Weekly caught up withShari Villarosa, the outgoing US ambassador to Mauritius, and gauged her views on the country she was leaving. The former ambassador gives surprisingly frank opinions on issues like the independence of institutions, corruption and meritocracy.
You are leaving Mauritius after three and a half years. How are you feeling?
Well, I am sad to be leaving all the friends I have made over the period I have spent here but I am used to moving as I have spent my entire life moving as from the age of six. I am moving some place all the time.
When you are moving all the time, making friends and leaving them, do you have to be in a particular state of mind?
Since it is the only place I know, this life seems normal. In fact, I wonder how people can stay in the same place all the time.
You must think it’s pretty boring…
No but it’s beyond my comprehension. I’ve never experienced it. What I do know is that I have made friends throughout my long life and we have been keeping in touch.
You have lived in Mauritius under two different governments and have been through an election. What are your impressions of this country?
The more I learn, the less I know.Mauritius is extremely complex. The social dynamics between different communities and religions are complicated. The US is very diverse and I have lived in Indonesia – even more diverse – and in Burma where the diversity has caused a lot of trouble. The situation here is very different but equally complex.
What about the political situation?
In terms of the democratic process, I see its flaws and most Mauritians are aware of these. The US system also has plenty of flaws. There is no such thing as a perfect democracy. A healthy democracy is about improving the flaws as you see them. You must continue to improve, to make democracy fairer, more representational, more democratic. And I do consider Mauritius a real democracy.
What is so democratic about Mauritius? For 40 years, we have been choosing between two or three families, haven’t we?
But that is the choice of the people. During the last election, there were many people outside those two families running for office. They did not seem to pick up many votes. What I consider a real democracy is: Does the citizen have the right to choose? I have lived in many countries where he doesn’t. How s/he chooses is a different issue.
Is democracy just about choosing one’s leaders?
No, it is also about holding them to account. The previous government was held accountable for its actions because it was voted out. How this government will be held accountable remains to be seen.
How about institutions? In vibrant democracies, there are healthy, strong and independent institutions. Do you think that ingredient is present here?
I think the judiciary has a good reputation for being fair and impartial. I am not an expert on parliamentary government. The nature of the elections here is very much of an all-or-nothing situation. That is something Mauritius might want to look at. Having a real opposition acts as a check. Coming from the US, I am a firm believer in checks and balances. The nature of your parliamentary system is different to ours.
What you are saying is that there are not enough checks and balances for our democracy to work properly, are you?
No, I am not saying that. Democracy is working here. How you can make it more democratic is evolutionary. Our democracy is 300 years old. Yours is 47. You are going to make a lot of changes in the future to make it work better. It is for the Mauritian people to make the required changes they feel are necessary to make government more representative and more accountable.
Coming back to the institutions, do your feel that institutions like the Independent Commission against Corruption (ICAC) for example, is independent?
No. We have provided the ICAC with a lot of support because the US wants to help countries who genuinely want to fight corruption. I am bewildered at the ICAC today. There is so much turmoil that it has lost all credibility.
What do you mean by turmoil?
I am not following it that closely but it is in turmoil and it is not giving people confidence that you have a non-partisan institution that is above party politics. You don’t get the impression that people in positions of responsibility are putting the interests of the nation first.
What about the other arms of justice? Are they working well?
There is a vigorous debate about how people are nominated to these institutions and how laws are made here. In the US, proposal for a new law is generally put forward for public debate beyond the parliament and there is usually a lively debate and, oftentimes, there are adjustments to gain popular support before starting to debate it in parliament. I have not seen that kind of debate here.
Are you referring specifically to the Good Governance and Integrity Reporting (GGIR) bill?
I am talking across the board. Take a simple example from the previous government when they wanted to introduce fluorescent jackets for motorcycle riders. Had they consulted, they could have come out with where they ended up. That was in the previous government.
What about this government?
I did not see much public debate about the GGIR Act. It got overwhelming approval and even the Mouvement Militant Mauricien (MMM) opposition did not vote against it. And now there is zero discussion.
Do you agree with those who think that it is a potentially dangerous law?
Any law can be abused and this is why you need checks and balances. That the Mauritian people are concerned about corruption? Yes they are. Was there a full debate about how they want to tackle that? I did not hear that.
As an outsider who has been observing Mauritian politics, what is your take on the wave of “cleaning the country”?
I have seen much more corrupt countries than Mauritius. The sincerity of the government to go after corruption depends on its willingness to go after its own. That’s how government shows that it is serious about fighting corruption. I have been to countries where those well-connected are astounded that they no longer have that impunity. Yes, here the government is delighted to go after the previous government but will they go after one of their own? I have not observed that! I have been to many places where there is a willingness to go after one’s own and it’s not just one sacrificial lamb or simply lower people. They go right at the top and send the message that this behaviour will no longer be tolerated.
How do the people who talk to you feel about all this?
The people I talk to – particularly youngsters – know that they are paying for corruption without having any of the benefits. There is widespread popular support to genuinely clean up the government so that their tax money is being spent on the nation. Corruption is a tax on the poor.
Are people impressed with the type of cleaning going on?
I think the novelty of the initial revelations has worn off. I don’t get the impression that people believe the situation has changed. People still feel that you need to be connected to get a job. They profess that they want real meritocracy and that is not what they see at this point.
I am not participating in the hiring. That is what young people see. When the US embassy hires, we try to hire the best possible person. Government seems to play a much more important role here than in the US, for example. People there want private sector jobs because that’s where the money is. Here, government jobs seem more attractive.
The new government has been in power for over a year now. What are the people of Mauritius telling you has changed in their lives?
Change? Other than faces and names? Not much.
Where will you go from here?
Back to the US. I will probably settle in Washington D.C. although I come from Texas.
What will you take in your suitcase?
(Laughs) Lots of dodos.
The warmth of the people. I am a people’s person so that is very important to me.
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