KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent: – Ten years ago, Vincentians staged a “road block revolution”, stalling the nation’s economy and forcing Prime Minister Sir James Mitchell to agree with opposition leader Dr. Ralph Gonsalves to call fresh elections.
Citizens were seemingly fed up of the New Democratic Party (NDP), three years into its fourth consecutive term in office.
The elections came on March 28, 2001, 17 years after the NDP first came to office and five months after Sir James retired from politics.
Vincentians sent the NDP and its new leader, former finance minister Arnhim Eustace — an economist who had a five-month stint as prime minister — to the opposition benches, with just three seats in the 15-member Parliament.
In 2005, the electorate again endorsed the leadership of Gonsalves, a lawyer, and once again gave his Unity Labour Party (ULP) 12 of the 15 seats.
Fast forward to the present, and Gonsalves and his ULP, who came to office in 2001 with 56 per cent of the popular votes having convinced Vincentians to reject the “corrupt” NDP, is battling for a third term in office, amidst similar accusations by the NDP.
St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) will on Wednesday, Oct 27, celebrate 31 years of independence from Britain.
The national celebrations take place as Vincentians prepare to vote in general elections due by next March, but widely expected before year-end.
Political observers and Vincentians generally are undoubted anxiously waiting to hear what goodies Gonsalves will announce at Independence.
They would also want to know if he will announce the election date as he addresses the military parade in Kingstown, although this is highly unlikely. (Go to the homepage to subscribe to I Witness-News)
Gonsalves, who is also minister of finance and economic development, is expected to announce some “gift to the nation”.
But while this has become a tradition in the nation’s politics, Gonsalves should be careful about what he gives and how he wraps it.
Last Independence, Vincentians accepted the EC$30 million (US$11.11) “gift to the nation” — which included cash for students and senior citizens, and land redistribution.
Some, however, saw this as a bride, and citizens rejected in a referendum one month later, proposed changes to the nation’s Constitution.
The NDP, encouraged by the outcome of the Constitution Referendum, speaks confidently of a return to office.
The 35-year old party, the oldest in SVG, has reasons to be encouraged by the Nov 2009 vote, especially since pundits say it was in reality a referendum on Gonsalves’ stewardship.
Some 55.64 per cent of voters responded to the opposition’s call to “Vote No” on the proposed changes to the Constitution, forcing Gonsalves to publicly admit that his ULP had “some examination to do”.
But one year is a long time in Vincentian politics, especially with Gonsalves having said he and his party “[got] the message” and would make policy shifts and renew itself before the next general elections.
An unfavourable year
However, the past year has not been a favourable one for Gonsalves and his ULP.
The local economy, while performing better than others in the region — according Eastern Caribbean Central Bank (ECCB) figures — continues to battle the lingering impact of the global financial crisis.
Gonsalves, who is also minister of finance and economic development, has made the tough decision to sell majority shares in the nation’s bank, five months ahead of general elections.
The bank has been in focus since last year, when profits fell from EC$15 million (US$5.55 million) to EC$1 million (US$0.37 million).
Earlier this year, the High Court ordered former NCB chairman Desmond Morgan, husband of Attorney General Judith Jones Morgan, to repay the bank EC$2.251 million (US$0.83 million) for the loans and interest accumulated.
Gonsalves later admitted that in 2008 he had removed Morgan from the chairmanship of the NCB when the government learnt that he was not servicing the loan.
Gonsalves had told Parliament that Morgan had done such a good job at the NCB that he had asked the businessman to leave “the prestigious work” to be chairman of the Bridges Roads and General Services Authority (BRAGSA), a position Morgan still holds.
There have also been other embarrassing revelations about Gonsalves’ government.
In August, the Director of Audit unearthed misappropriation of funds at the Ministry of Health’s Cuban Integrated Health Programme (CIHP).
Public servants bought computer supplies, fast food, and paid monies to another state agency, contrary to the government’s policy.
Gonsalves admitted that auditors “found a lot of things which were wrong” but said “there was not a single charge of corruption against a politician”.
However, the prime minister did not defend the “integrity” of the health officials as did health minister Dr. Douglas Slater, who said last year that he wanted to quit politics.
Further, there have been reverberating shouts of “victimisation” as the Public Service Commission slapped public servant Anesia Baptiste with 16 charges for statements she made on behalf of the Vote No camp during the referendum campaign.
Other prominent public servants, including career educator Otto Sam, an erstwhile supporter of the ULP, have been transferred to other areas of the public service, seen as punishment for criticising the government.
In the face of all this, Gonsalves and his party have recently unleashed an onslaught on Shelly Clarke, editor of The News newspaper, the most widely-circulated newspaper in the country.
This month, callers to his party’s radio station called for a boycott of the publication.
But Gonsalves troubles began long before the referendum vote or any of the developments since last Nov.
In February 2008, a 36-year-old female cop, a member of the prime minister’s security detail, said he raped her on January 3 while she was on duty at his official residence.
The Director of Public Prosecutions officially discontinued any inquiry into the allegations without allowing the case to be heard before a court.
The cop later withdrew a civil suit, amidst rumours of an out-of-court settlement, even as Gonsalves denied the accusation.
In 2008, a Toronto human rights lawyer, 48, also accused the prime minister of sexually assaulting her during a private meeting in January 2003.
Gonsalves’ lawyer deemed the lawyer’s claims “criminal libel” and demanded an apology.
This month, accused money launderer Anthony “Que Pasa” Gellizeau told the local court that he has given an aggregate of about EC$100,000 (US$37, 000) to ULP General Secretary Julian Francis to help finance the party’s campaigns.
“That’s a dastardly lie,” Gonsalves said of the statements by Gellizeau, who was arrested in 2006 and charged for money laundering after law enforcement authorities seized U$1.6 million (EC$4.32 million) aboard his yacht.
The ULP’s case for re-election
However, notwithstanding these developments, the ULP makes a strong case for re-election.
The party points to some 180 major capital project undertaken during its nine years in office.
The crown jewel will be the international airport under construction at Argyle, slated to be completed by 2012.
“That’s the end of the project,” Eustace told journalist Jerry George when asked what an NDP government would do if Cuba and Venezuela withdrew support for the project.
“Find it where?” the economist asked when George inquired about finding alternative sources of financing.
The NDP has since retraced its steps, saying that before making a decision it would hire international consultants to advise on the feasibility of the project.
Further, the ULP has made significant strides in education, with its “education revolution”.
The self proclaimed “most important strategy” adopted by the ULP in its two terms, says that “no child will be left behind”.
Under the universal access to secondary education policy, the number of secondary school students has moved from around 7,000 in 2001 to 13,000 in 2009. (Follow I Witness-News on Facebook)
The Community College, the nation’s premiere post-secondary educational institution, now has an intake of about 800 students, compared to around 200 in 2001.
There is also increased enrolment of Vincentian students at the University of the West Indies and other universities internationally.
In addition to these, the ULP trumpets its foreign policy, which has seen the country establishing or deepening relations with non-traditional allies, including leftist nations such as Iran and Venezuela.
The ULP also says it has made significant strides in poverty reduction, as wells as wealth-creation, job-creation, the “Housing Revolution”, and developments in the health, tourism, fisheries, and agricultural sectors.
The party has also identified “the five central issues of the campaign which will bring the ULP to a third term victory”.
These are: the ULP’s record of achievements; its vision, philosophy, policies and programmes; the quality of its candidates; Gonsalves’ leadership; and, “the absence of any quality record, vision, ideas, programmes, candidates, and leadership in the NDP”.
The party has also articulated some of its policies, projects and strategies for a third term in office.
These include the further deepening of the education revolution; the relocation of the Milton Cato Memorial Hospital; the creation of a city at Arnos Vale; rejuvenation of the agricultural sector; and, projects for wind, solar and geothermal energy.
The NDP’s outlook
But the local economy was not among the 16 points of focus that the ULP outlined in July.
That same month, Eustace, addressing his party’s convention, said “tackling the state of our economy” would be the top priority of an NDP administration.
The NDP would also focus on government finances “in order to stimulate economic growth thereby improving the standard of living of all our people”.
Eustace also spoke of lassoing “galloping corruption”, and promised to charge corrupt government officials, including accused members of the NDP.
The NDP has also said that it would reorganise the Public Service; reduce poverty; reduce the salaries of parliamentarians; and remove value-added tax (VAT) on “all basic foods and other basic items”.
Eustace spoke of a need for some harsh economic measures, but said an NDP government would not reduce the size of the civil service.
This month, NDP vice-president and candidate for Central Kingstown, Senator St. Clair Leacock, spoke of “Vision 2020” for SVG.
This includes employment for at least one member of each of the nation’s 33,000 households.
Leacock said that no Vincentians should go to bed hungry and wake up “hungry without hope of feeding the mouths in that house”.
But, as social commentator and political activist Jomo Thomas notes, Leacock “does not say what will happen between the time family members go to sleep and wake so as to realize this dream”.
NDP campaign blunders
But while some think that the NDP has a strong chance of winning the next elections, the party has had to deal with some avoidable blunders on the campaign trail.
Eustace has had to come out against comments by NDP founder and retired politician Sir James, who, in making a point about the need for vigilance with elections, said he does not trust even Jesus Christ when it comes to elections.
But even worse, candidate for South Windward, Burton Williams, said he would not be paying anyone who does not vote for him.
He reverted to the colloquial expression about parsons christening their children first, a stark contradiction to the meritocracy mantra trumpeted by the leadership and hierarchy of the party.
Further, this month, former NDP senator and former candidate for Marriaqua, Gerard “Rasum” Shallow, endorsed the education minister, Girlyn Miguel, for a third consecutive term as the constituency representative.
“It is only … those who are of a myopic view, it is only those who are blinded by lies, hatred, and bad mind that will say that NDP is good,” Shallow said of the party he once represented in Parliament.
Some political agreement
But while the government and the opposition have both advocated different emphases in moving the nation forward, both parties agree that the country’s economic circumstances are far from favourable.
This view is also shared by Governor General Sir Frederick Ballantyne, the country’s non-executive head of state — who represent the country’s monarch, Queen Elizabeth II.
In his independence message, Sir Fredrick said the challenges an independent SVG faces “have never been greater”, mentioning “the worst economic crisis this young Nation has ever seen”.
Gonsalves spoke of “a most challenging time occasioned largely by economic, financial and climatic events internationally, not of our making”.
Eustace said the nation had not progressed during the past year.
“For two consecutive years now we have had negative growth in our economy and we are heading for a third year of similar performance,” he said.
Sir Frederick also said the marginalization of young Vincentian men; the increasing divisiveness among our people; and, the increasing incidence of crime and violence impact significantly on the nation’s development.
“On the other hand, the divisiveness in the society and lack of consensus on any major national issue are in my mind one of the greatest obstacles to our continued development,” the governor general said.
He was also very concerned that many media houses throughout the world are highlighting the Caribbean as the area with one of the highest per capita crime rate.
Gonsalves also echoed similar sentiments, saying, “More than ever, national unity around desirable and achievable goods is necessary despite the season of heightened political competition.”
He further said, “It is the time for boldness of action, creativity, optimism, and hopefulness grounded in the real condition of our people and our nation’s circumstances.”
Eustace, like Sir Frederick, was also concerned about the crime situation in SVG, saying the “significant increase in theft … can also be linked to our poor economic performance”.
He further said that Vincentians are “worried” about the poor performance of the nation’s health services and the constant drug shortages and the absence of other basic amenities at the main hospital and at district health centres.
According to Eustace, Vincentians “recognize the rampant victimization of many public sector workers” and are “angered and embarrassed” that in the month of their 31st anniversary of independence they have lost control of “one of our symbols of Nation’s pride, namely – the National Commercial Bank”.
Messages of hope
But both political leader encouraged citizens to be hopeful as the nation celebrates its 31st anniversary of Independence.
“The fact is that we have precious little to celebrate at this our 31st year of our independence expect the fact that we are alive,” Eustace said.
“I wish to advise our people not to panic, be positive, keep hope alive, put your trust in our God who is all powerful, all knowing and all seeing. He will address our problems with positive effort on our path. He will bring us to the promised land of prosperity, morality and grace,” Eustace added.
“Our future is bright,” Gonsalves said, adding, “We must be confident about that and work towards its true fulfilment. It is a great cause and great causes have never been won by doubtful men and women.
“On this our 31st anniversary of independence we must thus rejoice amidst our many challenges; conquer the difficulties; and turn every attack into an advance, individually and collectively.”
But it was the governor general who noted that “We Vincentians love to talk, as evidenced by the popularity of all the call in programmes.”
He said that much can be gained if half of the time spend talking is used to discuss developmental issues such as how to save money, healthy lifestyle, energy conservation and environmental preservation, poverty and crime reduction, and the promotion of love and respect for fellow citizens.
“It seems to me that if we can summon the will, we can find a lot to talk about besides politics. Maybe our progress or lack of it rests in the hands of the talkers. You decide!” Sir Frederick said.