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I rejoice, yet I worry


I must confess that while I share the many concerns of our people on the matter of air access for St. Vincent and the Grenadines, I have never been “too sweet” on the issue of an international airport to be built here. I agree with all the rationale about spurring our economic development but I am one of those who may be in the minority on this, who would seek for all possible alternatives unless we have reached the end of that road. Perhaps we have, in which case I am ready to concede.{{more}}

Thus, I rejoice in the boldness exhibited by Prime Minister Gonsalves (and former Prime Minister Sir James Mitchell, before him), in taking the bull by the horns on the matter of airport development. Dr. Gonsalves has gone even further in his announcement of plans for an international airport at Argyle to cost some EC$480 million (US$178 million). Whatever your take on the plans advanced, whatever our reservations about cost, site etc, one has to applaud the courage of Dr. Gonsalves in undertaking such a massive project just as one must recall Sir James’ own pioneering role in such a venture, though for one reason or another, it was never brought to fruition. And while I am recalling Sir James’ role, if reports that he was not invited to the gala international airport presentation are in fact accurate, then it casts doubts on our ability to bind the nation together for such an enormous venture.

But I also WORRY. I worry whether Government, the present one as well as its immediate predecessors, has not become a prisoner of national emotion on the subject of an international airport. There is no bigger topic of emotional concern to Vincentians and Dominicans than the issue of an international airport. Many are the inconveniences, suffering, embarrassments and economic losses that we have had to endure because there is no such direct connection to the outside world for the people of Dominica and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. It explains why the Edison James government of Dominica in the late nineties, embraced a project to build an international airport, which was later more soberly abandoned by the Rosie Douglas administration.

The issue is especially emotive for Vincentian migrants who have had to run the Barbados gauntlet, almost every time they return home. When it is not the Barbados “attitude” at the airport it was LIAT and its imperfections. No wonder that when former P.M. Mitchell ill-advisedly went for a LIAT rival in the form of the now defunct Carib Express, so many of us, at home and abroad, gave our support. Just as today those same shortcomings result in some support for the foreign-owned Caribbean Star.

I WORRY as well about the extent to which “politics” often clouds our thinking on important social and economic issues. Those in opposition to P.M. Gonsalves have already branded the international airport project as nothing but a political gimmick, aimed at winning the next general elections. As a party which preceded the ULP in power for some 17 years, it should know something about “political gimmicks”, including where airport development is concerned. My long-standing concern has always been how politics and elections leave the electorate susceptible to manipulation of one kind or another. Do you remember on the verge of two or three elections in the 1979/1989 period, announcements of drilling for off-shore oil? I do!

YET I REJOICE that a major economic project, roughly equal to our annual budget is being undertaken with wide scope for economic and social development. This has broad implication for the development process as a whole. For with the state undertaking such a gigantic initiative, it is imperative that the whole of SVG, at home and in the diaspora is mobilized to ensure its success. It will not, CANNOT, be a truly national, successful effort otherwise. Thus I worry about us being able to pull it off, to maximize our thrust, to mobilize all our human and intellectual resources in support in the face of political divisions. Has the government tried hard enough to arrive at common ground in the process, granted that no opposition can, in principle, oppose an international airport, even on solid grounds, without losing considerable political support? Is the government going to try to address Opposition concerns in a genuine way or to hold up the project as a ULP trump card and thus dismiss opposition criticisms or fears? The stakes are too high for us not to be united on the issue.

I would love to REJOICE then in an enthusiastic drive to sell the project to all our people, for government to painstakingly engage in consultations with both political opposition and broad interest groups. The participation of civil society is of paramount importance. After all some EC$20 million of workers money from the National Insurance Services (NIS) is involved. While not disputing the right of the NIS to make prudent investments or of government to make needed loans, has anybody bothered to consult the workers? Have the trade unions discussed the project with their members?

So, in a nutshell, the airport project does mean a whole lot to our future. If we embark on it, we cannot afford to fail. For all these reasons, it is imperative that the all-embracing, people’s approach be tried. In a short-term sense it might matter electorally, whether it is the ULP or NDP built the airport, in the long-term, should we not get it right, it’s not ULP or NDP who will suffer, it will be SVG. You see why I worry.