By Kenton X. Chance
Argyle International Airport was officially opened Monday afternoon with a flag raising ceremony in which Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves said that the facility is “a symbol, it is a metaphor of what is possible in us.
“Do not ever allow any people, any nation to impose on us limitations to our imagination,” he told the large crowd that turned out to the opening of the event, which was taking place six years behind schedule.
“Only we, as a self-governing people under God, with our own individual sense of being; only we must impose limitations on ourselves. Any other notion is a colonial one, and it is debilitating and it will hold us back,” said Gonsalves, who in 2005 announced his Unity Labour Party’s plan to build an international airport at Argyle — the nation’s first.
“Whatever we set our minds to achieve, with patience and calm, we can achieve, as we have seen it here. This is a bridge to the world. And this plan didn’t just come from us. It is a combination of human intelligence and divine inspiration,” Gonsalves said and sang the chorus “I’m building a Bridge”.
Monday’s flag raising was one of two events to mark the opening of the airport, which begins operations on Tuesday with scheduled flights by intra-regional carriers, LIAT and Grenadine Air Alliance.
A number of chartered flights from North America and Cuba are also scheduled to land on Tuesday at the EC$700 million airport, which has contributed EC$400 million to the EC$1.6 billion national debt.
The airport has a runway that is 9,000 feet long and 150 feet wide.
The terminal building has been designed to process 1.5 million passengers annually and 800 persons an hour at peak.
Gonsalves said that at Tuesday’s event, he will have a lot to say.
“Today was supposed to be a very simple function and look at the thousands who are here. Tomorrow, I believe we are going to see the largest crowd ever assembled at one place in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. And we are going to have a good time. We are going to have a good time because we have been blessed,” he said.
Speaking earlier, former minister of National Security, Sir Vincent Beache took a rabid partisan line during the event that the government has attempted to present as a national one.
Beache, in a rambling — unscripted address that pushed the ceremony past 6 p.m., when the flag should have been lowered in keeping with national protocols — said that the ULP administration has used a study done under the New Democratic Party administration to inform its decision about the location for the airport.
“That’s why I thought the opposition was stupid that they could have been here to take part of the kudos, because it is their study we used,” Sir Vincent said as members of the crowd shouted to him that opposition lawmakers were in fact at the ceremony.
“But not, instead of that, they made all kind of foolish remarks, even wishing that it would wash away,” Sir Vincent continued and moved on to another point before some close behind him again told him that opposition lawmakers were at the ceremony.
“They are here? I am glad,” Sir Vincent said, adding, “The airport is not for Dr. Gonsalves, Prime Minister of St. Vincent, it is not for Vincent Beache, it is not for the leader of the Opposition,” he said, adding that at his age he might use the airport once, if at all.
“It’s for the coming generations that would benefit,” Sir Vincent said to some applause.
In his address, Gonsalves reiterated that the events on Monday and Tuesday are national ones.
“This is a not a party, political event; neither the one tomorrow. There is enough time, which we have spent on those arguments and we may well spend them on the arguments in the future, but today, now, and tomorrow (Tuesday), with our guests in our midst, I want to ensure that we have a national event, worthy of the people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines,” Gonsalves said.
He apparently attempted to excuse Sir Vincent’s comments, saying, “It is inevitable, in the nature of competitive politics, that this or that matter may be said; that something may creep in. But, as prime minister of the country, I want to reaffirm, yet again, that this is a national event.”
Gonsalves used the event to thank the nations and institutions that contributed to the successful completion of the airport.
He thanked the CARICOM Development Fund, which, of its own resources and through resources from Turkey, contributed to the airport.
The prime minister thanked the president and the government and the people of Taiwan, which donated the terminal building.
He also recognised “very specially”, three other major partners, namely Venezuela, Cuba and Trinidad and Tobago, which will be featured during Tuesday’s celebratory rally.
President of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro is slated to attend and speak at the event as well as Cuban Vice-President, Salvador Mesa.
Gonsalves paid a special tribute to the memory of his “dear friend and brother”, the late prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Patrick Manning, whose widow, Hazel will speak during Tuesday’s rally.
Gonsalves also used the ceremony to recognise other representatives of countries that have assisted with the airport, namely, Austria, Mexico, Turkey, Libya, Georgia, and Iran.
“We have had contributions from countries; some of them do not have diplomatic relations with one another. And part of the creativity and skill of the government was to bring all of these countries together to assist the people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines.”
Gonsalves also thanked the governments of Britain, Canada, and the United States of America, whose respective export credit guarantee systems assisted “with certain items of equipment which we purchased, but, because of the guarantee systems we got them on better interest terms”.
Speaking to iWitness News on the sidelines of the ceremony, Leader of the Opposition, Godwin Friday said the event had the pomp and ceremony that he expected.
“And I hope that the airport turns out to be what we expect as well.”
Friday did not give a clear answer as to whether opposition lawmakers would attend Tuesday’s event, telling iWitness News, “We will see. We will take it one day at a time.”
He said that decision would be informed by “what the nature of the exercise is.
“I think right now what we want to do is to show that commitment to people that this is a national project and whatever the criticisms are, we, in the opposition, we have to raise questions about things that we see in major projects or in government policy that raise concern. And if we do that, that doesn’t mean that we are rejecting entirely or we are unpatriotic, as some people might say. We are doing our job. When the project is completed, we hope that, based on the input we have given, that it becomes a better project.”
Friday said opposition lawmakers were at the event to show that they want the project to succeed.