KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent – After weeks of speculations, a newspaper front-page article, and discussion by the public, Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves on Monday announced a reshuffle of his Cabinet, exactly 14 months after his Unity labour Party (ULP) was re-elected to a third consecutive term in office.
In the reassignments, which take effect next Monday, Jan. 20, Minister of Housing, Informal Human Settlements, Physical Planning and Land and Surveys, Clayton Burgin, will lead the Ministry of Health, Wellness and the Environment.
Burgin, Parliamentary Representative for East St. George, will replace his West St. George colleague Cecil “Ces” McKie, who has been reassigned to the Ministry of Tourism, Sports and Culture.
Saboto Caesar, Member of Parliament for South Central Windward, will replace Montgomery Daniel as Minister of Agriculture, Industry, Forestry, Fisheries and Rural Transformation.
Caesar last November pleaded with constituents to go back to farming, saying that agricultural lands, previously the source of employment for many of the 10,000 constituents, were lying fallow, overgrown with weeds.
“I want you to trust me on this one. If we fail to go back to the lands and work, comrades, it is going to be a time of hardship for the poor and the working class people in this country,” he said at a ULP rally.
Outgoing Agriculture Minister Daniel, Member of Parliament for North Windward, has come in for much public criticism and calls for him to resign as head of that Ministry, for the Ministry’s poor handling of the black sigatoka crisis last year.
The Ministry failed to spray against the disease that ran amok across the country, further decimating the banana sector. The sector was just recovering from Hurricane Tomas, which wiped out 98 per cent of banana and plantain cultivation in October 2010.
The situation prompted opposition legislator Dr. Godwin Friday to ask Daniel in Parliament if he planned to resign for his Ministry’s mismanagement of the disease.
“Is the Member who is asking this question … sound in his mind? Is he natural? Is he a normal person?” Daniel said, noting that the people of North Windward elected him thrice.
Daniel also made national headlines last November for saying, in response to a protesting farmer’s alleged call for him to go, that he is of Garifuna descent and did not come to this country in boats in chains or under indentureship.
Daniel has not retracted or apologised for the statement but said he hoped “that the public will understand” that he “did not intend to disrespect or disregard Vincentians” and that he hopes “that we do not try to divide St. Vincent”.
Gonsalves defended Daniel, saying that there was no racism in the statement.
During the budget debate in January, Daniel, commenting on opposition legislator Daniel Cummings’ back injury, asked if Cummings wanted to be the next election candidate who uses a wheelchair.
That statement prompted Gonsalves to apologise for Daniel’s comment and to offer not to proceed with two slander judgements against two opposition legislators.
Daniel will be reassigned to the Ministry of Housing, Informal Human Settlement, Lands and Surveys and Physical Planning.
Also affected by the reshuffle is Parliamentary Secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office, Sen. Elvis Charles. He will retain his Parliamentary Secretary status but will be reassigned to the Minister of Tourism, Sports and Culture, where he will have special responsibility for Sports and Culture.
South Windward representative Frederick Stephenson would now lose his Sports and Culture portfolio, retaining responsibility for National Mobilization, Social Development, the Family, Persons with Disabilities, and Youth.
“You know, there’s no mystery about these reassignments. I have done so repeatedly during my 11 years as Prime Minister,” said Gonsalves, whose ULP came to office on March 28, 2001.
“I am the chairman of Cabinet. I know what is taking place in every ministry and I like the different ministers to have different experiences and strengthen their capacity. I know we have done a good job here in these reassignments,” he said.
“Of course, there are some persons who are going to say why didn’t he reassign Tom to here or Mary to there. Of course, unfortunately for those person, they don’t hold the office of the prime minister and they don’t know how I want to see the government shaped in going forward,” he added.
Searchlight newspaper two weeks ago published a front-page story in which it said Gonsalves was expected to announce a major Cabinet reshuffle during a press conference that day.
The reshuffle would have affected the ministries of Agriculture, Health, Tourism, Physical Planning, Housing, Lands and Surveys and Sports and Culture, in addition to some permanent secretaries. The newspaper said the changes should have taken effect on Feb. 1.
“I know that the editor of the Searchlight would be saying I didn’t announce it when I wanted to because I didn’t want her to scoop me. I don’t want to go there at all. That is for the journalists to get involved with, not me,” Gonsalves said.
Gonsalves’ ULP has a one-seat majority in the 15-member Parliament.