By Average Vincentian
March 28, 2001 is a date of historical breakthrough when the electorate caused a seismic shift in the political power structure in St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG). As the results of the election became clear that night, there were ecstatic celebrations in almost every nook and cranny throughout the country. You see, that was the night we were able to create a change in government after almost 17 years of governance by then prime minister, James Mitchell.
The sheer feeling of knowing that voting works—that your single vote coupled with the thousands of your other nameless, faceless countrymen and women who went to the polls, can actually change who sits in the decision-making seat of your country — is a feeling that every citizen should experience more than once in their lifetime. When you see your vote results in the change of your country’s prime minister, you are experiencing the wonderfully good hope of democracy.
That hope gives you sudden renewed passion that every other challenge you are facing in life can also be overcome with assiduous effort.
On that night I felt the liberating joy akin to a child experiencing the moment their favourite superhero swoops in to save the day. And make no mistake about it —Vincentians see their prime minister as their superhero. We love him, believe in him, support him and put our hope for a better future in that one man — our superhero prime minister!
My generation of young adults at the time when Ralph Gonsalves was first elected prime minister grew up with having James Mitchell as our country’s leader since we were in primary school, secondary school, A’ Levels and working life. Such a long time with the same person as prime minister made us realise that this is not how democracy is supposed to work.
After a person has been prime minister for 10 years, it is clear to me that the chances increase exponentially that a leader can lose sight of the need to help the really indigent and helpless masses whose votes put him there. By a third term, a prime minister can subconsciously start operating on the conclusion that he has done enough or his fair share of helping poor people (such as increase in “Poor Relief” and annual Christmas barrels concessions).
Nonetheless, my generation felt like we were part of the political liberators of our beloved country. I can recall the celebratory mood in the country as we gathered in masses to listen to regionally renowned singers such as Beres Hammond and Joseph Niles. It was also something else to have seen every major building and business place in Kingstown displaying beautiful Christmas lights. The Kingstown Anglican Church, to my mind, had one of the best lighting display ever put on in the city.
Dr. Gonsalves attended to the needs of the average Vincentian quite well in that first decade. There were some retroactive payments to public servants as well as that December 2001 half-month salary bonus that was not taxed (which inexplicably was the first and the last). It is my settled opinion that our prime minister is among the world’s best political leaders, and that he can sit in the Oval Office and do as good a job as President Biden. Through it all, I praise Ralph Gonsalves for his marvellous planning and execution abilities. His peculiar brand of leadership generated a human miracle in the form of the Argyle International Airport. Our country is also the smallest island to hold a seat on the United Nations Security Council. Ralph Gonsalves has also done a phenomenal job of making university education accessible to ordinary Vincentians. Hats off to you, Sir! He has also been able to keep a cool head during times when people had cause to want to panic.
But time has continued since March 28, 2001.
I remember when the political opposition had said that it favoured switching diplomatic ties from Taiwan to China. When Dr. Gonsalves was asked about it, he uttered words that will stay with me forever: “We do not have permanent friends, only permanent interests.” Every Vincentian should reflect and meditate on that response.
At a press conference several years ago, when commenting on the status of government employees’ salaries, which by that time were slipping into a financial coma, Gonsalves told the nation that public servants must learn how to joggle their monthly expenses on their current salaries. In the ensuing months, the country would hear of plans to give every school child $200 cash in hand. But up to this day, public servants are still joggling.
I was more than confused when checking my phone bill to see that there are two taxes included—the VAT and a government levy. It seems we are really paying for our mouths in St. Vincent.
It has been 15 years since all primary school children are given a free pass to secondary schools, yet secondary schools have remained tactically unchanged in methods and resources. Disappointingly, it continues to be left up to teachers’ creativity to literally work miracles within five years with children who have varying levels of learning abilities.
One of the psychologists at the MCMH made a presentation to teaching staffs in the country and teachers agreed that as she identified characteristics of children who need intervention beyond what schools can give, these teachers could easily identify several students from each of their classes who fit the characteristics. Yet the prime minister and the MOE call on secondary school teachers to be superheroes without practical super powers (resources). Incidentally, as schools reopen, no one is commenting about the hundreds of secondary students who feel overwhelmingly frustrated with the fixed nature of the school system and their illiteracy flaws.
An opportunity was missed to work with parents when they scurried to the schools years ago to receive the $200 given to them by our prime minister. Children who never had parental representation suddenly witnessed a financially induced resurrection. But disappointingly, the prime minister I elected to be the saving hand in my country, does not hold parents responsible or accountable in the partnership of educating their own children. Think of it, some parents get criticised for being too “soft” or unwilling to discipline their children, and I see the prime minister treating parents the same. I assume this is because he wants parents to feel happy with him when it is time for them to vote. Maybe the focus should be on what these children will think in a couple years after they have had to either drop out of school or are just unable to find that money making life. They, too, have to vote.
The COVID-19 pandemic is really a global x-ray of what and who people are. I did feel alarmed the other day when my prime minister rebuked the World Health Organization for classifying SVG as having community spread of the novel coronavirus. (That was before the January outbreak). The WHO was, in fact, ordered to revoke such a classification. I also reflected on a few other instances when Gonsalves told the media that the public is misinterpreting certain comments he made. One comment had to do with him saying that incoming flights should have been banned during the Christmas season.
Of course, each of us has a right to explain ourselves. Nothing is wrong with that. But it seems to me that my prime minister is never on the record as saying he has been anything less than perfect in all his governing decisions and practices in the last 20 years. Should I believe him, I am left with no choice but to conclude that Gonsalves is the embodiment of the Messiah or God in human form now. Every person knows that as they strive to be better, they must admit their errors and specific bad decisions in the past. But I guess there is an exception to this rule.
As part of the original electorate who voted Gonsalves into office 20 years ago, I am saddened that when the last set of restrictions were placed on crowd size and in minivans in particular, my erudite prime minister did not simultaneously implement a financial grant to van owners. It is my opinion that my prime minister would have known that to give permission for only seven passengers without a subsidy was certainly not going to have a propitious ending for the government’s relationship with van drivers and the traveling public. This move was especially cold-hearted when I recall that in every election season these are the same van drivers who eagerly transport party supporters to and from political rallies.
There are certain unsettling pernicious realities of having one prime minister in office for more than two consecutive terms. One of these can be seen as a funnel effect. Just as a funnel has a wide opening so it is that at the beginning of a prime minister’s governance he will be very tolerable and inclusive of most, if not all, of the citizens and their struggles. In fact, we will likely adapt his public image to reflect the societal disadvantages of the less fortunate people. But as the years pass, a long-serving prime minister is less likely to be empathic with a wide cross section of the stoic plights of the masses of poor and indigent people. This is where the funnel narrows more and more. Unfortunately, by a fourth or fifth term in office, a prime minister would have crystalised an uncompromising position on most national issues affecting citizens. It means that persons who fall outside the perimeter of his ever narrowing policies will not have a prayer in heaven to get things better unless a different person is prime minister.
Very recently, a friend told me how shocked she was after googling and finding results that said that poverty is prevalent and that the country’s workforce was among the lowest paid in the Caribbean. The spending power of the consumer seems to diminish as prices on the shelf seem to be attached to a rising kite. While there are a lot of infrastructural services available for the “public”, when the individual Vincentian sets out to make a living, his or her income is soon controlled by one financial institution or another. Many Vincentian workers probably do feel as though they are economic slaves to financial institutions.
I believe it is also very hard for a long-serving prime minister to humble himself and keep in mind that his love for the country is not and should not be interpreted as more valuable or of more significance than the love any other citizen has for SVG. Many people of previous generations sacrificed and suffered as a labour force, as trade union members to delver us a free society today. And we have a responsibility to leave the unborn generation just as free a Vincentian society.
The former longest-serving prime minister, James Mitchell, left office on his own terms by having a man he chose to be sworn in as prime minister. This, too, is a danger of being in the office for too long. When a prime minister’s son is given the portfolio of minister of finance, that is a pretty clear sign that the current prime minister is thinking of following Mitchell’s example. Our Vincentian democracy cannot survive if citizens are not allowed to choose their prime minister at the ballot box.
It is interesting to note that these days there is talk about vaccine hesitancy because Vincentians are taking time to process information rather than just stretching their hands out. Yet, over the past year, in particular, there has been distinct signs of information-sharing hesitancy because many Vincentians get the impression that it is more important for officials to keep our prime minister smiling rather than make the public feel that public safety is really the top priority in the making of public policies.
But I fear that the Gonsalves of 2021 is fast becoming the Mitchell of 2000. Just the other night I looked at my prime minister on SVGTV and I had to take a step back because, honestly, the man I saw did not look like the welcoming, smiling person of 20 years ago. Instead, I saw a political mogul — a “world boss” — who just wanted to bark orders at the Vincentian people to do what he says (take yo vaccine, go back to school, no matter what). To me, this is not good for democracy. My generation has progressed in age, so it is up to the new young adults to be very aware of what it means that they are growing up with the same man as prime minister — 25 years is a lifetime for many Vincentians. And do not just vote for a prime minister because he gave you money for doing your work at CXC. Many adults will tell you it is a terrible mistake to become a man or woman and expect the world to just give you your living. Some things you still have to work for — such as maintaining your country’s democracy and feeling the joys of being able to change your country’s government.
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].