KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent — U.S. officials in Bridgetown told Washington that the private sector in Kingstown in March 2007 registered “widespread anxiety” and discontent with the warm relations between Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves and his Venezuelan counterpart Hugo Chavez.
“Business representatives agreed that if Gonsalves were to back his socialist rhetoric with action, the country would probably face investment flight and a threat to its tourism industry,” the U.S. diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks said.
The document, however, noted that the Gonsalves-Chavez alliance had yielded “many tangible benefits for St. Vincent and that Gonsalves was “likely to steer clear of any steps that would seriously undermine the country’s already precarious economic position”.
The cable spoke of fears that the Unity Labour Party administration would not have renewed a contract with Texaco to supply fuel to the country.
Texaco’s Country Manager, Brian John, was said to have been “surprisingly dispassionate about the situation and unwilling to criticize Chavez or Petrocaribe” although he was “certain that his company had little chance of obtaining a contract renewal … [and faced] the possibility of no longer being St. Vincent’s main supplier, and perhaps losing his own job”.
John is quoted as telling Embassy staff that he expected Venezuela would have no problems supplying 100 percent of SVG’s fuel.
“It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out how to do this. Venezuela has made a few mistakes but has learned from them and will probably have no problems in the future,” the leaked document quoted the business executive as saying.
According to the cable, Lennox Lampkin, then president of Chamber of Commerce in Kingstown, said that the private sector was unhappy with Chavez’s virulent, anti-U.S. outbursts during a visit to St. Vincent in February 2007.
“Lampkin suggested that St. Vincent’s relationship with the United States is very important and should not be tested in such a dramatic and public fashion,” the cable said.
The cable further said that Lampkin also noted that Kingstown’s pro-Venezuela stance could threaten tourism.
“The majority of cruise ships do not have Venezuelans and Cubans, but rather Americans and British. At the end of the day,” he added, “Venezuela can construct a new airport, but the majority of those flying to St. Vincent with money in their pockets will not be Venezuelan.”
The cable said that Dr. Julian Ferdinand, general manager of the Eastern Caribbean Group of Companies (ECGC), had warned Gonsalves of the private sector’s uneasiness with his tight embrace of Chavez.
“Ferdinand cautioned Gonsalves that the country cannot afford investment flight and encouraged him to remain committed to promoting a market-based economy and the country’s private sector. Despite his good relationship with Gonsalves, Ferdinand would not speculate on whether Gonsalves would heed his advice,” the cable said.
The document further said that in 2007, businessman Ken Boyea, and Gonsalves’ first cousin and former ULP parliamentarian, was “one of the most outspoken critics, at least in private, of Gonsalves and his left-leaning tendencies.
“Boyea’s major concern is the possibility of Gonsalves’ adoption of socialist-style economic policies at the expense of efficiency and sustainability. Boyea, like Ferdinand, has observed rising private sector anxiety in reaction to Chavez’s increasing economic influence over the country,” the cable said.
KPMG partner and former Chamber of Commerce President Brian Glasgow is also said to have conveyed similar private sector concerns in his conversation with the U.S. officials.
Glasgow, however, is said to have recognized the political appeal of Gonsalves’
social programmes with poorer Vincentians, pointing out the “tangible services” provided by Venezuela and Cuba, such as medical assistance, fuel price stabilization, scholarships, and low-interest mortgages.
“Glasgow was careful to reserve judgment on Petrocaribe because of his company’s contracts with the [government of SVG], and admitted that he had to be cautious because of Gonsalves’ history of terminating contracts with organizations and/or people that oppose his political views,” the cable said.
The cable was sent to Washington about one month after Chavez, on Feb. 17, 2007 called on all Vincentians to forge a “sea of resistance against U.S. imperialism.”
“The only resistance, however, seems to be coming from the private sector, and it is aimed at Gonsalves and Hugo Chavez,” the officials said in their commentary.
“The private sector is clearly jittery about possible repercussions of Chavez’s influence, especially if foreign investors begin viewing Gonsalves as a Chavez acolyte intent on launching his own socialist revolution. The extent to which St. Vincent’s private sector is actually threatened by this new relationship, however, remains unclear,” the document said.
It, however, said that in a Feb. 26, 2007 meeting with Mary Ourisman, Washington’s then ambassador to Barbados and the OECS, PM gave an assurance that the CARICOM Single Market and Economy (CSME), as well as other trade arrangements, were priorities for the Eastern Caribbean that would not be affected by his own relationship with Chavez.
“Gonsalves will probably continue to try to have things both ways: posturing with Chavez while assuring the United States that he remains a reliable partner,” the cable said.
It further argued that the Prime Minister “is also savvy enough to realize that no amount of Venezuelan aid could replace the potential losses in foreign investment and tourism revenue, if he were to shift further left in his economic policies.
“He will therefore likely channel his pro-Bolivarian energy toward specific regional integration issues that allow him to be perceived as CARICOM’s guardian of the common man, such as labour protection, on which he has been vocal in the past, or other issues, such as reparations for the trans-Atlantic slave trade, that help him acquire the attention and popularity he craves in the region,” the document said.