Prime Minister of Dominica Roosevelt Skerritt.

ST. VINCENT:- Prime Minister of Dominica Roosevelt Skerritt has said that his Vincentian counterpart Dr Ralph Gonsalves “genuine cares about people” and defended their nations’ participation in ALBA, Venezuela’s controversial alternative to the United States’ Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).

Dominica, St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG), and Antigua and Barbuda have signed on to the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, ALBA in Spanish, which is based on the idea of social, political, and economic integration between the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean and is associated with socialist and social democratic governments.

The three Caribbean Community (CARICOM) nations have signed onto the bloc even as other CARICOM states have expressed reservation and opposition parties in the respective countries have criticised President Hugo Chavez in Caracas for his hard-lined position against the United States, which he often calls “imperialist”.

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“You can not like the president of Venezuela, can not like Venezuela, can not like Ralph Gonsalves, but you can’t say that our countries have not benefitted… from the generosity of the government and people of Venezuela,” Skerritt said in a call to Shake-Up a radio programme supportive of the Gonsalves’ Unity Labour Party (ULP) administration in Kingstown.

The opposition New Democratic Party (NDP) in SVG has criticised the ULP administration for warming relations with Venezuela.

NDP president and leader of the opposition Arnhim Eustace has said that if his party wins the general elections on Monday, Dec. 13, Kingstown will exit ALBA.

ALBA’s attempt at regional economic integration is based on a vision of social welfare, bartering and mutual economic aid, rather than trade liberalization as with free trade agreements.

Under PetrioCaribe, an ALBA initiative, Venezuela, through its state oil company PVDSA, provides oil on concessionary terms to client governments.

“ALBA is basically a mechanism which was set up to by the president of Venezuela, using the resources of Venezuela to assist with fighting poverty and improving the social and economic wellbeing of member states,” Skerritt said on the programme, broadcast on WE FM.

“ALBA is basically a mechanism which promotes not necessarily free trade but fair trade; in that countries which are richer than ours cannot compete with small countries.”

Skerritt said that under ALBA arrangements, SVG would have access to ALBA market if it signs such an agreement.

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“It would be non-reciprocal trade arrangement but Venezuela cannot have tax free access to St. Vincent market without barrier or imposition of import duties.

Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves of SVG.

“Anybody in the Caribbean who says that our countries should remove themselves from ALBA is unfortunate and really is just trying to [bring] that kind of fear in people’s mind to give people the impression that it is a dangerous organisation, it is something that we should all condemn. But the point is we have to ask people, if you cannot give your neighbour biscuit, why should you take away bread from his mouth? If not ALBA, then what?” Skerritt said.

He further said that the nations of the region raise monies for projects through grants, taxation or loans.

“In our current environment, I am not aware of countries within our region who have the capacity to impose additional taxes and to take loans at 11 and 12 per cent. You will wreck the countries’ fiscal situation. So, the ALBA has worked exceptionally well for us in Dominica, we have excellent relations with Venezuela,” he said.

Skerritt, 38, the region’s youngest head of government, said CARICOM citizens often think ALBA meetings are about being anti-America.

“That’s not true at all. All of us continue to have excellent relations with the United States. Venezuela continues to have excellent trade relations with the United States, increasingly so. That’s what it is. And I believe everybody can see for themselves the benefit of the ALBA arrangement.”

He said that under an ALBA programme, thousands of CARICOM citizens have received free eye care even as he noted that Venezuela was one of the first countries with which most CARICOM nations establish diplomatic relations after Independence.

“It is only now we are receiving further countries having embassies in our countries but Venezuela have had embassies in our countries to engender that strong relationship.”

Meanwhile, Skerritt said that he has known Gonsalves, whose ULP is seeking a third term in office, before he (Skerritt) became a Member of Parliament in Roseau in 2000.

“You can say whatever you want about Ralph Gonsalves, but one thing is true, he really and truly and genuinely cares about people, especially the ordinary people, the struggling people, the poor people and he will always find ways and mean of creating policies and developing policies and programmes and project geared towards helping these people,” Skerritt said.

He said Gonsalves is “a very, very genuine person”, adding, “You can rely upon the comrade for sound advice, for solid friendship at any time.

“From a regional standpoint, Ralph has demonstrated his commitment to regionalism, a commitment to bringing the Caribbean together. I can tell you, you can be Ralph’s best friend but if you disrespect the people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, in any way, he will certainly use the strongest language possible without fear or favour, affection or ill will to tell you exactly how he feels about your comment in respect to his people. You can disrespect Ralph Gonsalves but not the people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. He is very, very passionate about that.

“I think too, Ralph’s programmes and his policies come out of his own struggle. Contrary to what many believe, Ralph did not grow up as a rich person. His father has some resources but he had to go through so much struggles himself and he always speaks about that kind of struggle,” Skerritt said.

Skerritt was elected to the House of Assembly in Roseau in 2000 and was appointed Prime Minister in 2004 after Prime Minister Pierre Charles died in office. He was re-elected prime minister with increased mandates in 2005 and later in 2009, when his party won 18 of the Dominica’s 21 seats.

Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda Baldwin Spence was in Kingstown on Friday and attended and event at where Gonsalves, education officials outlined the government one-laptop-per-child policy, a partnership between SVG, Portugal and Venezuela.