Remarks by Fred Mitchell MP
Minister of Foreign Affairs and Immigration
University of the West Indies
Bahamas Week Address
“The Future Is You”
3rd February 2015
It is a privilege to be here today. This is a well-worn path for me in the sense that this is the kind of journey that I have made on and off since 1998 when I helped my party embark on a strategy to win the general election of 2002.
In that year I served as the Opposition’s spokesman on Foreign Affairs and Labour. It became my job then to interact with the Diaspora. So I went from campus to campus in the United States and in the West Indies to speak with the students because I knew that they would be the key to our success or failure, not just as a party but more importantly as a country.
I have not changed my mind on that thought. I have not stopped. The evidence is there of the start when I visited with the students at the Mona Campus of UWI way back in 1998. Some of those men and women are now doctors, lawyers, teachers and leaders in the community in their own right. Often they come up to me and remember the visits that I made and say how that small visit made a difference in the way they thought about things and the way they shaped their lives.
It was therefore a pleasure to be invited to come to this year’s festivities here at the Cave Hill campus. I have been here on this same mission many times before. It is a privilege to be back.
I had what I call a Dickensian moment. It is one of those feelings that you get when you read a Charles Dickens novel. A character appears at the start of the novel, then disappears and then suddenly near the end surprisingly appears, all grown up and successful. That was the response I had when I was reminded that Valdere Murphy who is your President spoke at a Young Liberals Conference at the headquarters of our party way back in 2010. I lost track of where he was. I went back and checked. Yes indeed Christmas Eve 2010. He sent me a copy of the address that he delivered, full of hope and confidence and sunshine. Today he still has that ‘can do’ spirit which I hope you all share, so it was a real pleasure to have reconnected.
I wish then to start by thanking my hosts, all of you for this kind invitation, for the University for facilitating the arrangements, to the Honorary Consul for The Bahamas Selwyn Smith for his work, to my colleague Foreign Minister Maxine McClean for so kindly hosting us to dinner last evening and then agreeing to attend tonight. It is most gracious of all of you.
Tomorrow would have been, had they still been alive, the 65th anniversary of the marriage of my parents Frederick Mitchell Senior and his wife Lilla, who was a Forde by birth. Her father came from Barbados, born here we are told at the turn of the last century in the union of a Barrow and a Forde and taken by his father who had been hired as a tailor for the police force in The Bahamas. My grandfather was born we are told in Blackrock.
The reason I want to start there is because the focus of this address is to inspire you to have confidence in yourselves, to continue to work hard to aspire for greatness. There is a lot to be afraid of, and you are most times looking through a glass darkly but if there is anything that you should take away from this brief chat this evening, it is that all the evidence points to a successful outcome for your lives if you simply persevere. For all I know, that is what life is all about.
I want to urge you to be confident about who you are and to so conduct your lives, and construct your habits in such a way as to reinforce that confidence in yourself. The Bahamas, the region needs that confidence to succeed. To quote some words from the late Clarence Bain, we do not need “a weak kneed, apologetic” generation.
That is what my parents gave me and I hand it to you.
They were married in 1950. My father was the son of a baker. His father came to Nassau from the remote island then called Watlings at the age of 14. My own father left school at 14 and went to the then Board of Works located where the present Magistrates Courts are on Nassau Street to learn to be an auto mechanic. So I am the son of an auto mechanic.
My mother went off to New York to learn to be a secretary. Her mother died while she was away in school and she could not come home for the funeral, things being as they were back in 1943.
Those two people, my mother and father had five children beginning with me in 1953 and ending with my twin siblings in 1960. They raised them all off salaries which at their height could not have together been more than the salary which I make today. Yet by the mid-1960s they had paid for their home, all their children were in private schools and their children later went on to university and all have professional careers today.
That is not an atypical story of social mobility in our Bahamas. The question is: is that story being repeated today? If it is not, then you should make it your mission to be sure that it is. If it is being done today, then you ought to be sure that it continues.
Where did their upbringing place me? They made some decisions for me. They enrolled me in the Anglican Church. They put me in the Eastern Union Burial Society which had been started by my grandaunts as a Friendly Society. They rooted me in African pride; national pride; sense of self. They taught me not to be afraid and to assert who and what I am without apology.
From there I made my decision to join the Progressive Liberal Party so that effectively there are only two organizations in which I claim active membership: the Anglican church and the PLP.
They, like thousands like them, grew up in an age of racial discrimination where the opportunities were denied them because of the colour of their skin. Yet it was that generation who challenged those notions in our country through civic activism, hard work and their own education and the education of their children.
You Bahamians today are the inheritors of that.
I have often made the observation about the life of Sir Clifford Darling, the former Governor General and the former Labour Leader who was born and raised in Chesters, Acklins. He migrated to Nassau and then went into politics and challenged the status quo. I asked the question publicly: what could have possessed a man who was Black and so supposedly the wrong colour; poor and from a remote island in The Bahamas, all the wrong attributes – think that he could challenge the great Stafford Sands and Roland Symonette. Guess what: he not only challenged them but he brought them and their system to its knees.
So when students like you ask me – and many do about getting into politics and whether or not there are consequences for doing so – I am a bit impatient with the question. Of course there are consequences, and the consequences are often brutal but guess what, the rewards of the sacrifices are beneficial not only to you but to the whole society. That is your reward.
I say to you, think of Sir Clifford Darling, no or little formal education, the wrong side of the tracks so to speak but he challenged the status quo in a time when all the odds were against him. You live today in a time where all of that has changed because of what men and women like him did; you have a better education; the finest the region can offer; you have more money and cannot plead poverty. You are young and full of energy and can duck bullets. I throw the question back at you: what is there to be afraid of?
Today Tuesday 3rd February St. Augustine’s College in Nassau, a Catholic High School founded by the Benedictine Monks of Minnesota in the United States celebrates the 70th anniversary of its existence. I would like to pay tribute to this school and its Principal on this occasion. I graduated from that school in 1970. I arrived there from public school, the old Eastern Junior School, now Palmdale Primary in 1965. When I arrived there, my whole life changed and it has been for the better ever since.
My teachers at the various schools – Eastern Junior (the late Dawson Conliffee, Mrs. Marietta Coakley and Mrs. Lorna Glinton; Sands School (the late Mrs. Ruth Pinder and Mrs. Mayrona Seymour and Mrs. Sadie Curtis); at SAC (Frs. Bonaventure Dean, Alvin Fong Ben, Burton Bloms and Deacon Leviticus Adderley) gave me the education, the confidence to be able to do what I do today.
I remember so clearly my standing on the stage at the United Nations in 2002. This was my first visit as Foreign Minister of The Bahamas, a job which I had coveted from I was a teenager in school. They announced that they would call the Foreign Minister of The Bahamas, and yes that was me. I walked out on to the stage. I looked at the sea of people out there including students like yourselves who had flown to New York for the occasion. As I walked out on to the stage, I remembered those times in class back at SAC where they taught me to perform Mark Anthony’s famous oration which begins: “Friends, Romans countrymen, lend me your ears.” I remembered: “If you have tears prepare to shed them now.” I remembered how I participated in the first speech contest ever scheduled in 1969 by the newly formed Toastmaster’s Club. I remember how I lost miserably because I was too outspoken. I chose that moment to tell them how disorganized they were. It is as you now see a bad habit and one of long standing.
I said to myself on that UN stage from the famous green marble platform: “so this is what your teachers were preparing you for all those years ago.” I began to speak.
The moral of that story is that what you are doing today is preparing you for the big dance. I want you to remember that when the time comes, do not choke. Do not step back from the breach. Do what you were trained to do. Do what your nation would expect you to do. If it means speaking uncomfortable and inconvenient truths, then so be it. It is an axiom of my life. I commend it you as a way to go to bed with a clean and quiet mind.
So I congratulate Mrs. Sonia Foster, one of my classmates of the SAC class of 1970 who now is the Principal of the School. I am sorry that I am unable to be there to celebrate with you.
Which brings me to today’s current events in The Bahamas and the region. I am also the Minister for Immigration matters. You know that on 1st November, we began some administrative measures which have caused some adverse commentary in the international press and has been the source of some commentary in the region. I would only say believe half of what you read and accept little of what is asserted.
What is being done by the government is nothing out of the ordinary save and except enforcing the laws of The Bahamas. No Fred Smith, no Joe Darville, no Nassau Guardian, No Eileen Carron, not even the doddering Richard Coulson should deter us from the central issue which is the enforcement of the law.
Dissidents have their place and play their role. I was one and I know. But right now I am the Minister for Immigration, not a dissident and the laws must be enforced until such time as the laws are changed or the government decides for administrative reasons that they want to take another course.
Last week, an announcement was made about the fact that the law requires children to have permission to be in The Bahamas if they are not nationals of The Bahamas. There is nothing special about that. The law makes no distinction between adults and children. Every country in this hemisphere does the same thing. In fact, you will recall that tens of thousands of children were deported from the Unite States over the past year when it became clear that they were being used to subvert the national security of that country.
You cannot have a situation where the national security of a country, its national identity is threatened merely because a society refuses to enforce its laws on immigration. The issue is not whether nor not people can migrate. Immigration is a natural state of mankind. The issue today is that immigration must be through the front door, not the back door and must be documented.
The Nassau Guardian is now on a campaign with a script written by the usual suspects who say that what I said about children violates international conventions on the basis that I propose to exclude children from school. The fact is the only people who have said that children are to be excluded from school is the Nassau Guardian and The Tribune and the civic activist. I said no such thing. In fact I did not pronounce nor would I on a matter which is for the Education Authorities in the country. But the axiom of the Bahamian press is never let the truth interfere with a good story, and stories are being written by journalists of questionable ethics.
The question of who gets into school and who does not is a matter for the Ministry of Education. However, the law is clear that every non-national has to have a residency permit to be in The Bahamas.
We reminded people yesterday in a statement that Bahamian students must pay 160 dollars to get a student visa to study in the United States. If they violate that law and they are caught, then they are deported from the US and excluded from returning to that country.
What The Bahamas proposes is not unusual or unique or new. Indeed thousands of non-nationals in The Bahamas today hold student permits to reside.
This is where I come back to the admonition: be careful not to accept uncritically what is written in newspapers and asserted by activists. Sometimes half the story is told.
Because the usual suspects have failed to derail the policy, they now are engaging in two public relations ploys. One is to attack me personally and make it seem that this is a personal frolic on which I have embarked. The second is to make every illegal migrant a victim.
They have used defamatory statements like “ethnic cleansing”. They have said that we operate Auschwitz in The Bahamas. They have accused the Department of “institutional terrorism”. No objective agency has called them out on these mischaracterizations. Not only is there no evidence to support it. The fact is that the assertions are coming from people of questionable mental stability. Yet the assertions continue to come unabated and unquestioned.
One example of the personal campaign is that of going into the archives and dredging up old articles about what I said and did in the past. That is fine because one of things I decided early on in my public career which began in 1976 as a newspaper columnist was to be sure that on any subject you can go back and know what my views are on that subject. I am not afraid of any subject or stigma associated with any views, nor do I step back from decisions made at the time they were made. They can only be made based on the information which is available to you at the time.
So the Grand Bahama Human Rights Association produces an old newspaper clipping with a speculative story in the paper which indicates that I had planned to form a political party to challenge the then status quo with the now self-proclaimed leader of the Grand Bahama Human Rights Association. The object of revealing that one supposes is that at one time I used to be on the same side as the self-proclaimed leader. The only problem is that they forgot to say that the day after that article appeared in the press, I issued a statement in which I said I would never form any political party with him. I formed the opinion then that he was unstable, ever since he called for a bloody revolution from a public platform. I have disassociated myself from him then and repudiate him now. It was a special form of madness to me. That remains my position today.
The point I make however is that this has nothing to do with me personally. It is simply being portrayed as such to stop the policy.
The other public relations ploy is that of creating victims where there are none: a woman gave birth to a child on the detention centre floor, they say. That is only half the story. Children were taken away from their homes by Immigration Officers, they say; again only half the story.
The other half of the story which would reveal the truth of the staging of victimhood is simply not convenient for the activist community, so it never gets to see the light of day. They have become experts at it.
What gets me however, is the rank hypocrisy of it all. The Leader of the Grand Bahama Human Rights Association engaging in this political subterfuge while coming like Nicodemus in the night begging for work permits. Or his Chief Lieutenant one Joe Darville, a former school master, denouncing the policy in the open but in a closed meeting telling the Haitian pastors that they must tell their people to leave The Bahamas. No more or less. Absolutely incredible! You cannot believe this is the same man.
Why have I walked you through all of this pretty tough stuff. Most of you are in training to be lawyers and doctors. If history is any judge of this, then many of you are looking at careers in public life or certainly in leadership positions in the society. I have told the story of how I taught the Politics and Government class at COB in the Spring of 1988 and in that class were two students of note. One was Michael Halkitis who is now a Minister of State and became Parliamentary Secretary 14 years after that class. The other was Raynard Rigby who became Chairman of the governing PLP 15 years after that class. It is only a short time and so what you are doing now is preparing yourself so that you can hit the ground running.
Given the way our societies are constructed, whether you wish to or not, the country will look to you for leadership. It is a tough and relentless, brutal business; you have to have a skin like a rhinoceros. In many respects, you have to be shameless.
When I was a student at the Birkbeck College at the University of London, Merlyn Rees, then Opposition spokesman on Home Affairs and later Home Affairs Minister for Britain, told us in class that the public servant should always know what the policies of the Opposition and the government are. This he said would mean better government because once the government changed, the new Government’s policies would not be a surprise to the public administration.
I believed that and I accepted that this was the way it was supposed to work in The Bahamas.
The late Michael Manley, the former Prime Minister of Jamaica spoke to me in an interview in 1980 shortly after he lost office to Edward Seaga. In analyzing why he lost, he said that he did not appreciate how the public administration of the country could not cope with the pace and volume of the changes which he proposed for his society.
This then brings me to my current hobby horse, that of promoting a better public administration.
The way our system is supposed to work is precisely that way. Those from permanent secretary on down are supposed to execute the policies and help design those policies based on their understanding of what the political directorate wishes to accomplish.
The present immigration policies for example cannot be successful without the proper execution and understanding of those policies. They also require an interface with the public through a proper public affairs programme. We have to invent all of this from scratch in the Department because unlike the police force for example, the Department of Immigration has no public affairs unit.
A public affairs unit is essential. From all the time I have spent in this political business, I can tell you that much of the job of the politician in policy making is in the communication skills from what the Americans call the bully pulpit. I do not believe in this day and age that any space should go unfilled. There is so much nonsense being purveyed, examples of which I gave tonight that you must answer and answer quickly. That is the job of the public administration.
I have described our situation in The Bahamas as “over-deliberativeness.” That is a fancy expression to say we simply take too long to get things done. There is not a sufficient division of labour. So for example to go back to the thoughts I gave earlier from the British Minister, the public administration should be so attuned to what the minister is saying, what the public is saying that the public administration can shift course and get cracking with policy initiatives at the drop of a hat.
Today in our country, it typically takes two years or more from the day you make a decision to build a building for example to the first shovel in the ground. That is why what is happening now with the Bahamas Agricultural Marine Science Institute (BAMSI) is a minor miracle. We need to do more of that if we are not to be swamped by inertia.
So I want to encourage a cultural change away from what I have called “over-deliberativeness”
Okay so now I have talked too long but I leave you with this.
On Saturday as I was going down to the gym, I looked down at ground in front of the hotel door and I saw a picture of two little boys in school uniforms on the front page of the New York Times. I thought to myself: “they look like children from The Bahamas in school uniforms.” I thought nothing further about it until I later picked it up and by Jove it was a picture of children in The Bahamas.
The New York Times said that by our new policies we were making these little children born in The Bahamas foreigners. The article later said that what was happening in The Bahamas was also happening in the Dominican Republic. That is demonstrably false and not so.
We issued a statement right away. Few people saw our statement compared to the reach of the New York Times.
The Times published the following today on its web site:
Because of an editing error, a picture caption on Saturday for an article about a new immigration policy in the Bahamas that critics say unfairly targets Haitians misstated the effects of the policy on the two boys shown, born in the Bahamas but of Haitian descent. The boys have always been considered Haitian; that is not among the policy changes. (The new policy requires everyone to hold a passport, and as of next fall will also require all schoolchildren who are not citizens to have a student residency permit.)
That does not go far enough to correct the misinformation but I am happy that the point is made. They got it wrong and to me the whole House of Cards collapses.
I hope that what you get out of this is to be fearless, stand up for yourselves, believe in yourselves and as Sir Winston Churchill once said: “Never give up!”
Thank you for listening