells me that in a pluralistic society, where everybody does not agree to the same concept of God, where everybody does not have the same idea of God, where everybody doesn’t have the same idea of morality, etc., I understand the important of having constitutionally guaranteed rights to religious liberty. So I am not going to advocate for the passing of a law to prohibit a particular religious practice or teaching. I am not going to advocate either, for the passing of a law to establish a particular religious teaching or practice because either of those will end up either forbidding a sector of the people from practising their religion or the other. … So, politically, my policy position when it comes to religion would be to allow everybody to believe and practice what they want to believe and practice, as long as it doesn’t infringe on another person’s right to believe and practise what they want to believe and practice.
Q: Do you believe in a separation of Religion and State?
A: I believe in a separation of Religion and Legislation. I do not think that the expression separation of Religion and State — and I have also heard some say Church and State — … is an accurate expression. The State is made up of people, … those people may have religious views or not. So, we can’t, in a literal sense, a true sense, separate Religion from the State. What I say, is that the accurate expression should be a separation of Religion and Legislation in that the State should not legislate in matter of religion. They shouldn’t legislate to establish a particular religious teaching or practise, neither should they legislate to prohibit a particular religion and practice.
Q: The Constitution says St. Vincent and the Grenadines is founded on the belief in the supremacy of God and the freedom and dignity of man. How do you feel about that?
A: What I understand that Constitution to be saying is that our nation is a nation that traditionally believes in the supremacy of God and the freedom and dignity of man — meaning that we are a people who are known to believe in God and the freedom that mankind has. I don’t have any bad feeling about it. I agree with it. I like it. I feel it is good. I think what’s more important is that the Constitution goes on to show that those statement does not mean that a person who does not believe in God … does not have the freedom to not believe in God.
Q: Do you like it because you are Christian? Do you think you would still like it if you weren’t Christian?
A: I don’t know. Because, obviously — that’s like speculation. Maybe a non-Christian mightn’t like it. But the important thing for a non-Christian to understand is that that statement does not force him to believe in God. That statement doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have freedom to be an atheist if he wants to. … It just states that this is the kind of nation we had when this constitution was formed: A people, who, majority wise, generally believed in God.
Q: To what extent do you think that the national constitution of St. Vincent and the Grenadines speak to what happens within the NDP or any political organisation? You said that the policy that the NDP passed is unconstitutional. What do the actions of a political party have to do with the national Constitution?
A: I referred to Section 9, Subsection 1 of the Constitution, which outlines the protection of freedom of conscience. And what I was saying is that the policy that was dictated by Mr. Eustace was limiting the freedom of liberty exercise of candidates or potential candidates in as far as it was saying you can believe what you want but you can’t make public statements that may be adverse to any religion. What I was saying is that the constitutional freedom of conscience specifically says that not only you have the freedom to believe but also to make public statements about your beliefs. … Freedom of conscience is protected even if you are in prison; even if you are in the military, … even if you are in a school that might be a church school.
Q: Every organisation passes laws or rules, policies, guidelines that they think are in their best interest. The New Democratic Party feels that this is in its best interest. … Do you not think that if you could not reconcile that position with your own conscience that the best option would have been to resign? Do you not think that you would have gained credibility points or principle points for doing that?
A: The point I am making is this. No organisation, and in this case, a political party, ought to be in breech of the law. All political parties’ policies are supposed to be within the ambit of the Constitution. It is the highest law of the country. If a political party requires me to give up my conscience for a policy, it is my individual right to follow my conscience. Individual freedom of conscience should precede the party’s policies. … It was not about gaining points in the eyes of the public. It was about standing for principle and standing for the right thing.
Q: In terms of your letter, do you think you could have expressed your views in less strident terms? Did you have to be that rabid? Did you have to be so harsh?
A: … the words I used were necessary. I don’t think it should have been less harsh. I don’t think it should have been less strong than it was. The reason why I had to speak and write the way I wrote was all that led up to it and the facts as they were before me. I wanted to make it absolutely clear that the original statement on which this policy was based was really falsehood surrounding the statement …
Q: Do you see yourself, as a candidate for an election, making statements about people’s religion that make people uncomfortable and expect them to vote for you?
A: I was not asking for the freedom to beat up on people’s religion, attack people’s religion, run down people’s religion. … I am not saying I have a freedom to do that. … What may, from time to time, constitute my religious discourse is being critically analytical of religious teaching and point out what I think is right and wrong — which is what criticism is — about those things. And that is something that I have been given work to do as a Christian. Jesus Christ himself said to His disciples to show certain things. … So, if I have to, under conscience, say to some people that what they are doing is wrong under God, I have to do it. … To say it will make people uncomfortable is not necessarily so, depending on what you are talking about and who you are dealing with.
What I would say is that realistically, as a politician, I do not believe that it is the issue of my religious belief that will determine whether or not I get votes. I still believe that in St. Vincent and the Grenadines there is something more important to people than that. And it is the issue of representation. What you can do for them, how you are going to meet their needs, how you are going to prove to them that you will be there for them and would find creative ways of getting things done when times are hard. And that is what I was doing all along as a politician. … In fact, I think the decision made against me and the basis on which it was made … is something that would cause the NDP to lose votes.
Q: Do you really think that — in light of what happens in politics in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and I am looking at this historically — Burton William came on TV the night before an election in 1994 and said he was going to tell all against then Prime Minister Sir James Mitchell, we had the case of Stalky John and Ken Boyea, and their political careers, for all intents and purposes ended with that — the masses in the New Democratic Party are going to side with you as opposed to the political party?
A: I do not know. What I do know is that I am not Burton Williams, I am not Ken Boyea and the others who you mentioned. I do believe that these times are not their times either. In the same way that I have read statement on Facebook and heard statements on the radio disagreeing with me, I have also read statement on Facebook and heard statements on the radio, people send me inbox messages, people call me on the phone … agreeing with me. And I have also gotten calls from people asking me if I am going to start a new political party. So, I am not going to cast anything in stone to say, as others have pronounced that this is the end of my political future, that’s it for me, it can’t work in St. Vincent, you have to be part of either or of the two main parties to make any headway. I find some people have been forgetting history. … They seem to forget that we once had a scenario where an independent candidate made the difference in the whole election. I am talking about Sir James Mitchell. And who would have seen that coming?
Q: That was 35 years ago, before liberalised radio, before the days of Internet and social media.
A: The fact that you inserted that makes my argument stronger. Because, if that was 35 years ago, before we had liberalised radio, Internet, social media and all of that, it tells me information, addressing propaganda and fighting the political war in terms of getting your points and stuff out there is even more possible now. But I am referring to that piece of history to show that even those who say ‘You are doomed’ to me, they forget that period. But, like I said, I am not Burton Williams, I am not Ken Boyea, I am Anesia Baptiste and the people of this country will have to determine to a large extent my political future. But, as for me, I do not at all think it is over.
Q: I know you have said that you have not decided what you will do but have you at all considered forming a political party?
A: I haven’t given thought to what I would do in the future as yet and I wouldn’t want to answer that question yes or no because it will be pre-empting the fact that I am saying — essentially, it will be like saying I have decided already and I really have given thought to it. Remember I have my life to think about as well. I am out of a job.
Q: But the question I am asking you, have you at all considered it? Yes or No?
A: My comments will be no comment at this time.
Q: You spoke about what you wanted to achieve at that press conference. Do you think you have achieved that? Do you think you succeeded in giving your side of the story, as it were?
A: There is one thing I didn’t get to say that I hope to achieve as well, and I will say it before I answer that question. I wanted to show while the New Democratic Party was making an issues … of a trivial matter, there are more serious issues they had to deal with concerning themselves.
Q: Why did you not say that before? Why did you wait until your senatorial appointment was revoked?
A: … The matter in itself, as it is now, showed me certain things that I didn’t see before. It is so horrifying to my mind that at a time like now when we are … supposed to be stressing on certain things … here we are beating up on two young people who simply wanted to follow the issue of the Constitution and constitutional rights. So, it is easy to ask why didn’t you talk about that before. But the circumstances as they were before were not the same as they are now. The comparison and the emphasis that needs to be made now cannot and would not be the same. … It really wasn’t about, as some people have put it, burning down the house while leaving it and blowing the cover. There are people I heard who were waiting for me to come out and say things about money and expose this and expose that. I knew nothing what they were talking about. I only talked about the issue as I saw it.
Q: So, do you think that you have achieved those things that you set out to achieve?
A: There is more than one way to answer it. I would say I have achieved it because I had said what I was going to say. Whether or not people who were listening to me, I have clarified things for them, it would be for them to say. Whether or those who think I have achieve what I set out to achieve are in the majority as opposed to those who think I didn’t, is another thing I would have to judge. … I always believe there is a silent majority who have the last say and sometimes we don’t pay enough attention to them. Personally, I am not affected by what may appear to be a majority who have sided against me or sided with the NDP.
Q: Professionally, it is generally advised that when one leaves a company or an organisation that one should not say untoward things about that entity. How do you feel about that? Do you think you have observed that principle?
A: Well, I understand that it is a principle that speaks to the issue of ethics. In this matter, however, I followed the convictions in my heart from God. Jesus was a very ethical person but He went into the public and spoke to the Pharisees and Scribes and called them hypocrites and generation of vipers. It would have been ethical for Him not to be so bold and brazen … Many religious persons who were in politics, like Daniel in King Darius’ kingdom and the Three Hebrew Boys in King Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom, they were politicians in high positions … but when it came to stand up and tell the king he was wrong to make a law that went against religious liberty, they did not observe ethics. So whereas in the professional secular world we are told these are good ethical practices to observe, it doesn’t always necessarily make them right. In fact, … sometimes, ethical practices can lead to … a sort of nice way of covering up corruption or covering up wrong from being exposed. And where I feel that is it necessary to point out certain things, … I will do it. Because I think many a times, the ethics helps to promote the wrong or evil and cover it.
Q: Can you describe for me the process through which you were appointed as a senator?
A: Mr. Eustace … called me and said to me that he had decided to offer me a senatorial position and I accepted. It was via telephone and I was issued a letter [of appointment] by the Governor General.
Q: Did you at the time ask him about what would be expected of you as a senator in the Parliament representing the opposition? Did you have any particular concerns, any particular questions that you wanted to ask or things you wanted to get clarified?
A: No. I didn’t ask him any questions about what would be expected of me and I didn’t have concerns. I went about doing my research with respect to the Rules of the House. … Mr Eustace himself had meeting with the parliamentary caucus to school us on how we go about getting into debate …
Q: Do you have any inclination who the new senator might be?
A: None whatsoever. I have only read what’s in the newspaper. I have seen speculations that [NDP Chairperson] Dr. [Linton] Lewis when asked did not comment much but did say to the effect that basically, if we was offered he would be interested.
Q: After you were appointed, Dr. Lewis made some statements in the press that that he was not consulted. How did you feel about the fact that the chairman of the party, which the Leader of the Opposition, constitutionally can appoint whoever he wants, he did not even consult the chairman, how do you feel about that?
A: To be honest, I wondered about the veracity of his statement because of something I had heard. Basically I had heard that he had expressed interest. So I was a bit concerned about the statement he was making about not being consulted… I heard that it was a case where he had expressed interest and the results were that he wasn’t chosen so maybe he was upset. … But I really didn’t get any answer from the Leader of the Opposition publicly or anything to indicate that it wasn’t true. All I was hearing that he really didn’t need to consult him because it is the law. And I just left the matter. In my mind I didn’t make anything of it in the same way that I have not made a matter of his consulting or not consulting before firing me.
Q: Do you think that this whole episode can in anyway work against you in the future, especially the press conference on Wednesday and the things you said there.
A: I don’t think so, because I spoke the truth and the truth never works against you even when it appears to … When I speak, people will not always agree with me … I speak because it is the right thing to do and it is the truth. That is my personal position. … If you ask me if people will disagree with me, yes, they will disagree with me. Will a judge agree with me? I don’t know; perhaps. But will what I said work against me? I don’t think so. Because I spoke the truth.
Q: How do you think that this whole episode might affect the leaders of political parties in their decision to give certain opportunities to young politicians?
A: I don’t know. Perhaps some might be more reluctant because young politicians might be more brazen or whatever. Perhaps some might be even more strict in the way the select persons. At the same time, some might be more careful in how they go about what they do because of a younger breed of politicians who are more strict about accountability.
Q: Mr. Eustace has led the NDP to three consecutive defeats. Did you ever suggest to him that it might make good political sense to resign?
A: No, I never had any discussions with him about his going forward in terms of resignation or staying on. What I know is that even after the last election, when I considered everything, I had still thought — and up to this day — that depending on how far we go into the five-year term, I still thought up to that time that he still stood a chance of being able to lead the party into a next election.
Q: You used the word “dictate” in your statement. What exactly do you mean? Dictate has a denotative meaning but it also have certain connotations.
A: When I used the word dictate in reference to the policy, I simply wanted to say that Mr. Eustace came and he laid down what the party position was. … I wasn’t saying that somehow he is a dictator, although I did speak about dictatorship in my press conference. When I wrote, I used the work to make it clear that this is how the policy position was arrived at. It was dictated to us. It wasn’t … that there was discussion before [and a vote was taken]. … Mr. Eustace was the one who raised the issue as an agenda item in the meeting. … And then he proceeded to say what the party position is …