12 March 2019

Mauritius: Jean Claude de l'Estrac - "Euphoric statements by government members have created the impression that Diego is back"

interview

Jean Claude de l'Estrac, historian and former journalist, talks to Weekly about his recent book, Jugnauth-Bérenger: Ennemis Intimes 1982-1995, that traces the clash between Paul Bérenger and Anerood Jugnauth and the events that pushed the two closer together. He also analyses the MedPoint verdict and the International Court of Justice's Advisory Opinion on the Chagos, the balance of forces on the political scene and what he thinks will happen during the period leading to the general election.

Before we start talking about your book, you might want to comment on the Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice on the Chagos, particularly that you are an authority on the subject.

This Opinion is no surprise to me. You will recall that in an interview in your own magazine, I said that Mauritius will surely win its case. I based my reasoning on the fact that the International Court of Justice will surely refer to the Charter of the United Nations on decolonisation and to previous resolutions of the General Assembly condemning the United Kingdom for having flouted Resolution 1514 (XV). But I also said that, unfortunately, nothing much would happen afterwards

Yes, you did warn that we may be unnecessarily raising false hopes. Is that what you are referring to?

Absolutely! I feel pain when I hear Chagossians saying they are now going home. Of course, this is not happening. Euphoric statements made by some members of government have created the impression that Diego is back. Based on documents I have consulted, I know why the Americans will never accept Chagossian residents on Diego Garcia; they fear an eventual claim for self-determination under the Charter of the UN.

So what should we do?

I still believe that we have a better chance negotiating a retrocession of some of the other islands forming part of the British Indian Ocean Territory. There is a precedent: London has retroceded three islands which initially formed part of the BIOT to the Seychelles.

Another expected verdict also came out on the same day in the case of MedPoint and Pravind Jugnauth's victory. What do you think the political implications of that will be?

Good for Pravind Jugnauth. His party is now the most courted.

The publication of your book, Jugnauth-Bérenger: Ennemis Intimes 1982-1995, did not make as much noise as we thought it would. Are you disappointed?

No! The book has been very popular and it is selling very well. On the media scene, it made a lot of impact. I however regret that there hasn't been much debate around the book, particularly that it deals with two key figures of the past 40 years, who are still key this year. That should have triggered a debate about what lessons to learn in this election year where these same characters are still present and active. It didn't because we don't have that many editorialists with the required experience and expertise to review this kind of book.

There was in fact more debate on Facebook than in the press. What's your reaction to that?

No reaction. It's been a while since I have stopped acquiring science, balance, wisdom and knowledge from Facebookers. I've seen some extremely insulting comments. For instance, a previous comment made following an interview I gave Weekly on the Chagos issue by one Robert Lesage - I'm not sure if that's his actual name I would be surprise if he is still kicking - who replies to a comment by another Facebooker who had remarked that the issue of the Chagossians had been concluded following an agreement I had signed with the British which allowed the Chagossians to have a second compensation. The Chagossians who were heavily in debt had signed an agreement in which they accepted to forgo their rights of return to Chagos. This Facebooker said, "de l'Estrac hid this from us," and attacked the journalist too who he claims didn't do her job properly by picking this up. "How come he [de L'Estrac] signed such a slanderous document," the comment read.

But you did sign that agreement. You mentioned it in the book, didn't you?

Exactly! That person had not read the book. It's very well documented. I have explained in which conditions, after bitter discussions, the Chagossians, in dire poverty, at death's door, finally accepted the proposal of compensation from the British and agreed to sign a document which said in so many words that the Chagos was gone for them. The current Mauritian government, the Jugnauth government, questioned whether this acceptance of the Chagossians compromised the sovereignty claims of Mauritius over the archipelago. The State Law Office was consulted and advised that this agreement did not jeopardise the sovereignty of Mauritius' claims to sovereignty. This was already well-documented; the Facebook comment was no revelation.

Would you like to comment on Editorialist Henri Marimootoo's review of your book in which he said, among other things, that you were at times narcissistic and "could not resist the temptation of reproducing the compliments you received such as 'best minister', 'an asset for the country', 'best minister of industry' "?

Maybe a little bit, at least as much as Henri! There is a lot of narcissism in journalism as in politics. But if I was really narcissistic, I would have mentioned many more such compliments which I received when I left politics. In fact, I have long been saying to myself that had I received them when I was still active in politics, maybe I would not have left...

Journalist Joel Toussaint also analysed your book in detail. Are you happier about his comments on Facebook?

I acknowledge his effort. He has read the book and made his observations, some of which are quite positive. Joel belongs to that breed of journalists who cannot say only positive things about anything. The moment he started saying positive things, I wondered when he would start becoming negative. Having said that, he's a good journalist, I know, I recruited him years ago! He's done his job; I don't have to comment on the work of a commentator.

But do you accept the comments he raised such as the fact that some important historical events are missing from the book?

Oh yes, this is highly likely, but I consulted more than 6,000 press cuttings on the events of that period. The book cites only 500 press conferences, interviews, public rallies, statements, press reports. A selection has been made.

Based on what exactly?

The book focuses largely on the conflict between Anerood Jugnauth and Paul Bérenger between 1982 and 1995. Whatever was not directly related to that line of thought may have been ignored. However, everything that could shed light on the complex relationship between those two men is in the book. Omitting events is a criticism which can be made about any history book. There has to be some sort of selection.

But the book is about more than just the conflict between the two men, isn't it?

Actually, my starting point was to relate the series of events from 1982 till the fall of Anerood Jugnauth in 1995. The more I started looking into that, the more I realised it was actually a confrontation between two political beasts. Beyond the partisan and ideological differences, the real story is the psychological incompatibility between the two men. That seems to me to be at the root of the succession of crises, disruptions and the instability which marked the past few decades. I then changed the focus of my research to look for what would explain and characterise this political period. It wasn't so much about political strategy, although there were some divergences there in 1983, but mainly about the incapacity of these two to get along because of their opposite characters. Jugnauth was hypersensitive, jealous of his new prime ministerial prerogatives, who wanted to assert himself. Bérenger, on the other hand, had Jugnauth under his wings for a while, and thought he could keep him there once in power. Yet, power made Jugnauth come out into the light. Bérenger had a lot of difficulty adapting to such a metamorphosis.

When you read the book, what is striking is that facts are related with little direct comment from you as the author. Was it your choice not to take sides in your own book?

It was a lucid choice. And this is what I've been doing in all my history books. I belong to a very old school, which says that "history is not meant to prove; it's meant to tell". That's the position I've adopted in all my publications. Since I've been an actor myself, I feel that there was a need to distance myself as a narrator. To have informed citizens, you need to relate the facts to them and allow them to make their own judgement, rather than depend solely on the author's own interpretation. However, an interpretation does emerge from the book through the way the events are related. Also, describing each character's vocabulary, temperament, attitude and behaviour, are worth more than my taking the readers by the hand and telling them 'see, Jugnauth is a rude man while Bérenger is a bit hot-headed'.

How did the protagonists react to your book? Any feedback at all?

No feedback from the minister mentor. I don't even know if he has read the book. I've had some feedback from Bérenger about his likes and his dislikes. He really likes the few pages where I say a lot of good about him, I've been told. And he doesn't like the pages where the facts do not show him in a good light.

In the book, you also talk about the so-called 'economic miracle' and you attribute it to Bérenger. Is that a fair reading of history?

Well, let's say something about the so-called 'economic miracle'. You'd think the term was invented by some local politician. Not at all. The term "miracle" was coined by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). There is an IFM report titled "Who can explain the Mauritian Miracle?"

How can you explain a miracle, since it's something one cannot explain?

A miracle is something totally unexpected, improbable, an exceptional achievement. This is exactly what has happened in Mauritius. In 1968, when we achieved independence, our island was one of the poorest countries on the planet. Income per capita was roughly $300, it was a typical African economy - a monocrop economy - sugar accounted for 90 percent of our exports, and what happened afterwards was truly unexpected, a "miracle" that ought to be explained and which can be.

During the campaign for the last general election, the Alliance Lepep supporters attributed the 'economic miracle' to Anerood Jugnauth and Vishnu Lutchmeenaraidoo, who promised a second one. You manifestly don't agree with that, do you?

Of course not. If we were to grant the paternity of the miracle to someone or something, it would have to be the IMF since what salvaged Mauritius in 1982 is the Structural Adjustment Programme imposed by the Bretton Wood institutions because we were bankrupt. We borrowed massively from the IMF which shows that debt isn't always detrimental. We entered a structural adjustment programme with investment from the IMF and the World Bank. Bérenger, as finance minister in 1982, had the courage to accept the bitter pill and present an austerity budget, he had to impose harsh austerity measures. And he had the guts to do it. Another politician would probably have gotten cold feet. And he has been very unfairly attacked by Anerood Jugnauth in the 1983 elections.

Are you saying that the real man behind the so-called economic miracle is Paul Bérenger?

Yes, Bérenger was at the root of the 'economic miracle'. He was the one who introduced the Sales Tax, which later became the VAT, which became the milking cow. This happened in the 1982 budget. However, because he doesn't have the patience to wait to reap the fruits of his labour and because he is uncomfortable with unpopularity, he left the government and allowed Vishnu Lutchmeenaraidoo to present himself as the man who brought the 'miracle'. All Lutchmeenaraidoo did was to distribute the revenue of the Sales Tax that Bérenger had introduced. That was the miracle! So, in this book, I do justice to the fact that the 1982 budget was the basis of the economic revival. Then, to be fair, I have to say that Lutchmeenaraidoo followed in Berenger's path and accentuated the drive and the economy was saved. Bérenger also breathed life into the sugar industry. When he injected the famous Rs57 million into that dying industry, there were unfair reactions to that. In fact, that was a cabinet decision that pulled a sinking industry out of trouble. But the government, while reaping the benefits caused great harm to Bérenger and to the MMM through a racist campaign by saying that he protected his white cousins. Jugnauth, who lived under Bérenger's shadow for 20 years, suddenly discovered that Bérenger was white.

What about the so-called 'second economic miracle' that we were promised in 2014?

Oh, that was just a political gimmick. This type of miracle doesn't happen twice. (Laughing) Even Jesus was resuscitated only once. They shot themselves in the foot. We can't have a second miracle because the first miracle happened only because we were in a complete slump. Since then, Mauritius hasn't experienced a single year of economic recession. The country continued to progress, even if it wasn't at the rate we hoped for or to our full potential. So, as from the moment we reach a new stage, a miracle is not possible anymore. Our only ambition is to keep going and not fall again and, if possible, we should keep moving forward gradually. Even if we reached 6% growth, we wouldn't call that a miracle. We would call it progress, growth, development. Not a miracle. It was foolish on their part to promise a miracle that could not happen. The country keeps progressing year after year, and each government has contributed to that in a way. In fact, there are no ideological differences between the main parties that have been in government or in their strategic economic plan. The difference is in the competence.

It seems that we are stuck in the same cycle, having to choose between the same protagonists. When will this cycle end?

We are reaching the end of a political and economic cycle. For the political cycle, even if party leaders don't want to, it will happen anyway - the biological clock will help us with that. There will be no miracle in that sense. The economic cycle isn't working as well anymore though because our current system has well served us throughout the years. It's clear that we need to think about another system and I don't see the government engaged in such a debate. The only proposal that caught my attention lately is the one made by the Mauritius Commercial Bank about the promotion of the local industry to boost the economy. I actually do believe that Mauritian entrepreneurs have a great potential and that they could add value to what we are already producing and we certainly can produce more of what we consume. But this should come with some kind of protection of the local industry as we did in the 70s.

If we are stuck with the current political actors in the next general election, which alliances do you think we will have to choose from? Are we heading toward an MSM-MMM alliance against Labour-PMSD, or a three or four-cornered fight?

Anything can happen. But if you put a gun to my head and ask me to make a prognostic, I will do it. Is that what you're doing?

Yes, I'm barely concealing my weapon.

I think that, for the first time actually since 1976, we are heading for a three-cornered fight. Not because this is what the political leaders really want, but because they are forced to. They've used up all the other formulas, so it is not possible to use the same ones again and start all over. It's not credible and will be rejected in advance by the electorate, and those who tried to do the opposite paid for it during the last general election. So, all the political leaders now realise that their respective electorate has become overcautious of this jiggery-pokery.

After the verdict of the Privy Council, is it more likely now to see an MMM/MSM alliance or will Bérenger take his chance alone?

I really believe that Bérenger is tempted to take his chance alone but he is under a lot of pressure from many prominent members of the party to strike a deal with the MSM. They fear a huge defeat otherwise. I am sure the pressure will now increase.

What about the smaller parties?

The most probable scenario is that Alan Ganoo's party and the PMSD will join the Labour Party, but the dominant party will be the Labour Party. However, I would not be surprised to see the MSM also courting Ganoo's party as well as the PMSD. Pravind Jugnauth is surely aware that the MSM will not make it on its own.

Will the MSM stay with Mouvement Liberater?

It depends on the MMM. For the time being, Bérenger is still willing to go alone but, as I have said, this looks like political suicide to many MMM members of his politburo, in particular its members of parliament. We don't see as yet any shift of the electorate towards the MMM because there is the perception that it doesn't have any chance of winning the election. This perception is so strong even among the MMM leadership that it could push the party to think again. Then the MSM is their only option. And if that is the case, the Jugnauths will have no qualms kicking out Collendavelloo as the latter would become redundant. This will be a very ironic situation; in the last elections, Collendavelloo split with Bérenger to support Jugnauth whilst Bérenger opted for Ramgoolam.

But this hasn't happened yet. In a three-cornered fight, which you said is most probable, again if I put a gun to your head, who do you think will win?

I think it will be a deadly fight between the Labour Party and the MSM, in about a dozen constituencies. In the constituencies that are half urban and half rural, I do not see as yet a clear winner; it will depend on the support of their smaller ally parties but the 5% plus they will bring will make a difference. In terms of polling, let's say they may get about the same number of votes. In terms of seats, it could be different. The big question mark is the MMM. If Bérenger really goes it alone, nobody can seriously predict, at this stage, the number of seats he will get. I hear of lot of pessimistic predictions but I have a feeling that a fair percentage of the "militants" who have left the party over the years because of electoral alliances they felt bitter about, may come back. If the MMM can win some 10 seats, it will come third in the race, in which case, Bérenger will become the kingmaker. But it's becoming less likely. So maybe Pravind is the one who will save Private Bérenger. And save himself!

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