The relative portion of recurrent expenditure that the Ralph Gonsalves administration spends on its diplomatic missions annually has remained unchanged since 2001, Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves said on Monday.
“They say that these high commissioners and ambassadors are living high on the hog,” he told the opening ceremony of Kingstown’s biennial consultation with its heads of missions and consulates.
The prime minister was speaking in apparent response to opposition senator, Kay Bacchus-Baptiste, who, at a town hall meeting in New York last month spoke of what she said was the high cost of operating the SVG embassies and consulates abroad, “at a time when St. Vincent and the Grenadines is in such dire financial straits”.
She further said that while the Gonsalves government has argued for tightening of the belts of its citizens, the administration is “splurging abroad in the embassies”.
However, Gonsalves said that despite all the expansion and additional representations, the government’s spending on foreign missions as a percentage of recurrent expenditure is the same as in 2001.
“Obviously, the absolute number is higher, the absolute number with the expenditure on the missions is higher than in 2001 but so, too, the extent of recurrent expenditure and the best measure is to take a percentage in both years — the comparative measure.
“You know, persons should stick to elementary law and Grenadines affairs if they don’t understand foreign policy,” he said.
Gonsalves said that in 2001, the government only had missions in New York, Washington the United Kingdom and Toronto.
He said there was a separate contribution with the OECS to the Brussels mission and another for the OECS mission in Canada.
There was and still is the UNESCO mission, which is self-funded.
Since then, the country has opened diplomatic outposts in Caracas, Havana, and New York.
“It was 3.67 million [dollars] in 2001. It was 1.2 per cent of total recurrent expenditure, inclusive of debt servicing,” Gonsalves said.
He said that if debt servicing is subtracted, the government’s spending on its foreign missions is 1.46 per cent.
In 2018, for missions in New York, Washington, Cuba, Venezuela, a New York Consulate and the Toronto Consulate, which are funded by the government, the total expenditure for those missions is EC$9.43 million or 1.21 per cent of recurrent expenditure, inclusive of debt servicing.
“Despite all those additions,” Gonsalves said, adding that without debt servicing, the percentage in 2018 is 1.52 per cent.
“But you notice the extent on the range,” he said, adding that his government sold three “bad buildings” that the previous administration had purchased.
“They bought a building in Dallas for a tourism representative. There was one employee, a tourism employee in Dallas. One! I don’t know how many tourists came from Dallas. I want the whole country to hear me. I am not talking politics here; I am talking policy.”
Gonsalves said the tourism representative lived in a house owned by the government of SVG, but purchased in her name.
He said that when Kingstown decided to sell the house, “it was problem to get her out of the house”.
“Fortunately, we had all the receipts from the monies which were sent by the Ministry of Finance. Yes. There was a legal matter. Can you imagine that? It was in her name,” he further stated, adding that the matter was ventilated in Parliament.
His government also sold government properties in London.
“I read where they say at their New York town meeting — I’m talking policy and please forgive me those who are from overseas missions. I am not talking politics. I will not involve you in our internal politics but I have to talk policy,” he said at the event, which was also invited by diplomats accredited to Kingstown.
“They say that these high commissioners and ambassadors are living high on the hog,” Gonsalves said, adding that the High Commissioner to London, Cenio Lewis, commutes by train from his residence outside of London to get into London.
“You hear that? If they want to know what’s happening, ask Ralph.”
He said that before 2001, Kingstown had also bought a building for its tourism representation in Toronto but was paying rent elsewhere.
“So I was passing through Toronto so I say, ‘Leh me go and see this thing.’ The downstairs was full ah mud. A whole set ah old paper scattered. It was in a part of the town where Vincentians had told them don’t buy it there because it was out of the way for a consulate…
“I want the people to hear it. This sounds like somebody living high on the hog? And given the monies which we are spending here and the quality of the representation,” the prime minister said.