Venezuela: The Church, Opposition, and Loyalty

Garfield Higgins

Sunday, January 20, 2019

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Before a bird flies off I've counted the eggs in its belly. — Krio proverb, Sierra Leone


There are some who believe that the Christian church should concern herself [church is the bride of Christ] with the saving of souls and nothing else. I am not one of them. I believe that in addition to spreading the gospel to the four corners of the Earth, the Church should also concern herself with all matters that regulate human life on this planet.

Last week the Jamaica Council of Churches (JCC) issued a press release which asked for “clarity on Government's relations with Venezuela”. ( Jamaica Observer, January 15, 2019)

I think this sort of engagement should be encouraged, notwithstanding questions in many quarters as to whose behalf the JCC speaks and queries about the percentage of the local Christian denominations which it represents.

I made some inquiries of a friend who knows quite a bit about church statistics on the latter.

Last Wednesday, she sent me some data which showed that the JCC does not represent the largest and/or the fastest-growing denominations in the country.

The Seventh-day Adventist Church is the largest [today some 350,000] and the Pentecostal church is the fastest-growing [now at approximately 300,000]. The combined entities known as the Church of God [these include the Church of God of Prophecy, the New Testament Church of God, and what are termed 'Other Church of God'], for example, has just over 625,000 affiliates.

In fact, the information which I received showed that, especially over the last 18 years, those sitting in the pews of the traditional churches which largely make up the JCC continue to decline while the evangelicals are seeing an appreciable bounce in worshippers.

I believe the evangelicals should make a greater input on Jamaica's, political, social and economic issues.

I think our democratic process would be significantly enriched with their added perspectives. The JCC's voice is always welcome, but the country deserves to hear from the majority of local Christian representatives.

In colonial times, only certain voices were approved and promoted as legitimate. We have yet to totally rid ourselves of that mental burden. The sooner we do so the better.

The JCC's statement last week, from what I read in the media, did not say a single word about the suppression and or repression of Venezuelans by the Nicolás Maduro regime.

There was, in fact, great congruence between its position and that of the People's National Party (PNP). Is it that the prayerful members of the JCC do not know and or have not heard about the human rights tragedies taking place in Venezuela?

Maybe the dutiful members of the JCC have not seen and or read reports from the United Nations; Amnesty International; Human Rights Watch; and media houses Agence France-Presse ( AFP), The Associated Press ( AP), British Broadcasting Corporation ( BBC), and several other globally respected organisations that have been chronicling the human rights atrocities in Venezuela.

On August 8, 2018, the BBC reported inter alia: “The United Nations Human Rights Office has warned of 'widespread and systematic use of excessive force' being used against protesters in Venezuela. It also speaks of other human rights violations, including 'violent house raids, torture and ill-treatment'.”

The same BBC report also said: “Since the wave of demonstrations began in April, there has been a clear pattern of excessive force used against protesters. Several thousand people have been arbitrarily detained, many reportedly subjected to ill-treatment and even torture, while several hundred have been brought before military rather than civilian courts,” Hussein said.

He pointed out that “some groups of demonstrators have also resorted to violence, with attacks reported against security officers”.

The UN human rights team said that estimates suggested that more than 5,000 people had been arbitrarily detained between April 1, when the protests began, and July 31.

On September 20, 2018, Amnesty International UK published a report entitled 'Venezuela: Government responsible for one of the worst human rights crises in its history'. The 58-page report, among other things, noted that some “8,292 extrajudicial executions took place in the last two years between 2015 and 2017”.

Human Rights Watch has published several damning reports on the abuse of free speech in Venezuela.

On July 17, 2017, for example, the BBC reported, among other things: “The abuse of power by the Venezuelan Government under President Hugo Chavez has increased over the past four years, according to Human Rights Watch.

“Legislation limiting free speech and the removal of institutional safeguards give the Government free rein to censor and intimidate critics, the group says.

“In 2008, Venezuela expelled Human Rights Watch representatives, accusing them of interfering in the country's affairs.”

Is it that the faithful members of the JCC have not seen any of the Human Rights Watch's chronicles? Should we interpret the silence of the JCC on the copious abuses of human rights, killings, maimings, illegal arrests, and detentions of hundreds of Venezuelans in their press release last week as deliberate ignorance, or something worse?

I believe the JCC needs to say what is its position on the mass abuse of the Venezuelan people by the Maduro regime.


Silence speaks

Leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition, Dr Peter Philips broke his silence last Tuesday on the Government's negotiation of a buy-back of the 49 per cent shares in Petrojam owned by Venezuela.

Last Wednesday, the Old Lady of North Street reported inter alia: “Opposition Leader Dr Peter Phillips kept up his criticisms of the Government's decision, asserting that both actions were premature and “indeed bring disgrace to Jamaica's reputation. So we must wonder about the timing of such announcement and the question is: Why choose to announce when the legislation isn't even ready?” he questioned.

“ 'The fact is, we have never expropriated the property of any investor in Jamaica before. It is a dangerous precedent for us to set. If we don't behave honourably to our friends, we soon won't have any friends,' said Phillips in his comments on the motion.

“He insisted, 'The Government should quit now, should reverse itself and bring back Jamaica's reputation.' “

Phillips's silence on the avalanche of human rights abuses in Venezuela doubtless was shocking to some. I am not one of them.

Some thought that Phillips, who once wore dreadlocks and overtly espoused the teachings of Rastafari, would have included a stern condemnation of the human rights abuses, notwithstanding the apparent premium which the PNP places on its socialist fraternal loyalties. They were wrong!

Except for people who suffer with advanced political cataract, I believe the entire country is beginning to see the innards of Dr Peter Phillips's PNP.

Rural folks maintain that we must “tek sleep and mark death”.

I agree.

The PNP has told and shown us who they are. It is sensible to believe them.


Ignorant or arrogant?

Someone sent me a piece written by the former senior advisor to the former education minister, Ronald Thwaites, that was published in this newspaper last Friday. The writer made certain inaccurate statements about me. I believe the writer is either exceptionally ill-informed, arrogant, or both, because a quick bit of research would have revealed that on April 2, 2013, The Gleaner published an article which said among other things:

“Yet another decision by a school board has been struck down by the Supreme Court because of breaches of the law.

“In the latest case, principal of Tarrant High in Kingston, Garfield Higgins, was successful in having a decision by the board to terminate his provisional appointment overturned by the Supreme Court on March 21.” I resigned soon after.

A quick check with the National Education Inspectorate of Jamaica would have provided the writer with accurate information regarding my stewardship as a school principal.

I hope his pontifications were not predicated on 'sour grapes'. Unlike some, I am a mere mortal. Self-adulation is not, thankfully, one of my foibles. Incidentally, Mac Davis, the famed country singer, has a song entitled It's hard to be humble, which brilliantly captures the bane of egomania. Among other things, Davis sings:

“Oh, Lord it's hard to be humble

When you're perfect in every way

I can't wait to look in the mirror

Cause I get better looking each day,”

The writer of last Friday's piece seems to recommend himself as having a silver bullet for all things education.

These snippets from a Sunday Observer piece of November 18, 2012, however, give a more earthy reality. Headline: 'Remove Johnston! JTA chapter calls for resignation of senior advisor to education minister'.

It said, among other things:

“Senior advisor to the education minister Dr Franklin Johnston has come under fire from a group of public school teachers who say they have been angered and demotivated by his recent comments and want him gone.

“The St Elizabeth Parish Association of the powerful Jamaica Teachers' Association (JTA) has not only called for his resignation but has also threatened to instigate an islandwide campaign to remove both Johnston, and Education Minister Ronald Thwaites, if the minister does not take steps to fire his senior advisor.

“Johnston, who was recruited in January, has been under increased scrutiny since it was revealed that he was receiving a $5-million pay package from the ministry.

“Also, since his appointment, Johnston has made several public and controversial statements which have irked some stakeholders in the education sector, particularly teachers.

“The teachers, who met Friday, said in a release that they have lost confidence in Johnston's ability to advise the minister on education policy.

“ 'Whereas on November 2, 2012, the said Dr Franklin Johnston sets out his beliefs and philosophy about the teachers of Jamaica; and whereas these beliefs and philosophies are diametrically opposed to the improvement of the education system; and whereas the senior advisor is paid in excess of five million dollars from the public purse (five times the salary of a trained graduate), he is using his new-found wealth to demotivate hard-working teachers,' read a section of the document that was sent to the Jamaica Observer.

“The teachers also used the resolution to challenge claims by the minister's senior advisor that they are to be blamed for the failures of the country's education system.

“ 'He is putting the failures of the education system on the teachers with no thought of the 30 per cent of students who are malnourished; [the] irregular attendance of students at the primary school; a pupil/teacher ratio above some of the poorest countries of the world; and a shift system which successive governments refuse to address,' the resolution also noted.

“The disgruntled teachers also used the resolution to suggest that Johnston is unaware of the fact that many public school teachers who have gone to tertiary institutions to pursue degrees, in keeping with the requirements of the education ministry, are owed in excess of $300 million.

“Under the agreement signed several years ago with the JTA, the Government reimburses teachers who opt to study on a part-time basis, but despite completing their programmes of study, the teachers have not been reimbursed as the Government has been unable to find the funds.

“The teachers in their resolution have also suggested that Johnston, in his article, made no reference to a story with the same title published on January 26, 2012.

“That article, captioned 'Teflon Teachers: Thugs, Thieves Can't Be Fired', was published in the New York Post.”

A little research will help the former senior advisor to understand that negotiated benefits won by our teachers and other professionals through great struggle must be respected. Our education system is in a better state today than three, five or 10 years ago!


The late Troy Caine

He was always only too happy to share his rich reservoir of knowledge. Troy was a truly good and decent Jamaican. I received tremendous help from him. The last time [middle of 2018] I interviewed him on the radio, I asked him, no, begged him to start writing a book. I hope he did.

Troy's time at the crease was extremely productive. Walk good, Sir Troy.


Jamaica's best days are ahead. I am betting on Jamaica, full stop!


Life is short, and it's up to you to make it sweet. – Sadie Delany


Garfield Higgins is an educator; journalist; and advisor to the minister of education, youth and information. Send comments to the Observer or


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