By Kenton X. Chance
Hours after handing over the coveted Finance portfolio to his son, Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves on Friday sounded a neutral note amidst widespread speculation that he is preparing to hand over power to his son Camillo Gonsalves, ahead of his political senior, Agriculture Minister Saboto Caesar.
Camillo, 45, has retained his Economic Planning and Sustainable Development portfolios, while his old ministries, of
Industry (Including the Bureau of Standards) and Labour have been passed to the 36-year-old Caesar.
Caesar was elected as Member of Parliament for South Central Windward on a Unity Labour Party (ULP) ticket in 2010.
At that time, Camillo was the nation’s chief envoy at the United Nations.
Three years later, he was appointed a senator, coming to Parliament via the same route as Saboto.
Before Camillo became a Member of Parliament, many had seen him as the successor to the 71-year-old prime minister, who had often referred to him as a son in whom he was well pleased.
But in 2012, the prime minister made clear his position on what qualification the nation’s next leader should have when he said the next prime minister should be a diplomat.
With Camillo and Caesar — both lawyers — in Parliament as of 2013, the difference between the two in terms of how their past experience would serve them in national, regional, and international politics began to emerge.
The ULP attempted to manage the delicate situation by suggesting that either could become the nation’s next leader, with the prime minister himself saying that the party would make the decision when the time is right.
In the December 2015 general elections, Saboto was elected to a second term while Camillo secured a convincing win in East St. George, out clinching his father as the candidate to secure the absolute highest number of votes.
During the election campaign, Gonsalves said that this, his fourth, will be his final term as prime minister and he would transition to a new leader ahead of the next general elections, constitutionally due in March 2021.
After the elections, the ULP maintained a carefully choreographed dance involving both Camillo and Saboto, which often involving them delivering speeches at major national events.
This included at the opening of the historic Argyle International Airport on Feb 14, 2017.
They have often travelled together, including to Taiwan and to Caribbean countries ravaged by hurricanes earlier this year.
But political observers see Camillo’s appointment to the Finance portfolio as a huge boost to any ambitions he might have of becoming the nation’s leader.
In post-Independence St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the prime minister has traditionally retained the Finance ministry.
However, between 1998 and 2001, Arnhim Eustace, an economist, held that Finance portfolio under the prime ministership of Sir James Mitchell, who Eustace succeeded in October 2000.
When he spoke on the cabinet reshuffle on his party’s radio station Friday morning amidst widespread speculation about what the move means, Gonsalves noted how his government has twinned Camillo and Saboto since the 2015 election.
He said that since 2015, he has been involving both men in very important aspects of the overall management of the economy.
“Of course, in the case of Camillo, making him Minister of Economic Planning and having World Bank and the CDB (Caribbean Development Bank) under his portfolio watch.
“But all the discussions involving the World Bank in every respect and the CDB and the IMF (International Monetary Fund) I’ve involved a number of ministers quite intimately, and particularly, Camillo and Saboto”, Gonsalves said.
He added: “You have to have the thinking in going forward, you have to have the particular trust in where you are shaping the enterprise. That is what I have done.”
Gonsalves said he knows that speculation would start regarding who is he tipping his hand towards to succeed him as prime minister.
“Well, the office of political leader of the ULP will be determined at a convention. And when the occasion arises for that, I would then, in consultation with the party, determine at what point do I make that particular transition. But we are not there yet.”
He said he had been shaping the Cabinet reshuffle in his head and had been “alerting members of the Cabinet to changes and my thinking, without indicating fully”.
The prime minister, however, said that when he was ready to move, he consulted his two most senior Cabinet members, Deputy Prime Minister Sir Louis Straker, and Minister of Housing, Montgomery Daniel.
“And they proffered their views, which, as always, are very helpful,” Gonsalves said.
He said he also discussed the matter with Sen. Julian Francis, who is the general secretary of the ULP and the prime minister’s cousin, whom he described as “a senior minister in his own right — longstanding minister”.
The prime minister said he has been discussing the matter “on an on-going basis but with greater urgency recently with both Saboto and Camillo and then with the rest of the Cabinet so that all of us are on the same page without dissent absolutely as to the way in which I am proceeding.
“… And I am very pleased with the way in which we have put things in place, and so, too, is the entire Cabinet.”
Noting the public comments on the development, Gonsalves said that some persons are looking for “Machiavellian rivalries”.
“These two able young men, what are they saying among themselves? Anybody ask that?” he said.
“Every single job that Camillo and Saboto have undertaken or I have asked each or both of them to undertake that each of them singly, and together, … they have made a success of the assignments,” the prime minister said.
“In the case of Saboto, from the time in his late 20s that I asked him to be senator and then he was Parliamentary Secretary then we made him minister of state then full minister.
“He was grounded in Tourism, in Communication and Works, in Agriculture, in a number of areas other than Agriculture, including Industry, and now other things are being added on to him.
“Camillo was Senior Crown Counsel and Ambassador to the UN and Foreign Minister and minister in his current capacity and you see both of them in Parliament, you see both of them politically.”
Gonsalves said that Saboto has been able to hold and consolidate South Central Windward, which he has been representing in Parliament since 2010.
“His majority is not as large as Ralph’s majority nearby nor as Gustaus’ (Frederick Stephenson) own to the south, but his majority is like steel. It is being sustained and there are small accretions every time he goes to the polls.”
In the 2015 vote, Saboto bagged 2,476 votes against the NDP’s Addison “bash” Thomas, who got 1,888; Gonsalves got 3015 votes against the NDP’s Ken Johnson, and Camillo garnered 3135 votes against the NDP’s Linton Lewis.
Gonsalves said that Camillo had a “formidable opponent” but was one of the better performers in the last elections.
Unlike the ULP, which won four-in-a-row, in 2015, Lewis completed a four-in-a-row electoral defeat, having lost to three candidates in two constituencies.
The prime minister also responded to the accusation that he is building a dynasty.
“The point about it is this: What must I do? Must I say that a young man who has ability, intellectual, administrative leadership ability, in the case of Camillo, simply because he is my blood son that he must go to the back of the queue and that his ability must be hidden under a bushel?
“Must I say that because Saboto and I have been close way, way, way back—I remember once when I said that Saboto is my son in whom I am well pleased, they said that I am talking about the matter in religious terms, and it’s blasphemy?”
“… The point is this: must I, because I feel that Saboto is an individual with immense ability, I must hide Saboto, too? I’m not hiding anybody. The fact of the matter is this: look, I am very careful person and I deal with issues in a consensual manner and yet provide leadership.”
The prime minister said he knows that the Cabinet, his party and leadership and executive of his party and the nation as a whole “see that the harnessing between Saboto and Camillo is a vital one for the country”.
He said there is a harnessing between him and Sir Louis, adding that in the earlier phases it was “presided over by Sir Vincent.
“I believe that the vast majority of people in the country today celebrating as to how Ralph is proceeding in making the initial moves in a transitional process,” said Gonsalves who has repeated that he would not lead the ULP into the next election although he would offer himself as its candidate for North Central Windward, which he has been representing for 23 years.