(photo by Tangerine Clarke)
Vincentians in the New York diaspora last Friday night got their final opportunity to meet with Prime Minister Sir James F. Mitchell in a public forum before he steps down from the helm after 34 years of active politics.
Prime Minister Mitchell, whose incumbent New Democratic Party has been holding the reigns of power in the 150-square-mile island nation since 1984, plans to pass the torch to his presumptive successor Arnhim Eustace, the current finance minister.
Eustace last month was elected leader of the NDP at its convention in capital city, Kingstown, taking over from Mitchell, who founded the NDP in 1975, shortly after the disintegration of the Ebenezer Joshua (former chief minister) /Mitchell alliance in 1974.
The Vincentian leader used his visit to the Big Apple, primarily to address the U.N. Millennium Summit, to meet with his compatriots.
It was his first public forum with nationals in over a decade; though, in the interim, he had addressed various groups at their respective celebratory events, prompting criticisms that he was unconcerned about his compatriots in general in the diaspora.
He, was, however, grateful to his countrymen at the public forum, held in the Norman Johnson Lecture Hall, at Brooklyn’s Medgar Evers College, for his years of service.
“Thanks to each and everyone of you for the support I have received over the years,” Mitchell said. “I certainly appreciate the help I have received and the opportunities I have had to serve the people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. I want to say also that the experience I have gained, representing you for 34 years, is not simply my property, but the property of the people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. And as long as I am alive, I will make that experience available to the people.”
Some 78 persons attended the event, described by supporters and critics of the government as “very poorly attended.”
Ironically, the attendees were over 50 percent supporters of the main opposition Unity Labor Party.
In light of the short notice,—invitations were only issued two days in advance—U.N. Ambassador Dennie Wilson, who organized the event, said that it was better to hold the event in the hall, which is normally reserved for 100 people.
“Because of the shortness of time, I was not able to do anything at all,” Ambassador Wilson said in an interview. “I was handicapped by a number of mitigating circumstances.”
At the same time, Wilson contradicted himself: “I didn’t do it myself. I’m serious. I didn’t get the chance to do it at all. So I am not disappointed (with the relatively poor attendance).”
In any case, the Prime Minister, told nationals about his administration’s achievements for the past 16 years and the challenges the country currently and in the future faces.
He pointed to achievements, particularly in infrastructure—education, health (hospital)—that he said Kingstown has made to help “advance” the lives of the people.
But the challenges, he said, far outweighs anything else.
“We’re at a critical point in our history,” Mitchell said. “We’ve come to the end of a century facing a daunting task in light of globalization. The pressure of globalization.”
Sir James said that the first major headache that the country faced was when the World Trade Organization ruled against preferential access for Caribbean bananas on the European market.
He said that though the European Union has extended its modified favorable trading arrangements with the region for a few years (until 2006), the time will come when Caribbean bananas will have to compete with those from Latin America.
The Prime Minister said that he has been in feverish negotiations with some Latin American countries, and had even written President Clinton on the banana question, telling the president that “we still need to keep the social peace in the land.”
“So we still need our agriculture to carry us forward,” he added. “I’ve seen in the Caribbean a complete transformation. And that (agriculture) has gone completely out for Antigua and Barbuda. And St. Kitts is thinking of closing down (the sugar industry).
“But we have to be honest with ourselves,” he continued, “because 20 years from now, the young people wouldn’t want to farm.”
That’s why the Mitchell administration has been attempting to diversify the economy, including expansion of the tourism sector.
Øut that too, the Prime Minister said, is even now under attack by the Organization for Economic Corporation and Development, which has listed most of the island-nations of the region as havens for money laundering.
The OECD and the world’s industrialized nations had come under heavy fire by regional countries, spearheaded by Antigua and Barbuda, at the recently-concluded U.N. Millennium Summit.
The region charged that they were bent on imposing their rules on the domestic affairs and sovereignty of these Small Island States in contravention of international law.
“We’re absolutely unambiguous on the policy decision with regard to drug dealers,” Mitchell said. “We don’t want them in our country.”
He said that revision of the Offshore Banking Laws in St. Vincent and the Grenadines has “created some consternation,” but he added that “we have a clear conscience.”
The Vincentian leader said that if his country’s tourism product can be improved, the island can compete with any country in the world.
“We can compete in tourism,” he said. “A hotel in our country can sell for the same in New York if the quality is good.”
Tourism expansion also requires airport development. And the prime minister said that construction of an international airport is hampered by funds and the topography and meteorological conditions at two sites, which were earmarked on the eastern side of the island.
He, however, disclosed that U.S. $26 million have been donated by the Taiwanese government for expansion of the current E.T. Joshua airport, which would cost between U.S. $45 and $50 million.
The country is also under pressure to develop its airport by American Eagle, who might, in the future, curtail its service to the country for economic reasons.
Prime Minister Mitchell said that “another monster” (AIDS) is hanging over the country, as well as the entire region.
“It’s one that we can’t put under the carpet,” Mitchell said. “And we have to decide what legal agenda we have to put in place to deal with it.”
He did not answer Dennis London’s question about the “ripped off” Ottley Hall Marina project, in which the prime minister himself had said that, in due course, he will “deal with the crooks.” But he disclosed that he has negotiated a 50 percent (U.S. $35 million) debt “write off” with the Italian government.
In responding to Sandra Millington’s concern about criminal deportations and whether Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom are concerned about the social implications, Mitchell said that he, as well as regional leaders, is very preoccupied with this “very difficult problem.”
“We’re taking up this issue with other countries,” he said, “and we’re trying to sign a memorandum of understanding because we can’t stop the Canadians, the United States, if they don’t have a basis to do so.”
The prime minister said that the recent protest actions in the country, which forced him to agree to general elections two years before they are constitutionally due, was “a watershed exercise.”
“The ultimate test of the democratic process is the experiment in the ballot box,” he said.
“The circumstances leading to the blocking of the roads is a watershed exercise in St. Vincent and the Grenadines,” he added. “There’s nothing wrong in protesting, but you have no right to block the roads. But the people will exercise their right.”
Mitchell was responding to Dr. Kendall Stewart’s (who claimed to be his friend) question about what he perceived to be a break down in law and order in the country when demonstrators blocked the highways on the Leeward and Windward sides of the country, almost bringing the country to a stand still.
The audience was relatively receptive. There was no open hostility, though many felt that the Prime Minister should have entertained more questions.
Some say that Mitchell was too tart, evasive and defensive in responding to a number of issues raised, including one about adequate time for the consolidation of his successor’s stint.
The prime minister said that it was his constitutional right, and that Cabinet decides, when he will relinquish power to his successor.
In any case, it was a visit and a forum long overdue, though it did not end with the much-anticipated bang for a leader, and the longest-serving Caribbean statesman, who has dominated the Vincentian political landscape almost two decades.