By *Jomo Sanga Thomas
(“Plain Talk” Oct. 9, 2020)
“This system is by now intolerable: farm workers find it intolerable; labourers find it intolerable; communities find it intolerable; peoples find it intolerable. The earth itself – our sister, Mother Earth, also finds it intolerable.” — Pope Francis
The ULP campaign slogan is “Lift SVG Higher”. Give it to Gonsalves and the ULP leadership. When it comes to glitz and glitter, the party can outdo Hollywood. From its virtual meeting productions to its disregard for COVID 19 protocol motorcades, which incidentally are banned, the party can create a spectacle. Sadly though, form often gallops ahead of substance.
A keen look behind the bombast reveals that those in service of the party and state are on the defensive.
On Sept. 29, 2020, SVG Chief Medical Officer, Simone Keizer-Beache, smarting from the overwhelmingly angry outcry amidst the government feeble response to the Dengue Fever outbreak, which has killed six Vincentians, attempted to give the government a pass and blamed citizens for their plight.
“Often times it seems as if Vincentians must be clobbered over their heads before they pay attention,” Keizer-Beache said. She correctly predicted that she would “get some licks” but was willing to blame everyone or anyone but the government whose ultimate responsibility it is to keep us safe. The response by the CMO is callous and irresponsible because it blames citizens, including the families who lost loved ones, for their pain and suffering.
Last Sunday, a “defensive tackle” for the government took to the airways to cheer on the government labour policies. He blamed Vincentian workers for their abusive and exploitative predicament in the public and private sector. He took listeners back to the state of play in the 20 century, when the opposition governed the land, to justify the virtual anti-labour posture of the “Labour” government he dutifully serves at the expense of the workers, whom he leads as a union boss.
It is a shocking commentary on this “Labour” government that it has never negotiated a collective bargaining agreement with the Public Workers Union (PSU). Gonsalves signed an agreement with the Teachers Union in 2003 and for the last 17 years has refused to negotiate in good faith towards another agreement.
This sad reality stands as “Exhibit A” that this “Labour” government harbours nothing but contempt for the organised workers in our country.
Take Gonsalves’ address to the United Nations. Good speech, hitting all the right notes, e.g. defence of the international law principles regarding non-interference and non-intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign independent states, especially those suffering imperial aggression like Cuba, Venezuela and Palestine. But apart from the annual platitude at the UN, how does this solidarity manifest itself here at home? Cuban and Venezuelan events get a sprinkling of party or government support with the obligatory speech by the leader. Contrast that with their enthusiastic presence at all Taiwanese events, which has given us far less than the selfless Cubans and Venezuelans.
Then there is the struggle for reparatory justice. SVG, more than any other country in CARICOM, has taken to the international stage at the United Nations to ring the bell for reparations. Sadly, however, Vincentians may be surprised to learn that the local Reparations Committee has never received a single cent in budgetary support since Gonsalves formed the committee back in 2013. The government doesn’t even bother to pay the annual subscription to the Caribbean Reparations Commission.
Or take our leaders lopsided approach to the development of our country. The western portion of our nation suffers benign neglect at best. The promised western transformation, which was heralded following the 2010 elections, is yet to materialise. Neither Ames nor the Buccament Bay Resort lasted as long as “Miss Janie fire”. By 2016, rather than aid our development, Ames fled the country, leaving behind millions in debt.
With much fanfare, we were told that Gordon “Butch” Stewart, the Jamaican hotel magnate of Sandals fame, was coming to take over the failed Buccament project. Jobs galore and opportunities for our farmers were promised. However, before the glowing headlines, intended to bamboozle the people, could fade from memory, Finance Minister Camillo Gonsalves whispered that Sandals would begin construction when the pandemic abates and tourism returns to normal. Whatever happened to the tagline “Build it and they will come”? Why make the announcement about Sandals coming, if Sandals isn’t coming soon?
Further, in countries with even larger tourism market — Bahamas, Barbados, Grenada, Jamaica and St Lucia — unemployment continues to loom large, yet our politicians go for the seductive soft sell that hotels will solve our unemployment and farming problems.
Or we could look to the Grenadines for glimpses of our commitment to heavy lifting. None are in sight. The marketing sell is that billionaires come to Canouan to escape the millionaires who over-populate Mustique. Impressive sales pitch. But how does SVG benefit from this wealth fest? Workers complain of racism, poor living conditions and difficulties with collecting salaries. Our leaders don’t have an appreciation for the value or worth of our national treasure. As a result, they offer up the best of everything we have for trinkets.
Mitchell gave away two-thirds of Canouan and Gonsalves is committed to selling out the rest. An unholy alliance of Government and the foreign fat cat “developers” in the north and south is putting the squeeze on citizens who live in the middle. Millions of dollars were “promised” to develop the town. Instead, the government guarantees that locals get the waste from the billionaires. The ground on which the Canouan primary and secondary schools stand is earmarked to be the home of the island’s sewerage plant.
As if all this is not enough, the ULP leader hammers home its record. It celebrates the fact that over 6,000 Vincentians receive some form of “Poor Relief” from the government. Gonsalves brags that twice per year more than 6,000 persons, who are otherwise unemployed, performed road-cleaning chores for the lavishly enriching sum of less than $300 for a week of work.
If we are to lift SVG higher, someone must commit to doing some heavy lifting. Amazingly, such commitment is sorely lacking. Instead, we are served young girls under the glare of strobe lights, action, fluff, smiles and guile. All too often, we resign to settle for a power-lust dressed up in national garb.
*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and a former Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the opinions or editorial position of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to [email protected].