History Revisited: John’s audacious plan to give away one sixth of Dominica
By Thomson Fontaine
February 6, 2015 2:00 A.M
Cont'd Local newspapers jumped into the fray derisively naming Pierson as Mr. Free Port Pierson. Others began referring to the Northern part of Dominica as ‘the New Hong Kong.’
In the April 13, 1978 edition of the weekly newspaper the Star, John Spector wrote “As for the name given to the Free Port New Hong Kong it is an insult to Dominicans when one realises that Hong Kong has a seedy reputation for labour exploitation, slum dwelling, overcrowding, corrupt police, drug peddling and prostitution.”
On an almost daily basis individuals spoke of the area becoming a haven for drug trafficking and money laundering. Worse, rumors began circulating that the CSC would allow South African firms to set up businesses to trade with that country in violation of strict international sanctions against them.
It was later confirmed by the South African government that Leo Austin had written to the interest section of their embassy in England indicating a readiness to work with them to among other things, ‘stockpile, resell and refine crude oil and petro chemical products to meet the need and exigencies of both countries.’
John’s and Leo Austin’s adventurism was proving too much for the Dominican public. Not only were they in danger of being enslaved in their own country but Dominica could easily become a pariah in the international community by doing business with South Africa.
Amidst the growing public discontent and protests, John took to the airwaves in an effort to convince the Dominican people of the “many benefits to be derived from the Free Port Zone.” In early April as news of the public’s disquiet spread, the Pierson’s hastily returned to Dominica to try to salvage the agreement by launching a public relations campaign.
In one such event on April 6, 1978 Pierson addressed students at the Dominica Grammar School, one of the five secondary schools on the Island. With uncharacteristic charm, Pierson attempted to put the students at ease.
“All of you will someday have the opportunity to have a very good job right here in Dominic. More than 200 firms are already scrambling for space,” he intoned. Pierson told the students that they will find work in hotels, banks, radio and TV stations, and casinos, which will be set up in the Free Port Zone.
These attempts however all proved futile. The country’s unease with the John administration coincided with wage demands of 136 percent increase by the powerful Civil Service Association, strike action and civil disobedience.
Cowed into submission, John realised that he could not salvage the agreement. Aware of a major protest rally planned for May 7, he formally wrote to Pierson cancelling the agreement.
“From the reaction of the landowners, farmers, legislators, leaders of the people and the churches both in the area and throughout Dominica as a whole, it is now quite clear that you will not be able to obtain the lands, since the people in the North, by their public protests and appeals to me, have shown that they do not wish a Free Port in the area, and will not lend their lands to the Free Port Authority,” John wrote.
With public agitation reaching fevers pitch in Dominica and unable to convince John to stay the course the Pierson’s beat a hasty retreat out of the island. “There was a general strike by civil servants and a lot of violence. I left the country in fear of my life in the middle of the night on a German sailboat.” Grey Pierson later recounted to the Dallas Times Herald.
The New Chronicle headline of May 5, 1979 screamed ‘Free Port La Kwaze’ ( creole for The Free Port is Destroyed/Dead) .
With his grand plan for bringing economic vigor to the island squashed, John and Austin grew increasingly isolated from the public. It did not help that the labour unions and the opposition parties felt emboldened and continued to press the administration.
Within a few weeks on May 29, 1979 soldiers loyal to John would open fire on thousands of protestors who had assembled around government headquarters. They were there to protest legislation being tabled in Parliament that threatened to interfere with press freedoms and substantially blunt the effectiveness of the labour unions.
In the ensuing unrest several government ministers resigned. And so it was just six months after the heady days of Independence and all it portended, John himself reluctantly resigned from office. On June 21, 1979 Oliver Seraphine became the country’s new leader.
New elections were held on July 20, 1980 and the Dominica Freedom Party headed by Eugenia Charles won 17 of the 21 seats contested.
In March 1981, the Caribbean Southern Corporation successfully sued the government of Dominica for breach of agreement receiving a favorable $8 million judgement in a Fort Worth federal court.
A month later when the government of prime minister Eugenia Charles survived a coup attempt planned by John and White supremacists, including from Texas, Charles angrily accused Caribbean Southern Corporation of financing the plotters.
The allegation was strenuously denied by Grey and following a US Federal investigation no charges were laid against the Piersons. Don Pierson died at the age of 71 on March 30, 1996. Grey continues to practice law in Arlington, Texas.
Don Pierson Chairman of Dominica Caribbean Corporation briefs the Dominica public in April 1978.