Leader of the Opposition Arnhim Eustace said late Tuesday that he was “deeply disappointed” by the response of Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves to his proposal to grant honorary Vincentian citizenship to all Garifunas if the New Democratic Party (NDP) wins the next general election.
The Garifunas are descendants of indigenous Vincentians, 5,000 of whom were exiled in 1795 after the death of their leader, Joseph Chatoyer.
Chatoyer was killed in a battle with the British in St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG), where he is a national hero.
He is accorded similar status among Garifuna populations around the world, including in Guatemala, Honduras, Belize and the United States.
Garifunas consider SVG, which they call Yurumein, as their ancestral home, where there is a population, mainly in the northeast of the country.
Eustace announced the honorary citizenship proposal at a town hall meeting in New York on Sunday.
“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 to applause at the town hall meeting, which was also attended by Garifunas.
Gonsalves, speaking at a press conference on Tuesday voiced opposition to the proposal, saying that Eustace had not explained what he meant by “honorary citizenship”.
“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? …
“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,” Gonsalves said.
But Eustace, speaking on radio Tuesday night, expressed dismay at the Prime Minister’s response, saying, “I’ve never heard more utter ignorance for a long time.”
Eustace noted that while 5,000 Garifunas were exiled from St. Vincent, their population across the world has soared to about 700,000 and have survived for more than 200 years with their language intact.
“But throughout this entire period, they have remained faithful to Yurumein, their name for St. Vincent.”
“Today, … after our country became independent, they still view this country as home…
“When we make proposals to integrate them more into our society such as I did in New York a few days ago, I don’t expect the Garifuna to leave the United States, to leave Belize, to leave Guatemala, leave their properties, leave their children who are in university, leave their businesses,” he said.
Eustace said that since making the announcement, a Garifuna who is the vice-president of a company in California has contacted him and is setting up an interview for this week.
“This is a man who is quite wealthy, but pleased with the fact that some effort is being made to recognise their existence and their belief that Yurumein is their home. And that’s what we are doing. We are trying to find a mechanism which will allow them to feel that we here in St. Vincent recognise that they are from here.”
“… they have a deep and abiding faith and love for this country. I have seen it demonstrated so many times in the last couple of years I have been looking at this issue. We have come to the conclusion that the time to do something about it is now, hence the decision to offer, once we get into office, honorary citizenship, to the Garifuna,” Eustace said.
He said a lot of Garifunas are “well established” in the world and may come to St. Vincent as tourists or to set up businesses.
“And look at the numbers: 700,000 Garifunas as tourists,” he said, adding that if incentives are given to other people in the diaspora, “we can have a thriving tourism industry in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, not like what we have now.
“But the main factor for me is recognising that they are part of us. So we must do whatever we can to integrate them as far as possible into our society,” he said.
“So the idea of the Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, to say that the Garifuna will come here to take people jobs, to take their houses, you can’t get lower than that. When you get to that kind of low, you are under the ground.
“Let us keep our heads together, recognise the situation for what it is and let us do what we can to encourage the Garifuna to continue to regard St. Vincent as their motherland. That is what we have to do. They are not coming here to take anybody’s land,” Eustace said.
“And if you were at the town hall meeting to see the Garifuna delegation that was there, their reaction when I announced the honorary citizenship, a lot of this nonsense will not be spoken about now.
“They have demonstrated for 218 years that they believe that St. Vincent and the Grenadines is their home. All I want to say, let us welcome them home,” Eustace said.