The 19-year Battle Between Crisis & Hope In St. Vincent

OPINION: I remember it well, I was walking on the empty streets of Campden Park on the morning of March 29, 2001.

An unusual silence stole the cheers, noises and interactions from political campaigning which were heard earlier on the streets of Campden Park.

Something had shifted, I felt it, change had certainly come in Campden Park and in all of St. Vincent.

Earlier, months of near instability in the public service had come to a boiling point.

Teachers, nurses and other civil servants and their unions had reached the end of the rope with the New Democratic Party (NDP) administration. The infamous “Greedy Bill” was the final wedge placed between the NDP and the people.

Every corner of St. Vincent and the Grenadines was crying out for change. The country needed a saviour, a new sense of direction, a new team of people to trust to govern differently and better. The country was on the cusp of change.

The ULP, which had already secured the popular vote in the 1998 election rose from the ashes of opposition and won a 12-3 landslide election victory on March 28, 2001. The Unity Labour Party (ULP) administration was the new hope birthed out of a crisis.

From thence, the government, led by Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves tried to push a new governance agenda with the mantra – “together now”.

The new dispensation sought to revamp the local economy, infrastructure, and implement social reforms.

Then, crises started, the external shocks from the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the USA quickly left the plans of the new administration gasping for air, strangling the economy with new and inhibiting economic regulations. These new developments dampened expectations regarding expansion in tourism and other important sectors.

Then, hope struck the nation in 2005 with the launch of the education revolution. Finally, universal access to secondary education was made available to the nation’s youth.

Girl Guides and Cadets students marching in Kingstown.

Many ordinary young people also got the opportunity to attend university.

Hope also struck again in January 2007 when Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves settled the debt from the Ottley Hall Marina. The controversial XCD $167 million debt was left by the NDP administration for a project with little to nothing to show for the money.

Dr. Gonsalves had the debt reduced to 16.2 million, securing a debt relief of XCD $150.8 million, or 12 percent of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), at the time.

By the end of the same year, crisis struck again. A financial crunch started for the global economy, ushering in the most severe recession since the great depression of the 1930’s.

That same year, however, hope struck for the people in the north of the country with the opening of the Rabacca Bridge. This was a remarkable moment of hope for many, considering the transportation blockages resulting from heavy rainfall, and the number of lives lost at the river in the absence of a bridge.

A vehicle and pedestrians cross the Rabacca Dry River before the construction of the Bridge. Photo: Groove Governor.

It must have been a difficult time to govern. In 2008, the government’s first major political crisis struck. In May, rape allegations were made against the Prime Minister, potentially reducing his popularity, even though allegations turned out to be false.

In the same year, oil prices went sky high from a nominal price of US $58.30 per barrel in 2006 to US $91.48 per barrel in 2008. This sustained increase in oil prices, had a chain effect, affecting every sector, including manufacturing and energy.

Electricity and other energy-related costs and utilities were significantly affected and so were food prices, as a world food crisis also started.

During this period, the government found hope in its friends. Low priced Liquid Petroleum Cooking Gas (LPG) and fuel were provided from Venezuela, through the Petrocaribe agreement. Funding also came from other friendly governments such as Taiwan for different projects.

Petro Caribe Fuel Storage Facility at Lowmans Bay, St. Vincent. Photo: Caribbean360

Such projects included the commencement of construction of the Argyle International Airport, the largest capital project in the country’s history.

In 2009, political crisis struck again. The government, in keeping with its constitutional reform agenda was defeated in a referendum for constitutional reform. The opposition had supported the measure by voting for it in the parliament, but withdrew their support, turning the vote into a partisan one.

This defeat was a major crisis for the ULP as it came just before a general election year. It was also detrimental to any further efforts to change the antiquated 1979 constitution.

Crisis struck again in October 2010 with the passage of Hurricane Tomas. The hurricane led to losses in every major sector. The total impact was estimated at XCD 139.3 million, or 10.5 percent of GDP, according to a UNDP Report.

Damage in Vermont as a result of December 2013 Freak Storm

Hope struck for the government in 2010, however, when they narrowly won the general elections. The election, at the time, meant that the Argyle International Airport’s completion which was tossed into uncertainty, would become certain as the main opposition party seemed ambivalent about securing funding for the project.

The election result also heralded new hope for women with the appointment of the country’s first female Deputy Prime Minister, Girlyn Miguel.

Thereafter, crises intensified, but so too hope.

In April 2011, crisis struck again with the unexpected April floods which caused significant infrastructural damage to roads, bridges, properties and agriculture, mainly in the north of the country.

In November 2013, the government secured a favourable ruling from the Privy Council in a major land battle over access to Chattam Bay in Union Island. The ruling restored about 100 acres of land at Chattam Bay, Union Island to the state. The victory brought hope for the people of The Grenadines where land use and availability are concerned.

Chattam Bay, Union Island. Photo: Radio Grenadines.

In 2013, the unprecedented December trough event left significant damage to infrastructure. According to the IMF, the event accounted for EC$232 million in damage, taking out 21 percent of all bridges, four percent of roads and damage to hydro electrical stations, houses and led to loss of life.

Screenshot from the IMF Western Hemisphere Department publication.

In August, 2014, work began on the South Leeward Highway Rehabilitation project to resurface and widen approximately 11.4 kilometers of road. The project was expected to bring hope to road users, who for years, traversed on the narrow and often poorly surfaced through-way from Kingstown to Layou.

Also in 2014, disease struck the country. The mosquito-borne Chikungunya virus reached the shores, significantly impacting the country’s public health. The National Insurance Services also took a hit with increased claims on sick leave by many employees who were affected.

In 2015, tragedy struck the north of the country with the Rock Gutter incident on January 12, 2015. Several students died in the incident. There was national mourning resulting from the event.

Also in 2015, hope came for the completion of the Argyle International Airport with the election victory of the government.

In 2016, Zika struck with the first confirmed case reported on Tuesday February 23. In December 2016, the lone 5-star resort on the mainland, Buccament Bay Resort was closed, leading to many job losses.

Buccament Bay Resort. Photo: Luxury Link

In January 2017, ground broke for the development of a 400 room resort and villas project at Peter’s Hope by Canadian investors, PACE Development.

In February 2017, the biggest ray of hope showed its face on the nation with the opening of the Argyle International Airport on February 14.

Caribbean Airlines at Argyle International Airport

In 2018, hope for local dialysis treatment arose for patients in need with the opening of the Modern Medical Diagnostic Centre in Georgetown.

In 2019, the biggest international achievement for St. Vincent and the Grenadines was attained when the country won its bid for a non-permanent seat on UN security council, to become the smallest nation to attain the feat. The vote was 185 to 6 against El Salvador, showing clear confidence and support from the international community.

Now, in 2020, the battle between hope and crisis continues with the Covid-19 global pandemic and the social and economic fall out from it.

The country has survived and rebounded from every major local, regional and international crisis which it has faced since 2001. With the world brought to its knees once again, the country is yet again visited by crisis and uncertainty.

Hope is yet again being summoned to carry us through this period. The government, the people and the world need hope to shine through in this new crisis which has obscured our path.

By: Demion McTair

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