Sharon Hay Webster, Member of Parliament for South Central St. Catherine, was thrust into the international spotlight when, on March 14, she travelled as part of a delegation to the Central African Republic to escort former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to Jamaica. That delegation included United States Congresswoman Maxine Waters and her husband, Ambassador Sydney Williams, Randall Robinson of Trans-Africa, and former President Aristide's lawyer, Ira Kuzban.
Earl Moxam caught up with Mrs. Hay Webster and spoke to her about this experience and other aspects of her public life.
EM: When did you receive this assignment to go to the Central African Republic?
SHW: I first became aware of my possible involvement when I received a call from Foreign Affairs Minister K.D Knight last Wednesday (March 10). It wasn't a call that you could step away from. I immediately accepted the assignment and began the necessary preparations with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, culminating with a briefing from the Prime Minister himself before I left.
EM: That kind of preparation would have been interesting. You would have done quite a bit of travelling on parliamentary business in the past, but nothing like this?
SHW: Those have been all committee work, on which I have travelled for meetings of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the EU/ACP Parliamentary Assembly.
EM: What was it like, first of all meeting up with the other members of the delegation, and strategising for the mission?
SHW: During out initial meetings we had to be dodging the press who had got word and who were trying to get on the plane with us. We had a small press briefing there before we left, which really saw us explaining our roles and our hope to return with Mr. Aristide.
EM: Would you say that you all had the same goal and understanding as far as this trip was concerned?
SHW: The same goal in the sense of the return of Mr. Aristide, yes. I would say that all of us had the same commitment to have that happen, and we each had different levels of expectations of the reality of it.
EM: Maxine Waters and Randall Robinson are influential people, not only in the United States but internationally. Did they sufficiently appreciate the difficulties that the Jamaican Government and CARICOM found themselves in to wade through these complex issues, particularly in relation to the United States and the pressures that the Bush Administration had brought to bear on the matter?
SHW: Certainly. But I think that they really respected the position that Mr. Patterson had taken because they felt that it signalled the Caribbean's ability to bond on a particular issue.
EM: And what was the experience in the Central African Republic like as you sought to smooth the path for Mr. Aristide's return to the Caribbean?
SHW: You have to realise that Mr. Aristide having been placed in Africa, caused some difficulty for the African nation in respect of how it left them exposed. It was not a position they were ready for and we had to appreciate that when we went to retrieve him. And as the President (General Francois Bozize President of the Central African Republic) pointed out, this was not a marketplace where we were haggling over goods; this was a colleague leader, and he wanted to ensure that, in handing him over to us, two women, that is Maxine Waters and myself, because we were the only members of the delegation who were in the room speaking with him on behalf of Mr. Aristide as our translator, that he was doing the right thing.
EM: Was there any cultural resistance to the presence of two women as the ones doing the negotiating?
SHW: That's natural, but he respected it in the end. I handed over my note. He accepted that. Miss Waters handed over her note that she had from an attaché in Colin Powell's office, and we proceeded to discuss both pieces of correspondence.
EM: That note from Powell's office would have been very interesting because he was not very happy about Aristide returning to the Caribbean.
SHW: Well, one wonders whether there is a Spanish machete at work here (cutting both sides) because we were given that impression and as you would note from the comments that Minister Knight made on my return, he had actually received a call from Mr. Powell while Mr. Aristide was in the air on his way out of Haiti, asking Jamaica to receive him. And yet when the Jamaican Government asked to speak with him to certify that that really was the case there was no opportunity for him to do that.
EM: This experience has drawn a lot of publicity, not just locally but internationally as well. How had it impacted on your own perspectives on public life?
SHW: It has thrown me into focus not only in Jamaica but across the Caribbean. It is one thing to know that you are ACP/EU (Joint Parliamentary Assembly) Co-President and the first Caribbean woman to serve in that position (elected Co-President of the Assembly along with a Surinamese parliamentarian in October 2003 in Italy) but another thing to be thrust into the limelight this way. Here there are millions of people observing what you do, and thereafter everything you do can possibly become an issue.
EM: How did you become so involved in the EU/ACP Parliamentary Assembly?
SHW: You know that once I'm involved in anything I give it my "full-hundred". At the last meeting of the Assembly I was at the airport with a delegate from Ghana and he asked me how many years I'd been with the Joint Parliamentary Assembly and I told him it had been just over a year. He expressed surprise since, in his view, I appeared so comfortable with the issues, and he therefore thought I'd been there for a long time. I explained that I really liked parliamentary work and the work of the Committees. At the time of the elections for the Presidency, the choice eventually came down to two persons from the Caribbean and my Surinamese colleague and I agreed to share the position.
EM: You've been a Member of Parliament since 1997 and have served exclusively on the back bench, but you are not the typical back-bencher in that you continue to organise your colleagues and strategise to get the best out of the group.
SHW: Yes. That was particularly important during my first term, from 1997 to 2002 in that we had such a large group of back-benchers. I felt we could best utilise our positions if we were more organised. That was not so easy because some Ministers were not comfortable with an organised back bench and the power that it gave them. I got accused of organising opposition within the party by no less than four or five persons from the front bench, some jokingly, some more serious, but I didn't take it on because I knew that over time they would see that this was not a threat to their positions.
EM: And what were some of your goals as back-benchers?
SHW: We were looking at getting more respect for MPs overall; securing an established office for MPs funded by the state. There were regular consultations between us and the sector heads. We used to have quarterly meetings with the Minister of Finance and a meeting at least once a year with the Prime Minister who even appointed a minister to liaise with us. We also got to attend Cabinet retreats, which was also unusual.
EM: Some MPs are frustrated by the lack of adequate resources, but overall how fulfilling do you find the job of Member of Parliament?
SHW: I would say fairly fulfilling, especially when you look at the community development that I've been able to achieve, and particularly my involvement in constructing the Lift Up Jamaica Programme with Minister Derrick Kellier at the time. I take pride in the fact my constituency now has the largest basic school in the country at Gregory Park, built with money provided by JSIF (Jamaica Social Investment Fund). And this was a project that had been turned down at first and I used my office to ask them for a review of that decision and was successful!
EM: Your constituency of South Central St. Catherine is one of the more challenging and the leadership of the constituency has come under scrutiny in recent years. Do you think you have been treated fairly?
SHW: Not necessarily so, but I believe that I've had good friends who have stood by me and who have been able to give me the kind of advice that allows me to cope, and I'd say that's why I'm still here.
EM: Any mistake that you'd say you have made?
SHW: Trusting some people more than I ought to.