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Opposition Leader Arnhim Eustace. (File photo)
Opposition Leader Arnhim Eustace. (File photo)

KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent, March 16, IWN — Opposition Leader Arnhim Eustace on Saturday told Vincentians in New York that he is disappointed with the Dr. Ralph Gonsalves government’s management of the Vincentian economy.

“Since Independence, this is the worst situation the economy has been in. Let him (Gonsalves) dispute that,” Eustace said at a town hall meeting organised by the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Progressive Organisation of New York, a chapter of the New Democratic Party.

“In 2012, to our eternal shame, St. Vincent and the Grenadines exported $1.1 million in bananas. We used to do that in a week,” Eustace said, noting that the country’s record in banana earning for any one year is $111 million.

He complained that the $799 million budget that lawmakers approved in January includes a deficit of $126 million. He spoke of the specific ways in which this affects citizens.

“People are so fed up with our road that it isn’t funny,” he said, as he spoke of the implications of a  the budget deficit.

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“It means that you are not going to do a lot of things that you say you are going to do. … And that is why I am saying you end up not doing the roads, you end up not paying for things you should pay for, including for tourism, which is important in terms of earning money for our economy.”

This year, St Vincent and the Grenadines is expected to pay EC$133 million on the EC$1.3 billion National Debt, Eustace said.

“So we have to spend $130 million from our budget just to pay [the National Debt].”

The National Debt includes $59 million owed to the private sector, he added.

“And they can’t pay them. They don’t pay them,” Eustace said of the local businesses that the Government owes.

Eustace said the budget figures “have specific meaning and specific things will happen” if the government can’t meet its financial obligations.

“I don’t want our tourism to go down more than it has gone down, I want the roads repaired, but when you are not looking after your budget and your financing properly, you are playing politics with it, that is what happens. And this is why we are in this mess and one of the reasons why we have negative growth all the time.”

Eustace said that his response to the budget is “a painful exercise”.

“Painful not because I have to speak for four hours non-stop — which we provided for in the rules of the House . … But it is painful because you know what you are talking about is not being done, and therefore the people of … St. Vincent and Grenadines find themselves in increasing difficulties and that’s why today we are dealing with negative growth all the time.”

Eustace also restated his objection to this country’s participation in PetroCaribe, a pact with Venezuela that allows participating countries to purchase oil on conditions of preferential payment.

He said that under PetroCaribe, the Government owes Venezuela $41 million, although Vincentians consumers have already paid the Government for the fuel sourced under the agreement.

“He said the Government likes the PetroCaribe initiative because it allows the Government to defer payments, hence having more cash to spend.

“But these things have implications — serious, serious implications for us. … And that is how we have to analyse these things and not just play politics,” Eustace said.

Eustace further accused the Government of inflating the budget ahead of the 2010 general elections and said this is having a negative effect on the economy.

“You don’t bump the budget to make an election point, because, in the end, the people suffer. You don’t play politics in that way. I am very aggrieved by that. It hurts the economy and therefore, it hurts our people.”

Eustace, an economist, said that the Vincentian economy is the only one among the 32 nations in Latin American and the Caribbean that declined for three consecutive years.

It was probably the first time that the former prime minister was acknowledging publicly that the economy contracted for three, rather than four years, as he had been saying previously.

He also spoke on a range of national issues, including the finance sector, healthcare, and airport development, and responded to questions from the audience.