ST. VINCENT: – Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves has defended his administration amidst suggestions that it exaggerated the damage the country sustained during the passage of Hurricane Tomas on Oct. 30.
The Unity Labour Party (ULP) returned to the campaign trail on Sunday, Nov. 7, after a one-week hiatus with Gonsalves announcing additional aid from allied nations.
Gonsalves told party supporters in the Central Leeward town of Layou that the figures he quoted were supplied by public servants.
He said the system used by the Ministry of Agriculture to evaluate the damage to the sector gives “a realistic idea but not a precise figure”.
Agricultural officials, Gonsalves said, told the central government that damage to the sector was worth approximately EC$67.2 million (US$24.88 million).
The estimates also say that the country will need an additional EC$61.7 million (US$22.85 million) for rehabilitation of the sector and income support for farmers over the next seven months
“Now, if anybody is questioning that, tell me what the figure is. I didn’t go out. [Deputy Prime Minister Sir] Louis Straker didn’t go out. No minister [went] out to do the estimate. The officials did the estimate and gave it to me,” the minister of finance said.
“So, how can you say that I am overestimating it for political purposes? What political purposes? Any money that we get from overseas is not coming to my trousers pocket. It is going to the people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines for operation recovery and operation reconstruction,” added Gonsalves, who is also minister of economic development.
He further said that “plenty” still needed to be done although repairs of the 1,200 houses damaged during the storm had already commenced.
Gonsalves said he was disappointed that while he is trying to source aid to rebuild the country, “the opposition [is] saying that I am exaggerating the damage”.
Leader of the Opposition New Democratic Party (NDP) Arnhim Eustace last week warned the government not to inflate the cost of reconstruction.
Eustace, an economist, said doing so could hinder the country’s chances of securing aid.
“And in that way, he has been trying to undermine the effort to rebuild St. Vincent and the Grenadines. … You do not have to hate me so much that you transfer the hatred from me to the country of your birth,” Gonsalves said.
“I am asking the people as a whole to unite behind their government. Not just ULP people, I am talking about the entire nation to unite behind their government and their prime minister in our effort to recover and to reconstruct St. Vincent and the Grenadines,” he added.
Gonsalves was tight-lipped about the origin of aid that he said will arrive in the country over the next few weeks, including a ship loaded with EC$5.5 million (US$2.03 million) in roofing material.
“When it come, ah go tell yo’ where it come from,” he said in dialect, even as he thanked local businesses “who provided credit immediately for us to start rebuilding some of the homes”.
He further said that the country would be getting money “from somewhere” on Monday or Tuesday.
Dominica Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit will visit St. Vincent on Tuesday, Nov. 9, and that same day a ship will also set sail from the nature isle with building material to bring to St. Vincent.
“I am mobilizing and putting the resources in place to make sure that we recover and reconstruct St. Vincent and the Grenadines,” Gonsalves said as he asked those affected to be patient.
On Thursday night, a C-130 aircraft brought 10 tonnes of food, water, and clothing to St. Vincent from Venezuela while two Trinidadian coast guard vessels ferried in food and a small quantity of building material on Sunday.
Gonsalves further said he had approached Taiwan, Venezuela, Australia, Qatar, Syria, Turkey, Mexico, and Brazil for assistance for what he termed “operation recovery and reconstruction”.
The nation had also gotten aid pledges from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB), the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Development Fund, and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Gonsalves said.
“When you saw me over the last ten years going all about and making all the relations and building the links — getting help; but you know when you can call on them? Is when you are in a real difficult situation,” he said.
Gonsalves said that while St. Vincent and the Grenadines does not have the resources to rebuild itself, “the programme for recovery and reconstruction — operation recovery and reconstruction — is on target”.
“And, with the unity of the people, once we all line up going together, we are going to be able to overcome in a shorter time and better,” he said.
Gonsalves said that the storm hit the country while it is battling the effects of the global economic crisis which began in 2008.
He said which political party and its leader can best manage the recovery process will be an issue in the ongoing campaign for general elections, which are widely expected this year, ahead of the March 2011 constitutional deadline.
“So In addition to the effect of the international crisis, we now have hurricane difficulties. Together, they make for very challenging times and in challenging times, you need the most capable hands. In challenging times, it is not an occasion to take chances,” Gonsalves said.
Gonsalves further encouraged citizens to make provision to substitute some of the agricultural delicacies, such as pigeon peas, traditionally enjoyed at Christmas, most of which was destroyed by the storm.
He further said that his government will issues licences for the importation of eggs to compensate for the shortage because of hens lost during the storm.