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Dr. Gonsalves turns sixty

Dr. Gonsalves turns sixty


God sparing an individual’s life to achieve his or her 60th birthday is often considered a significant milestone. It is like a magical moment.

Four days from today Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves celebrates his 60th birthday. In an exclusive interview with SEARCHLIGHT’s Senior Reporter, Hawkins Nanton, the Prime Minister spoke of his life, his achievements, his setbacks, his wives, his children and the youths that will take the Unity Labour Party (ULP) forward.{{more}}

This is an edited version of the interview.

Q: Prime Minister Gonsalves on the eve of your 60th birthday, can you express how you are feeling about reaching this milestone?

A: First of all, I have to thank Almighty God. I have to give thanks to Him. At the same time I feel and I’ve always felt apprehensive as to whether I would make 60. In more recent times I have been feeling even more apprehensive. Rosie Douglas, Tim Hector and Alphie Roberts died when they were 59; Mike Douglas died before he was 60, Walter Rodney and Maurice Bishop they died in their 30s. So then I always feel and, more recently, I have felt, more so than ever, the question as to whether I would make 60. Of those of us on the left in the Eastern and Southern Caribbean coming out from my generation, the only one who has made it almost to 70 is George Odlum, who made 69. I don’t know yet if I am going to make 60… The Lord giveth and He taketh away, so whenever He is ready for me I cannot have any complaint. I will go and meet my Maker and let Him pass the requisite judgement on me.

Q: Reflecting on your life, what would you pinpoint as your major achievements?

A: It’s not any one particular incident. Broadly, there are a series of matters in which I have been involved which as a bundle amount to a manifestation of my long-standing and ongoing commitment to the people of this region, and more particularly, those of St.Vincent and the Grenadines, especially the poor and the working people to whose betterment I have dedicated my life.

Q: Are there any setbacks? And if so, can you tell me about them?

A: Oh! Lots of setbacks, but I’ve always tried to turn setbacks into advances, imitations into possibilities and weaknesses into strengths. The setbacks have not just been of an individual kind but of a collective kind. The failure of the progressive anti-imperialist forces in St.Vincent and the Grenadines to make more political headway in the late 1970s, through the 1980s and early 1990s has been a set back. I think the region would have been better off had there been more social democratic advances which the progressive nationalists and anti-imperialists forces would have accelerated. This is not to say we did not have advances… There have been individual setbacks. I think that I could have been a better father and a better husband. I have been so involved in my work and my political activities that sometimes my family life suffered, and I am hoping that in the remaining years I have, that I can do better than I have done in respect of being a father and a husband. This is not to say that I have been a failure, it is just that I don’t think I have done as well as I ought to have done, and I need to do better.

Q: How did you land on a political path, choosing a career in politics?

A: I have been involved as a political activist in the region for 38 years now. I marked the date of my involvement politically from October 16, 1968, when as president of the students’ union, the Guild of Undergraduates at Mona, University of the West Indies, Jamaica, I led the mass protest against the then Jamaican government on the occasion of their banning of one of our university lecturers, Dr. Walter Rodney of Guyana. That event helped to mould me and sharpened my own political involvement.

Q: How would you describe your parents’ role in your formative years? (Prime Minister Gonsalves is the son of the late Alban “Smiles” Gonsalves and Theresa Gonsalves of Colonarie)

A: Both my mother and father had tremendous influences on me, but different kind of influences. In a fundamental sense my mother fathered me, even though there has always been a father in the home. My parents were not married, but they live together from 1938/39 until my father died in 2001. And that relationship produced 10 children. I am number four, I’m the second boy… My parents instilled certain basic values and fruits in me, and I think they have served me well in my life. Hardwork, discipline, love of community, the importance of land in both the family and in the economy, the critical role of education, social and material advancement, and of course the belief in Almighty God… these are things which have stayed with me all through the years.

Q: How have your wives impacted on your life?

A: My first wife Sonia, she’s a professor at the moment. That’s the mother of Camillo and Adam. We were students together at university, she actually came here to St.Vincent and she worked at St. Martin’s Secondary School. She left and went to do her PhD and we drifted apart. Then Eloise and I got married in 1989, about five or so years after Sonia went away. Both of them are very good women, and both of them naturally have taught me a lot and have influenced me in very positive ways. I appreciate all what they have done for me and to me, not only beautiful children but also good friendship and caring, and in the case of Eloise, a steadfastness and commitment which is phenomenal.

Q: You always speak fondly of your children, how have they helped you to mature as an individual? (Camillo, Adam, Isis, Storm and Soleil)

A: More responsibility. Naturally, that helps, but they have also taught me a great deal, and as they are growing up I learn many many things about them and about life and about the world. Perhaps in a peculiar way, a son of mine who died in 1980, his name was Roberto Shawn, he died very young and his death made me think a great deal about life and the meaning of life, and I think out of his death I emerged a better person. He died in June 1980, and I always remember him very much. So both in life and in death they have helped me tremendously, and I have been blessed by having very good children. And they are normal children.

Q: What really inspires Dr. Ralph Gonsalves?

A: I think God has put me here for a purpose, to use the gifts that He has given to me and the opportunies he has granted to me and to use my life to help to better the lives of others; those close to me, to help humanity, to help out people in St.Vincent and the Grenadines and the Caribbean, especially the poor and the working people. Those who read the Bible very well would know that the issue which is addressed perhaps more than anything else is the issue of poverty and the poor and helping. I have been positive in my life, very very positive. I don’t dwell on negative things… Those problems which arise, I believe together we can solve them with the help of the Divine. I have a philosophy of social democracy and of advancing that social democracy within the framework of our Caribbean civilization, which is a positive message.

Q: In terms of your politics, some critics have called you a fire-brand communist, but over the years you have described yourself on several occasions as a social democrat. How do you describe your politics?

A: The point about it is this, the question of right, centre or left. Depends at which geometric point you start. On any continuum you are left, right or centre. Depending on which geometric point you start from. So rather than use left, right or centre I rather speak in terms of a body of ideas. I’m certainly anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist, anti-racist, nationalist. I am advocating the further ennoblement of our Caribbean civilization which is unique and legitimate, and I am socialist and social democratic. I believe we should have a social organization of labour which produces wealth, but it also rewards those who produce.

Q: After one election loss there are politicians who give up. You have had several losses yet you never quitted. What kept you going until you reaped success?

A: I lost three times before I had won… Basically what kept me going is that what I was doing was not just about winning a seat. It is a building of a body of ideas and serving people. When I lost in 1979 I went back on the road immediately; ‘84, ‘89, I went back on the road immediately. I did not see the losses as being matters where I was rejected in any personal way. People who did not vote for me in those years, they hold me in esteem and they see me as of value. It’s just that my time and my ideas; the time had not yet come for those ideas, and gradually people understand me better; I understand them better and a jelling took place. Persons who you see run for an election and then give up they are only interested in power. Of course, because I stay around and fight until I win some may say ‘ahhh well he is hungry for power’. Why don’t they see it is a commitment to serve people.

Q: Last year on your birthday you gave a surprise. Some people thought you were going to announce the date for General Elections, instead you presented a comprehensive plan for the construction of an international airport at Argyle. What can Vincentians expect on your birthday this year?

A: There are always things which we’ll have to announce, but you’d admit that when I announced about how we’d proceed on the airport some people thought it was an election gimmick. We are now seeing it unfolding in the manner in which I had said that it would unfold. And we are following a plan and the airport will come by the year 2011 or thereabout – give and take a few months. I am hoping that if the good Lord spares my life to see the 60th birthday that I could spend it quietly with my family somewhere. Naturally there will be some event which, maybe after that, I’ll hold in my constituency and with other people. But I want to spend it with my family somewhere quietly, if the good Lord gives me that opportunity. And then it depends on how many more after He wants to give me. But I have a lot of things in place if He were to take me, where my successor within the ULP will be able to carry forward the work. As you noticed I am very concerned about ensuring the building of a young group of persons and you see them coming forward already. For example those that we have in the House. I took Rochelle Ford to the OECS Heads, I took Ronnie Marks to the CARICOM Heads, Camillo, my son, has gone with me to a couple of other meetings and I have other young people I take with me to different meetings. Plus there are a lot of bright young people. There is Richard Williams, there is Saboto Caesar, there is Luke Browne, many young ones studying at university. There are people like Donston Johnson and Maxwell Charles…I am just encouraging all of them to come towards the party, more and more, and build it so that we have a continuity.