KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent — Despite his public rants against the United States, Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves in 2009 struck a positive note with U.S. diplomats in Barbados, a stark contrast to Opposition Leader Arnhim Eustace, who generally seems to care what Washington thinks about developments in St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG).
In a diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks, U.S. officials in Bridgetown compiled a leadership profile on Gonsalves in which they told Washington that the Unity Labour Party (ULP) head was “easily the most intelligent and charismatic of the Eastern Caribbean leaders”.
In other cables, the officials said that while Eustace was “undeniable intelligent and acutely aware of the problems facing the country”, he was “a singularly uncharismatic and uninspiring figure who is unable to translate his technocratic expertise into any kind of viable or sustained political activity”.
“Without a stronger leader, the NDP’s [New Democratic Party] influence will be muted,” the Americans said of party that governed from 1984 to 2001 and last December came one seat short of the left side of Parliament.
On the other hand, they felt that Gonsalves had “the charisma and political savvy needed to keep himself in power for years to come, though his popularity is gradually eroding”.
The profile noted that while Gonsalves was “politically rooted in 1970s leftist movement” he was “a pragmatic ideologue with a strong populist bent”.
The Prime Minister relationship with Caracas, Havana, and ALBA were “close and built on both pragmatic economic interest and a healthy measure of populist spirit and socialist ideology,” the cable said, adding that then blossoming relations with Iran appeared “to be more mercenary, but nevertheless bear scrutiny”.
U.S. officials told their superiors that Gonsalves could be expected to work with Washington on common issues of concern even as he took “while at the same time taking public “potshots” at the superpower “to highlight his leftist credentials and rile up his domestic base”.
“Despite his affection for Chavez, fears that he could be in danger of becoming a Chavez puppet are overblown,” the cable said.
The document argued that Gonsalves had “moved methodically to establish a vertically-oriented government in which virtually all decision making comes to his desk and opposing viewpoints are not warmly embraced.”
According to the cable, opposition and civil society elements saw Gonsalves “more darkly, as the head of a centralized political system exercising near-dictatorial control over all aspects of Vincentian politics and economy”.
U.S. officials, however, told Washington that some of these statements were “overblown rhetoric born of frustration with the inability of the opposition to mount any real challenge to the ULP.
The cable, however, said that there were “kernels of truth” adding that SVG was “littered with relatives and former close friends of Gonsalves’ who have lost positions in government or ‘kitchen cabinet’ jobs for disagreeing with him on economic policy issues”.
The profile said that the Prime Minister had “effectively secured a firm grip on the press by intimidating media outlets that challenge him in any way through litigation”.
Noting that Gonsalves had sued successfully at least one such outlet, the cable claimed, “[T]repidation amongst Vincentian media professionals has resulted in a measure of self-censorship”.
The profile also commented on the country’s constitutional reform efforts, saying that Gonsalves’ pursuing such far-reaching changes and putting his political capital on the line reflected one of dichotomies:
“[A]t one level he is ambitious and self interested, while at another level, he is a disinterested academic and theorist willing to risk a short-term political loss for what he sees as fundamental political change in the region.”
The officials noted that the constitutions handed to Eastern Caribbean nations at Independence had served the region well but could benefit from change.
The cable said that of Eastern Caribbean leaders, Gonsalves was “the one most closely aligned philosophically with the leftist-populist ‘Chavista’ crowd” and claimed that he had egged his Dominican colleague Roosevelt Skerrit to join ALBA to gauge regional reaction before Kingstown signed on to the bloc.
Gonsalves and foreign relations
The cable said that despite Gonsalves’ personal political leanings he was “eminently practical” regarding foreign relations.
“He knows his country needs money, and he knows his party needs money to support the public infrastructure programs that bring jobs and buy votes.”
The profile noted that Gonsalves was not shy about reaching out to “non-traditional” sources of funding such as Iran and Libya, adding that he had “expressed his own reservations about Venezuela and the PetroCaribe arrangement”.
U.S. officials said Gonsalves had told them in August 2009 that he suspected that Venezuelan oil subsidies would not last forever, noting a PetroCaribe price hike, and “hinted that he would attempt to stockpile reserves in case the situation worsened”.
The Prime Minister is said to have told the U.S. officials that he saw ALBA “only as a funding source in bad economic times” and strove to reassure them that he was only interested in Iran’s contribution to the Argyle International Airport, pointing out that many U.S. allies with Tehran.
“He can probably be taken at face value as far as his intentions with Iran go, but it remains uncertain if a country with such porous borders and thinly stretched police forces will be able to maintain adequate checks on such a relationship,” the U.S. officials told Washington.
They further said that under a Gonsalves government, Kingstown’s support for ALBA and PetroCaribe would “continue to the last dollar these programs provide him”.
U.S. official said that Gonsalves was “not a Chavista satellite and will not become one.
“He genuinely believes he can secure handouts from whoever will provide them and still maintain his freedom of action. That is why, despite his ideological orientation, he nevertheless maintains ties with Taiwan instead of China — he is happy with the Taiwanese and not willing to derail the gravy train,” the cable said.
The U.S. officials said that in keeping with this pragmatic approach to foreign relations, Gonsalves continued to work closely with them “even as he uses the U.S. and the ‘colonial powers’ as a foil to play to his foreign leftist audience and his hard core domestic base”.
“Gonsalves has adeptly walked a fine line between populist, occasionally anti-US rhetoric to bolster himself locally while maintaining good relations with us on security and law enforcement issues. He knows we are his most reliable strategic partner and an important source of investment, tourists and trade, and he is unlikely to do anything to damage that relationship,” the cable said.
Eustace a ‘man of principle’, lacks ‘political acuity’
U.S. officials in Barbados gave their assessment of the NDP leadership in several documents though none of them was exclusively a profile of Eustace.
A 2008 cable said that despite several potential openings, the NDP seemed incapable of mounting any serious opposition to Gonsalves. “The party’s lacklustre leadership has had difficulty targeting their criticism and making them stick,” Washington was told of the NDP.
“The NDP leadership appears woeful and lost, lacking ideas on how to move forward and mount a serious challenge to Gonsalves,” the cable said, even as it noted that the ULP was “well-organised and well funded”.
“Embassy contacts have criticized Eustace for his poor leadership, citing especially his tendency to rattle off his “many concerns” without offering substantive solutions or plans-of-action,” another cable said.
U.S. officials’ impression of the NDP in 2008 had not improved much from one year earlier, when they told Washington that Embassy staff had learnt of “growing discontent with the ULP administration”.
In 2007, the NDP registered with the Bridgetown embassy their concerns about trade and foreign investment, foreign affairs and warming relations Cuba and Venezuela, drug-trafficking, the Argyle International Airport, and the stifling of free speech.
“Despite general agreement on these issues, however, the NDP’s leadership is perceived as weak and ineffectual,” the officials said.
“Many Embassy contacts have criticized Eustace for his poor leadership, citing especially his tendency to rattle off his ‘many concerns’ without offering substantive solutions or plans-of-action,” the cable said.
However, a biographical note in the same cable said that “… Eustace is widely revered by Embassy contacts as a ‘man of principle’ who is as ‘clean as they come.’ At the same time, he is viewed as lacking charisma and political acuity.”
The cable further said that while there appeared to be growing discontent with the ULP government among a wide range of private and public sector figures, the NDP “manages to float from issue to issue, without appearing to secure a stronger foothold among the population.
“The opposition leader Arnhim Eustace’s bland personality and lack of charisma certainly hurt the party, as does the apparent divergence of support between Eustace and the looming figure of Sir James Mitchell.”
Criticisms of Eustace’s leadership is said to have come from within the NDP, including from former foreign affairs minister Jonathan Peter, who in 2009 asked Washington for money as part of a failed bid to wrestle NDP leadership from Eustace.
Peters is said to have doubted that Eustace was the future leadership of the NDP, owing to a lack of charisma.
“[H]e still sees Eustace as a talented technocrat and generously stated he would retain Eustace as his Minister of Finance if he wins the elections,” the cable said.
Eustace, according to one of the cables, got a private endorsement from Ken Boyea, who in 2007, remained “one of the most outspoken critics, at least in private, of Gonsalves and his left-leaning tendencies” although he endorsed Gonsalves publicly ahead of the 2010 vote.
Boyea, who fell out with the ULP and ran as leader of the People Political Movement in 2001, is quoted as telling Embassy officials that “although Eustace lacks charisma, he is bright, capable and honest,” and added that he would “completely trust Eustace with the keys to the country”.
After the NDP’s election defeat in 2005, Eustace stood for re-election as party president, with two years remaining in his previous term.
He was re-elected overwhelmingly but Member of Parliament for the Northern Grenadines Dr. Godwin Friday, is quoted as telling U.S. officials that NDP supporters wanted a more “vigorous opposition”.
Friday is key
According to the cables, in 2008, Friday was “one glimmer of hope for the NDP” and U.S. officials described the Canada trained lawyer as “articulate, well respected and slightly more charismatic” and having “a solid grasp of the challenges ahead”.
“During meetings with [Embassy officials], other NDP leaders including Eustace valued his opinion and often turned to Friday for answers,” the cable said.
It further said that Friday did not “share the same apocalyptic view of the future other members of the NDP have.
“Friday is also the NDP leader best equipped to deal with the press, and he has a good analytical grasp of both domestic political and economic issues. Aside from Eustace, Friday appears to be the only other real option for leadership in the NDP as currently constructed,” the document said, two years before Eustace brought the NDP one seat away from government.
ULP’s young star
Meanwhile, Gonsalves is said to have identified five identify up-and-comers he hoped will one day take greater leadership roles in the ULP.
The list comprised:
Then senator, Sabato Caesar, who won the South Windward seat in the December 2010 poll and is now the minister of tourism.
Press Secretary Hans King, who stepped aside to allow Luke Browne to stage an unsuccessful challenge against Eustace in East Kingstown.
Then Deputy Speaker of the House of Assembly Rochelle Forde and former senator Ronald Marks, both lawyers who did not contest the 2010 poll.
Camillo Gonsalves, the Prime Minister’s lawyer son who has been hailed internationally for his work as the country’s U.N. Ambassador, although some labelled his appointment an act of nepotism.
“The PM confided that he had high hopes for current Minister of Health Douglas Slater, who was technically very competent, but whose lack of political sensibility would hinder his popularity,” the cable said of Slater who, in 2010, did not contest the South Leeward seat he had been representing since 2001 and has since been appointed senator and Minister of Foreign Affairs.
“The Charge mentioned that these individuals would make good candidates for International Visitor
programs, to which Gonsalves jokingly responded that we were seeking to “corrupt” them in the U.S.,” the profile of Gonsalves said.
U.S. officials told Washington that despite Gonsalves’ “leftist orientation and sometimes strong public criticism of the U.S.”, he remained “a pragmatic partner who will continue to cooperate with us on the full range of our agenda”.
It, however, said the Prime Minister “continues to believe that he can play all sides in his peripatetic international efforts to squeeze every cent of support from a motley crew of international partners. In defending his sketchier associations, he tends to exaggerate his own degree of independence …
“Nevertheless, he does seek to balance his relations with ALBA and Venezuela, Cuba, and Iran with genuine respect for the United States and the myriad bilateral programs we have in place,” the profile concluded.