Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves on Tuesday spoke strongly against the opposition New Democratic Party’s (NDP) proposal to grant honorary citizenship to Garifunas, descendants of indigenous Vincentians who consider St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) their ancestral home.
Leader of the Opposition Arnhim Eustace announced at a town hall meeting in New York on Sunday that his party will make such a declaration if it wins the next general election, constitutionally due by next March.
“This I have given much thought to, and that is just the first step. Over time, in consultation with our brothers and sisters, we can refine our programme to bring them ever closer to St. Vincent and the Grenadines,” Eustace said.
Gonsalves, speaking at a press conference, noted that Eustace does not attend celebration in honour of this country’s National Hero, Garifuna chief Joseph Chatoyer, who was killed in 1975 while battling British occupation.
The Prime Minister also noted that it was his Unity Labour Party administration that declared March 14 as National Hero’s Day, established Garifuna Radio in North Windward, and has strengthened the historical connection with the Garifuna people all over the world.
“Now, it’s an entirely different thing, however, if you want to tell me that wherever Garifuna is born that they must get citizenship of St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
“I do not support that. I do not support that and Arnhim Eustace would not support that either, so he put the adjectival ‘honorary’ in front of it,” said Gonsalves, who has ministerial powers to grant citizenship.
He said the only thing known to SVG as honorary citizenship was under the law passed in 1996 by the then NDP administration to set up what is otherwise known as an economic citizenship programme.
The ULP repealed the law when it came to office in 2001.
Gonsalves noted that the law gave an honorary citizen a passport and permanent residency in SVG.
“Will he also have a right to work? I want the people in East Kingstown to hear this,” Gonsalves said, refereeing to the constituency that Eustace represents in parliament.
“When you give them honorary citizenship, our Garifuna brothers and sisters, are they coming out from Belize, from Nicaragua, from Honduras from Guatemala, they are coming out of those countries for jobs in St. Vincent?” Gonsalves said.
“They are coming for your houses? I want to know what this involves. If you are going to be an honorary citizen, the only thing I have to judge on is what you called honorary citizen before, and the only distinction there, the only thing you had to pay money,” he said.
Under the NDP’s honorary citizenship programmes, an applicant had to pay a US$55,000 application fee and US$5,000 for each dependent.
“But what are they going to have? Just a piece of people saying ‘I declare you to be an honorary citizen?’ You giving them a passport? Because for sure, you have more Garifunas who are not Vincentians outside than the people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines as a whole,” said Gonsalves, who estimates the Garifuna population to be 800,000.
He accused the NDP of opposing freedom of movement within CARICOM but proposing honorary citizenship for Garifunas.
“By all means, let us strengthen the historical and cultural ties, which we have been doing and if you have a Garifuna overseas who is the descendant of a Garifuna here, you get citizenship by descent and there is a process for that,” Gonsalves said as he again questioned the proposal.
“What does this involve? A passport? I need to know, the country needs to know. … Let’s have serious people making serious proposals,” he said.
“The unintended effect of this proposal here by Mr. Eustace is to make people in this country get very upset as we seek to do more and more things to make the joinder between people of Garifuna descent all over the world, because this is their spiritual home,” he said.
He suggested that if the media conduct a poll in Kingstown it would show that most people do not understand what Eustace means by honorary citizenship.
Gonsalves noted that under the old law, honorary citizens did not have the right to vote.
“Do they want to give honorary citizens the right to vote now? You going give Garifuna the right to vote, but Vincentians who overseas don’t have the right to vote? You going put Garifunas above them who ain’t born in St. Vincent and who are not descended directly?
“So he has to tell us if his proposal involves giving them a passport, giving them the right to work here, giving them the right of permanent residence,” Gonsalves said.