KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent – This country on the weekend received both flattering and damning coverage in two separate media entities in North American.
On Friday, the internationally renowned New York Times, toasted the largest of the Grenadine islands in a 2,800-word feature headlined “Bequia: Getting Away From the Getaways”.
But on Saturday, even as Vincentian netizens were still soaking up the praise and sending the article along their Internet networks, the Toronto Star published a piece in which the headline simply asked “Is this Caribbean idyll the worst place in the world to be a woman?”
The New York Times article, which was publish both in print and on the Internet, lauds the beauty of Bequia, the warmth and friendliness of its people and offers detailed information about the island, including places to stay and eat and how to get there.
The article was overwhelmingly positive and, in addition to Bequia, also pitched Mayreau, Mustique, and the Tobago Cays.
And even when speaking about the one element of Bequia’s heritage that might turn some potential visitors off, the writer noted that the whaling tradition “runs deep [and] many locals take pride in the annual harpooning expeditions that are permitted in their waters under international regulations”.
But while the inconveniences of getting to Bequia might deter some would-be visitors, spokespersons for the Unity Labour Party are likely to use it to help whip up support for the Argyle International Airport.
The article noted that a round-trip ticket from Barbados to Bequia could cost the same US$400 from New York to Barbados.
“ And the flight is not always nonstop,” the article further stated.
It also mentions the option of flying to St. Vincent then ferrying to Bequia but also highlighted the fact that air travel to St. Vincent “generally requires at least one transfer, “adding to what is already a long trip”.
But while the New York Times piece made many persons proud to be Vincentian, the Toronto Star exposé stands to cause many citizens to hang their heads in shame – if only because much of it is true, if not because some citizens might be sullying the nation’s name for selfish end.
The 1880-word piece, datelined “Kingstown, St. Vincent and the Grenadines”, begins with the lines of a calypso, in which the artiste claims that women will love “eternally” men who beat them “every now and then”.
But even before those lines, readers encounter a video in which a teary-eyed Keturah Cupid, 43, details the abuse she reportedly suffered at the hands of her relatives and an ex-boyfriend.
Cupid applied for refugee status in Canada and that country’s Refugee Board deemed her a credible candidate but later denied her claim, saying that St. Vincent and the Grenadines is capable of protecting her — which she “vehemently denies”.
The first photograph in a slideshow accompanying the story, is that of Omega John, 39, whose right eye is significantly smaller — blind after punch from John’s ex-boyfriend.
The Toronto Star article says that last year, 710 Vincentians sought asylum in Canada, up from 179 in 2001. The country has joined the likes of Hungary, China, Namibia, Colombia, Mexico, as one of the top 10 nations from which refugee claims to Canada are made.
The figures add up to 4,500 Vincentian claimants in the last decade, 8th in the world for refugee claims to Canada — more than the Indian subcontinent and its 1.2 billion citizens and Pakistan’s 187 million.
According to the story, the majority of Vincentians travelling to Canada are women and most of them say they are fleeing domestic violence.
Whether the claim of each individual woman is true, it is hardly deniable that some Vincentian men are vicious in their abuse of their female counterparts.
And this did not escape the attention of the writer, who reported on the murder in Campden Park of Ingrid Jack-Franklyn and Hazel-ann James in mid-September, crimes for which Franklyn’s husband George “Chocolate” Franklyn has been charged.
The article almost mentioned among other crimes again Vincentian women, Stephanie Daniel, who died in August of stab wounds allegedly inflicted by an ex-boyfriend.
It said that these attack have driven many women from SVG — the female homicide capital of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States — to seek asylum in Canada, although recently only one-third of them have succeeded.
“There is something very wrong in the relationship between men and women in St. Vincent and the Grenadines,” the article quotes a Canadian Federal Court judge as writing in a 2009 ruling.
“Year after year, woman after woman washes up on our shores seeking protection from abusive, violent husbands or boyfriends.”
The 2007 U.N. report, which said that SVG had the third-highest rape rates in the world, also came in for attention. And the article also noted that the Vincentian head of government, Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves, was twice accused of sexual assault.
The Director of Public Prosecutions discontinued both cases.
Steve Phillips, SVG’s consul general in Canada, is quoted in the article as saying that there is no “political, religious or social conditions” in SVG “that justify any Vincentian applying for refugee status”.
The publication said that, according to Phillips, shady immigration consultants have “duped” many Vincentians into making refugee claims.
“And those claiming domestic violence are running from financial difficulty, not fists, he said.
In 2003, then Foreign Affairs Minister in Kingstown, Sir Louis Straker, began warning Vincentians in Canada not to applying for bogus refugee status.
The Vincentian high commissioner in Canada at that time, even then, spoke of the worsening situation in a year when 211 Vincentians applied for refugee status in the first six months — the highest number for any CARICOM country, except Guyana.
Straker also spoke of unscrupulous lawyers, who, knowing that the applicants were unlikely to succeed, nonetheless encouraging them to do apply.
And at least one woman that year detailed to Vincentian media the thousand of Canadian dollars she has lost to scrupulous lawyers in that North American country.
But the Toronto Star article last Saturday noted that a declining banana industry and high unemployment have caused many Vincentians to migrate to Canada.
“And word has spread that claiming domestic abuse is an easy ticket into Canada, according to Consul General Phillips.
“The fact that . . . Vincentians are making refugee claims, (is) alarming and disgusting for us as a nation,” he said.
But among the legitimate claim for asylum in Canada, Phillips in 2008 wrote a letter to support the refugee claim of domestic abuse victim Leila Brown-Trimmingham, who feared for her life in SVG according to the Toronto Star report.
Phillips wrote that Trimmingham would require 24-hour protection and this could not be guaranteed given the police’s “limitations and challenges”.
The article detailed the experiences of two other women, 19-year-old “Faith”, and Cupid, the woman who was featured in the video.
Faith said that he adoptive grandfather began raping her at age 14, when he chanced upon her kissing another girl. Cupid told the newspaper that she was often tied up like a “Thanksgiving turkey” and beaten with everything from cable wires to broomsticks.
Vincentian police told her “Go home and be a good girl’, said Cupid, who lived in Canada illegally for three years before she was she told about the Immigration and Refugee Act in 2001.
She was deported in July after Canadian officials told her that SVG offers places to hide and adequate state protection.
“I don’t think the situation is as bad as the persons claiming refugee status are making it out,” said Barbara Matthews, acting director of Marion House. “I really find it hard to accept that 4,500 women would find it so violent down here that they have to be running.”
But Vincentian lawyer Nicole Sylvester, according to the news report, said that state protection in SVG exists only on paper.
“Women do not feel sufficiently protected. The reality is many of our police officers are guilty of committing domestic violence themselves,” she is quoted as saying. Although the problem is getting worse many domestic abuse victims don’t go to the police because they lack confidence in the system, she said.
“The perpetrator is able to get to them and persuade them not to go forward with the case. And that is completely out of the police’s hands,” police spokesman Jonathan Nicholls said of the many rape cases that do not end up in court.
He said that the 850-member police force is trained to respond to domestic violence complaints. “Anyone who comes to the police with complaints, action will be taken.”