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KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent – This country today celebrates its 32nd anniversary of Independence from Britain amid an upsurge in violent crimes, a declining economy, and a widening political divide.

The usual display of patriotism by many has been dampened by the knowledge that for a sixth consecutive day, the whereabouts of Shanika Small, 20, in still unknown, in a year when some Vincentian men have been especially brutal against their female counterparts.

And the Christian Council, often criticised for what some have described as its “deafening silence” on many social and political issues, is encouraging citizens to “celebrate achievements, but address shortcomings”.

In its Independence message, the multi-denominational body said that while much of the recent “spate of violence and murder” were domestic, it believes it is “a symptom of a deeper aliment.

“If you listen carefully to the way we speak to each other, our divisions and mistrust because of politics, our open hostility to others who differ politically on the radio, we will see that violence or aggression is not far from us on a daily basis,” the Christian Council remarked.

The religious body further said that in the midst of the global economic crisis, Vincentians should give special consideration to what the nation produces, and seek to promote and use them.

It called on citizens to eat locally produced food and to create long-term structures and measures to assist each other, particularly the less fortunate.

Governor General Sir Frederick Ballantyne, the country’s ceremonial head of state, shared with citizens the story of a garbage collector who set up a library with books he collected from the trash.

“His simple action reminded me, and should remind all Vincentians, that regardless of one’s position in life, he or she can make a difference…” said Sir Frederick, who added that this principle “must become the roadmap of our daily lives” and not only at independence.

He said that the challenging economic times are likely to continue for up to two more years and encouraged citizens that while they must “accept this dire situation”, they must ensure that they are “not overwhelmed by a feeling of negativity, which can lead us to believe that these problems have no solutions”.

The retired physician, however, said that the nation needs to start addressing with urgency problems related to the education system, chronic diseases, misuse of energy, poverty, unemployment, and attitude to the environment.

“The problems affect all of us. The solutions rest with all of us,” Sir Frederick said and added that the government “should only be a facilitator in this exercise remaining always open, approachable and conciliatory”.

Prime Minister Dr, Ralph Gonsalves, who has been at the helm of government for the past 10 years, noted in his message that the 32nd anniversary of independence “meets our nation in challenging economic times”.

He said that the global economy, still in a “recessionary tail-spin”, has impacted the country adversely.

Gonsalves further spoke of Hurricane Tomas and the April 2011 “freak storm” that wreaked havoc to northeastern St. Vincent.

He, however, acknowledged the “self-inflicted problems”, including crime, laziness, ill discipline, and negligence of others.

These problems have put the economy and socio-political institutions “under immense strain” but Vincentians “have shown remarkable resilience, tenacity, and creativity in holding things together and advancing progressively on several fronts,” the Prime Minister said.

He said that over the last year the country has made progress in the economy, physical infrastructure, education, health, telecommunications, foreign direct investment, the battle against major drug traffickers and money launderers, regional integration, foreign policy and the protection and further upliftment of the poor.

The Prime Minister also lauded the individual and collective achievements of Vincentians, at home and abroad, including in sports, culture, academics, production, business, and religion.

“At Independence 2011, our nation remains a land of freedom, peace, democracy, good sense, and good governance,” he said.

But Opposition Leader Arnhim Eustace did not see much to celebrate this Independence.

According to him, the Prime Minister, “dressed in the emperor’s new clothes… will celebrate the ‘achievements’ of his government” even as Vincentians discuss financial and social well-being — “two of the very issues that strike at the heart of what it means to be Independent”.

“Vincentians can no longer abide by promises and platitudes; our people need progress,” Eustace said as he noted that the country has registered an unprecedented three consecutive years of economic decline and projected that “a fourth year of hardship is in the offing”.

“Without competent captaincy in rough seas, we are likely to capsize,” the former prime minister said.

He cited the Ministry of Agriculture’s failure to spray against black sigatoka and the resulting “financial crisis” for banana and plantain farmers that “seriously threatening the future of the industry and our economy”.

Many local businesses have closed down even as the government owes millions to the private sector and passed an EC$105 million deficit budget, said Eustace, an economist.

Eustace further spoke of challenges to the National Insurance Services, a “criminal explosion”, increased dependence on foreign aid, and political divisions that “stymie our national development”.

“We are slowly regressing from the high expectations and lofty dreams of the recent past when we broke free of colonialism,” he said.

“As we attain our 32nd year of Independence, each Vincentian must decide whether to celebrate or instead merely observe. If you choose the latter, cast off the rose-coloured glasses and look with the naked eye,” he concluded.

But thousands of Vincentians are expected to turn up at the Victoria Park in Kingstown to witness the Independence Parade and to hear the Prime Minister’s Independence Day address to the nation.

Thousand more, a home in the diaspora, are also expected to witness the event on radio, television, and via the Internet and to participate in other celebratory event today and in the coming days.

While Independence, as the Christian Council noted, is a good time to reflect on the many challenges of a small-island developing state in a globalised world, for many nationals, today will simply be a day to forget it all and simply celebrate being Vincentian.

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