ST. VINCENT: – Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves has defended his government against allegations that it ordered EC$5.5 million (US$2.03 million) in building material even before Hurricane Tomas affected the island at the end of October.
Gonsalves said he was surprised that members of the main New Democratic Party (NDP) would make such a claim, adding that the materials were ordered with Cabinet approval two days after the storm.
“…there is NDP time and there is ULP time. … Although there are 24 hours in the day and 60 minutes make the hour, what the ULP does in a day, it [is] going to take the NDP ten days, 15 days, 30 days to do,” Gonsalves told supporters of his Unity Labour Party (ULP) on Monday, Nov. 22.
The shipload of building material, to be used in repairing the 1,200 houses damaged during the passage of the hurricane, was credited from Tank-Weld in Jamaica and arrived in Kingstown last Friday.
The shipment included 70,000 galvanise sheets, 6,000 sheets of plywood, 435 bundles of lumber, 1,500 metric tonnes of cement, steel ridging caps, 150 bundles of steel rods, seven 40-foot containers of other building materials, and 15 empty 40-foot containers, Gonsalves said.
But Leader of the Opposition Arnhim Eustace on Sunday, Nov. 21, told NDP supporters in Canouan that the materials were ordered before the storm affected the country.
He further said that he thought that the materials were bought by the ULP to distribute to their supporters.
“That was the impression I had all along. I say, ‘well that’s their money’, but I was wrong. What is happening is that these materials were ordered before the storm. They were ordered before there was any threat of any Tomas coming to St. Vincent and the Grenadines. …I have here a copy of the invoice of the things that were ordered and came on that ship,” Eustace said, but did not say when the materials were ordered.
I Witness-News tried to verify with Eustace the date when, according to him, the materials was ordered. A contact within the NDP indicated that Eustace maintained he knows that the materials were ordered before the storm.
Eustace said the materials were purchased by the Housing and Land Development Corporation (HLDC).
HLDC was among the state companies that the government bailed out with an EC$100 million (US$37.03 million) loan from the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB).
The money was used to reduce to EC$60 million (US$22.22 million) the government debt at the former National Commercial Bank
(NCB) during the recent privatisation. Eustace said the shipment included 68,000 sheets of galvanize, 35,000 bags of cement, and 17 empty containers.
“I cannot find any rational explanation for importing EC$5 million in materials to give away from a government which cannot even meet the most basic needs of people today. I am so alarmed at what this means. It tells you what has been happening all the time in this country under these people,” Eustace said.
He said that the government had imported 17 empty containers, expected that there would have been 17 constituencies rather than 15.
Gonsalves said last week that the containers will be used one in each constituency to store building material.
The NDP has successfully used the courts to prevent the government from increasing the number of constituencies from 15 to 17, although Parliament passed legislations to that effect earlier this year.
“I am concerned and I really want to know how they deal with this money because the Housing and Land Development Corporation is one of those institutions that owed NCB and he (Gonsalves) borrowed EC$100 million and part of the EC$100 million was to pay off the debt of the Housing and Land Development Corporation and they gone back now to put them in more debt — US$2.1 million more debt,” Eustace said.
Eustace wanted to know how the government would foot the bill, which is to be paid in three months.
“It’s not coming from their war chest because by that time the New Democratic Party will be in office and have to play that EC$5 million plus. It’s a very serious matter,” said Eustace, an economist, former prime minister and former minister of finance.
“But what really is happening to our country St. Vincent and the Grenadines. What is Ralph Gonsalves doing to the people of this country? What is Ralph Gonsalves doing to the finances of this country? What is Ralph Gonsalves doing to all of us here in St. Vincent and the Grenadines? What is this? They’re doing that to win. They’re mashing up the country to win an election. … I am saying to the people though: take what you get but vote against them. Vote them out! The problem is enormous,” he further said.
Eustace spoke of the impact of importing so much building materials on local businesses and their employees.
“When next [are] they going to sell galvanize? Are they going to close down or send home the workers for a time? Because with all this galvanize giving away free, all from outside, what is going to happen to the workers who works in those factories? What is going to happen to the businesses who normally engage in the selling of cement? Are they going to have trouble because they are not … selling any cement?”
Eustace described the building material as “boudow”, a colloquial expression that was used to describe humanitarian aid distributed by the State after the eruption of La Soufriere in 1979.
“I know that in St. Vincent and the Grenadines at this present time, there is a lot of division and, indeed, a lot of corruption and that too is draining the resources of this country.
But Gonsalves said that the storm has demonstrated the efficiency of his government.
“We have, unfortunately, a hurricane. The hurricane, however, has reminded people as to the nature and character and competence of this government and the quality of its leadership.”
He said the NDP is “lame and slow” and does things “one for today one for tomorrow”.
“You could run government like that? If Arnhim was faced with this thing, all now so, you done have material delivered, because, right now in St. Lucia, while we done repair house roof St. Lucia aint distribute no material yet. … All of these things, they are done with such rapidity” that the head of the UNDP complimented the government on it swift response.”
Gonsalves said that his government had already distributed fertilizer and was making provision to provide loss of income support to farmers whose produce were destroyed during the hurricane.