By Nelson King
(Caribbean Life News) – As St. Vincent and the Grenadines next month celebrates 40 years of political independence from Great Britain, Prime Minister Dr. Ralph E. Gonsalves Saturday evening reflected on the country’s attainment to date and outlined plans for economic advancement.
The prime minister said, when the incumbent Unity Labor Party (ULP) assumed office in 2001, “it was the first time that an agriculture economy was not dominant in our country.”
At the same time, he said, 26 percent of the population lived in “dirt poor poverty,” stressing that he was “only giving you the facts.
“So, if you’re going to change the economy, the agriculture market was not conducive for it,” Gonsalves said. “Therefore, first and most important was to embark on an education revolution, and this is where the future lies.
“And if tourism was to be central, you need a jet airport in the Grenadines and an international airport in (mainland) St. Vincent),” he added.
“They said they had some inkling that Ralph was crazy,” the prime minister continued, referring to the main opposition New Democratic Party (NDP).
“Between now and when I call the next general elections, I (am) ready for them, and am going to give them more licks than before.”
The Gonsalves-led ULP was narrowly returned to government in the last general elections, winning eight of the 15 seats in Parliament. The NDP captured the remaining seven seats.
Since taking office, Gonsalves said his administration has made myriad accomplishments, noting that, on Jan. 7, during a UN General Assembly vote for a non-permanent seat on the Security Council for St. Vincent and the Grenadines, “185 countries out of 193, representing seven billion people, say they trust Ralph to deal with war and peace.”
“We had to build the modern medicine, we had to build three polyclinics, refurbish the Milton Cato Memorial Hospital, we had to rebuild the Mental Hospital,” he said. “We want to make sure there’s health and wellness, because education is an investment.”
The Vincentian leader said that his government has embarked on a US100 million geothermal project and that, by 2022, St. Vincent and the Grenadines will have 80 percent of its energy via geothermal.
“This involves serious work by serious people,” he emphasized, adding that geothermal energy and the installation of fiber optic cables from mainland St. Vincent, through the Grenadines, down to Grenada, and along the leeward coast of the mainland, up to Fitz Hughes, in the northwest, are part of long-term plans to restructure the economy.
On roads and bridges, Gonsalves said this government has “built more bridges than all governments since the 1950s,” stating that he builds bridges “not for 30 years but for 100 years.”
“What is taking place before our very eyes is nothing less than socio-economic transformation of our country,” he said.
The prime minister also said that, with completion of the international airport at Argyle, plans are afoot for expansion of the tourism industry.
He said an additional 1,100 hotel rooms will be available in the next three years, with construction of hotels at Peter’s Hope and Mt. Wynne in the Central Leeward constituency, Diamond in South Windward and Canouan in the southern Grenadines, among other places.
“If you listen to my speech with the opening of the (international) airport, we said, for the first four to five years, we will capitalize the airport,” Gonsalves said. “You have to put things together, and you have to plan.”
He said that, in 2001, the gross domestic product (GDP) of the country was $800 million and that today it is $20.1 billion.
The prime minister also said that more than 6,000 people are employed today than in 2001, and that, whereas the per capita income in 2001 was $8,000, it is now $20,000.
Stating that the country has “a good health system,” Gonsalves noted St. Vincent and the Grenadines is the headquarters in the Caribbean for the World Pediatric Project at Commonwealth University in Virginia.
“We do in St. Vincent and the Grenadines heart surgery,” he said. “The World Pediatric Project takes care of children up to 21 years.
“St. Vincent and the Grenadines offers first class pediatric hospital,” he added. “Children, young people from all Caribbean countries, except Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica, come. And when they come, we don’t charge the parents. And that’s our contribution to our Caribbean brothers and sisters.”
Gonsalves said that, since 2002, over 7,500 children and young people consult with the World Pediatric Project in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, stating that the estimated cost for the country amount to over EC$100 million.
“Our quest is to build a modern, competitive and many-sided economy,” he said. “We have to develop this country together. The young people are developing tremendously.”
In a surprise departure from custom, Gonsalves did not take any questions from the audience at the town hall meeting but used the remaining time, which was interspersed with a short cultural program, to intermingle with supporters.
During the cultural program, the United Vincie Cultural Group of Brooklyn sang “Hairouna, Hairouna” and “SVG Diaspora,” and soca artiste Lively sang his signature hit “We Drinking”, and “The Big Thing,” among others.