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Diaspora Vincentians converse with PM Gonsalves in NY

Diaspora Vincentians converse with PM  Gonsalves in NY

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by Lavern McDonald Tue Oct 01, 2013

Hundreds of New York Vincentians – a standing room only crowd – spent the warm fall Saturday evening with Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves in a conversation wherein he shared a smorgasbord of domestic and foreign policy initiatives on September 28, at the auditorium of the Prospect Avenue community center, Friends of Crown Heights.{{more}}

With the thermostat hovering near 75, most New Yorkers seemed determined to eke out a last bit of summer leisure. However, Vincentians – many in summer dresses, sandals and summer suits – sat and stood for hours murmuring approval, whispering questions and voicing skepticism from time to time – as the Prime Minister laconically drew them a window via which to view the current state of affairs in St Vincent.

In his characteristic folksy style, “Comrade” Gonsalves – in his coat and tie in the warm auditorium – talked about his Cabinet’s programme of educating the youth of St Vincent and the Grenadines. Proudly, he shared that he and his colleagues had outfitted primary school children with 15,000 laptops. He made the point that not even the NYC school system had undertaken a similar distribution of computer resources. He jokingly offered a story about a touring visiting friend who was curious about the pockets of youth gathered under trees and who were playing with tools that he couldn’t identify. On closer inspection, Gonsalves’ guest discovered that the youth were on their government-issued laptops and were exploiting a local internet hotspot. The Prime Minister indicated that this was just one among many of the human capital development endeavours in which his Government is engaged.

Another significant undertaking is the construction of the Argyle international airport. According to Gonsalves, the airport is key in the island’s development, as it will allow ease of travel for Vincentians, other Caribbean people, and others who want to take advantage of and or add to the country’s resources. As a reminder about one of the island’s largest capital undertakings, four-colour vinyl banners, mounted to the walls of the Prospect Avenue auditorium, announced local fund-raisers for the airport construction project. Gonsalves noted that just like the builders of the ancient city of Tyre imported experts in the construction of that citadel, he too borrowed some of the best technocrats in the region: Cubans.

While Cuba and the United States still do not have free-flowing exchanges, in a signal to the post-Cold War re-articulation of alliances, small nation-states like St Vincent and the Grenadines are establishing their own relationships with the northern Caribbean beacon. To demonstrate the shifting tide in the region, it is worthwhile to note when similar efforts at cooperation would have earned undue attention. Caribbean people cannot forget the Grenada example. This year, Grenadians will mark the thirtieth anniversary of the U.S. invasion named Operation Urgent Fury. While the internal strife within the then government of the revolutionary New Jewel Movement and its implications for the well-being of Americans on the island was advanced as the precipitating factor for the invasion, it is common speculation that Grenada drew the attention of the U.S. which was aggressively invested in shoring up its Caribbean backyard against Cold War incursions. Grenada’s alliance with Cuba – the chief manifestation of this being the construction of an international airport – is commonly accepted in the Caribbean region as a principal factor in the events of October 1983.

One of the most riveting interventions of the evening involved Gonsalves’ discussion of his country’s emerging energy plans. He outlined that his goal is for St Vincent to invest in the development of geo-thermal, hydro, solar and wind power. Beyond developing energy for local consumption, Gonsalves’ plans are for St Vincent to become an energy-exporting country in the near term. He noted that technical assistance from former President Bill Clinton’s Clinton Global Initiative was essential in advancing the preparatory work around this project.

The Prime Minister also shared highlights of his country’s recent leadership of the regional effort around reparations. Sir Hilary Beckles, pro-vice chancellor of the University of the West Indies, was elected by the September conference of reparations activists and regional government leaders to serve as chair of the Caribbean Reparations Commission. Beckles’ book, “Britain’s Black Debt: Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide,” was published in April of this year by the UWI Press. Gonsalves offered the common thesis of the Commission which is that much of the wealth enjoyed by North Atlantic countries in the modern era stems from the human exploitation that was at the centre of the African slave trade. He also noted the genocide committed against indigenous people and the decimation of their nations. On Friday, Gonsalves had delivered a report on this reparations effort at the 60th session of the United Nations General Assembly. Gonsalves had informed the UN gathering that 14 Caribbean nations are challenging the governments of the United Kingdom, France and the Netherlands for reparations to address the lingering legacy of the Atlantic slave trade.

Vincentians presented a fair share of questions to the Prime Minister. One man, who declared himself an independent and made a point of only sharing his surname, challenged the Prime Minister that detractors on island and off were calling him a dictator. The man suggested that word on the street suggested that any sitting elected officials and government bureaucrats who expressed difference with the Prime Minister ran the risk of being sacked. Gonsalves skillfully countered with the specific example of the current case wherein he was accused by an individual of having taken members of his family on a Roman holiday. He noted also that he and members of his family had been accused of buying coveted Vincentian properties at prices significantly less than market value. Gonsalves said that while he, as an elected official, is a fair target, his family was off-limits and he chose to bring suit in the courts. He also noted that St Vincent has regular and free elections and he doubted that Vincentians would act against their best self-interest by returning a dictator to office. Gonsalves has been in office since his party, the Unity Labor Party, won a majority in the 2001 elections. Since then, there have been two national elections, in 2005 and 2010.

Cyril Thomas, whose friends teasingly called him “Cowboy” in recognition of his elaborate hat, identified himself as someone who travels widely and has a cosmopolitan world view. He shared” I find everything he says enlightening and factual. Gonsalves has a wide vision for the country. I was most impressed with his plans for the education revolution.”

Thomas, who lives in Flatbush, leaned his frame toward this reporter and added emphatically “My Mom had to scrub floors on her knees to find money so I could go to high school. Now everyone in St Vincent can get an education.”

Lavern McDonald grew up in the Dry Harbour Mountains of St Ann, Jamaica. She studied Sociology at the Graduate Faculty of the New School and is Associate Director of the Upper Division of New York’s Calhoun School. She is an occasional contributor to Caribbean and diaspora presses. She lives in the historically-black neighbourhood of Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. If you meet her, she will laughingly tell you she was born in the UK, raised in JA, and now sells her labour in the USA. Share your comments with her at xaymacagal@gmail.com.

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