A Caribbean Man for all seasons

Sir Shridath Ramphal

 By David Jessop

In the heart of London, observed daily by tens of thousands of passers-by, is a large picture of Sir Shridath Ramphal, the Caribbean’s elder statesman.
As such, it is one of a number depicting the most internationally renowned alumni of Kings College, London.
To the best of my knowledge nothing quite like this exists in the Caribbean; a region that is not always kind to those who have provided the greatest leadership and service, let alone to one who has helped make its name internationally.
It is perhaps a measure of the lesser men of his time or later, who set aside his advice and wisdom at key moments in the region’s history.
Reading Sir Shridath’s just published  autobiography , Glimpses of a Global Life*, one cannot help feeling his understated sadness that what he was able to achieve or encourage globally at key moments in late twentieth century history, proved much less possible on a Caribbean stage.
Key points in history
His book offers an accessible, highly readable and honest account from one of the very few Caribbean individuals whose life, influence and role intersected not only at the key moments that have made today’s Caribbean, but also with global events such as the ending apartheid and colonial rule in Africa.
From a Caribbean perspective there is much about the failure of Federation, and great clarity about what was lost as a result: a region that today, he suggests, would have been better able to feed itself, be more secure, have a stronger voice on climate change, have greater productivity, the creativity that would have come from being a larger space, better international bargaining power, and a greater human resource pool
Time for Action
There is an extensive and important account about the excitement generated by the West Indian Commission, and how this led to the production of a seminal document and roadmap for the future: the report, ‘A Time for Action’.
There are details too about its rejection, a victim to insularity, insecurity and a self-regarding Caricom secretariat.
There is also much about Sir Shridath’s concern that the nations of the region now assert their separateness and sense of sovereignty no longer internationally but against each other; about the damaging role of Trinidad in relation to Federation; and the part played by the former Jamaican Prime Minister, Edward Seaga, at the time of the US invasion of Grenada.
Although written looking back, Sir Shridath has powerful messages for the Caribbean’s future.
The emphasis of the political and bureaucratic establishment, he writes, has been on sovereignty and turf, but how, he asks has individual sovereignty insulated the region from the power of external forces in an era of globalisation.
‘In all the years’ after the revised Treaty of Chaguaramas was agreed, he notes elsewhere, ‘there was no action, no political action, no political will to act....nothing decisive has happened to fulfil the dream’.                         
Much of the book also points to the need for leaders being able to take the right strategic choices at key moments in history and for statesmen and women to play a mediating role, or to confront publicly the preconceptions of powerful individuals like Margaret Thatcher or Henry Kissinger.
A must read
This is a book that this short column cannot do justice to. It has to be read.
Unusually for a political memoir it is not self serving or justifying, but a clear and sometimes moving account of a life, what made the man and his experiences.
It is also about some of the key events of the twentieth century that he found himself at the centre of, including:
  • the fight against apartheid and the freeing of Nelson Mandela;
  • the creation of the ACP and later, the development round in Doha;
  • his intellectual leadership on issues like the linkages between the environment and development;
  • the need to recognise the unique challenges of small island developing states; the north-south dialogue; and the Caribbean’s diplomatic recognition of Cuba.
Humanity and humility
Reading Sir Shridath’s autobiography, one is also struck by the personal characteristics that set him apart from many of today’s world leaders.
This is his sense of, and commitment to universal values, his humanity, and humility.
Above all, what shines out is his ability throughout his long career to relate high and strategic issues, whether in relation to the Commonwealth, the Caribbean, or globally, to what will bring benefit to the lives of those who will never aspire to, or reach high office.
Perhaps this is because of his humble beginnings, his personal achievement, and the luck that he recounts in his early legal career before his rise through the Caribbean and then international ranks.
At the London launch of his book, he was clear that he had enough material to write another to cover matters that he could not address in depth in a single volume; but he left the sense that that this will now be for scholars and others to produce from his extensive archive.
Strikingly, there, when it came for the moment for Sir Shridath to speak, you could have heard a pin drop as he recounted three episodes covered by the book that were of great importance to him. 
The Commonwealth family
His autobiography is also about family: his own and their closeness; the Commonwealth family that perhaps like no other Commonwealth Secretary General he felt at the centre of; and his lifelong sense of being a part of the West Indian family in its broadest sense.
It is also notable for the pictures in which everyone smiles.
What he has written provides insight into identity, the singularity of the West Indian experience, good and bad, and demonstrates how a sub-region of around 6m people can with the right individual play a role of global leadership.
For this reason, it is not only for any young West Indian who wants to understand better what he or she might achieve for the region on the world stage, but it is also for the Hispanic Caribbean. 
Not just in Cuba, where he is widely admired and regarded as a friend, but for instance in the Dominican Republic, a nation that often has difficulty in understanding the Anglophone part of the region. 
Anyone who has ever had the privilege to work Sir Shridath or to spend time with him knows the power of his words and beliefs which, despite the world of realpolitick, have infused all he has achieved, said and written.  His is an autobiography about a Caribbean man; a man for all seasons.
*Glimpses of a Global Life by Shridath Ramphal. Hardback 624 pp. Published by Hansib Publications and available in bookstores and online
David Jessop is the Director of the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at david.jessop@caribbean-council.org
Previous columns can be found at www.caribbean-council.org
7th November, 2014