Ralph Maraj___Use

political analysts Ralph Maraj 

While aggression is often required in politics, permanent pugilism is counterproductive.

Very early in his career, Dr Keith Rowley was nicknamed “Rottweiler” for his unrelenting aggressiveness in the political arena. He needed to refine that combative propensity on becoming prime minister. Unfortunately, he didn’t. The nation has had to endure much coarseness from its leader.

The abrasiveness has reached the country’s international relations. Normally, if a prime minister is dissatisfied with the actions or utterances of an ambassador to his country, he would instruct his foreign affairs minister to call in that envoy and have an appropriate conversation. I was instructed to take such action myself during my ministerial tenure, and it was done firmly, politely and effectively, with no public embarrassment to anyone. The same is the practice with the head or any high official of multilateral organisations like the UN or OAS. The foreign minister activates his accredited ambassador to deliver the prime minister’s concern in an appropriate manner.

But diplomatic norms apparently do not suffice for Keith Rowley. In 2016, OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro termed Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro “a petty dictator” for refusing the recall referendum after fraudulent elections. But T&T was then pursuing Venezuela’s natural gas and Rowley publicly jumped to Maduro’s defence, crudely calling for the removal of Almagro for making “very derogatory” statements about his friend. “Rottweiler diplomacy had arrived,” I said. In the process, Trinidad and Tobago abdicated leadership in Caricom. The US started talking to Jamaica on the Venezuela issue. We were relegated to irrelevance on a matter taking place on our very doorstep.

Our relationship with the United States is particularly important. This is the world’s super power, our most powerful democratic ally, largest trading partner and main source of foreign direct investment. Whilst maintaining our sovereignty, we must also preserve that relationship. It was damaged by Rowley during the Donald Trump administration. Defending his approach to Maduro, Rowley went on the excessive offensive, thundering in Parliament, “I take umbrage. I take umbrage at the United States Ambassador making a public statement criticising the actions of the Government of Trinidad and Tobago. And as far as taking instructions from the US Embassy on Marli Street, leave the PNM out of that!”—supported by PNM MPs jeering, “What Trump could do we?!”

Rhetoric and reaction for a political rally at Piggott’s Corner, not the diplomatic arena!

And now there is the T&T mess created over the offer of vaccine donations by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on January 20 under his “Vaccine Maitri” (friendship) programme. Almost all Caricom countries immediately took up the offer, along with nations from Africa and Latin America, writing to Modi and receiving swift, positive responses. Between January and February, India donated 495,000 vaccines to ten Caribbean countries.

But Rowley claimed not to have known about the Indian initiative even though this region’s prime ministers along with West Indies cricketing greats Sir Vivian Richards, Sir Richie Richardson and others were issuing public statements thanking Modi. Rowley also profusely thanked Barbados PM Mia Mottley for her donation to Trinidad and Tobago of 2,000 vaccines from the very gift received from India! And he didn’t know of the Indian initiative?

Worse, in customary fashion, he publicly went on the offensive against the Indian High Commissioner for not communicating with the Government about Modi’s vaccine initiative. When asked to respond, the envoy said it is not “in the pale of diplomatic decency to personally attack a resident High Commissioner”. Why was the public assault necessary? Why wasn’t the envoy called in for a discussion, as happened after the imbroglio?

Instead, Rowley went further to make one of the most disastrous statements in the annals of international relations. On March 19, he said, “Our Caribbean neighbours have got gifts. But when you go asking for a gift, that’s not a gift; you’re begging. There is no arrangement for Trinidad and Tobago to vaccinate the population by begging.” Astounding! Was Rowley saying his colleague leaders who tapped into the Indian facility were beggars? As Orin Gordon wrote in the Express, “If your child needs an urgent kidney transplant and you approach organ donors, that’s not begging.” Besides, Rowley had himself written to Modi on February 23, seeking a donation. Why was he suggesting it was demeaning to seek help from India’s vaccine friendship programme? Utterly disgraceful behaviour. After his assault and after India promised 40,000 vaccines in response to his request, Rowley perfunctorily expressed “sincerest appreciation and gratitude” to Modi. But the damage had been done,

Compare Rowley with Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit of Dominica, who had written to Modi on January 19. He said, “I did not imagine the prayers of my country would be answered so swiftly. One would have thought that in a global pandemic like this, a nation’s size and might would have been the primary consideration. But to the credit of Prime Minister Modi, the equality of our people was recognised.” Profound and refined! So different from the chronic coarseness this country must endure from its prime minister.

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The problem for St Vincent and the Grenadines and other Caribbean small states is that they’re not poor enough.

By standard World Bank macroeconomic measures such as Gross National Income (GNI) per capita, they’re not as badly off as sub-Saharan African countries.

The problem for St Vincent and the Grenadines and other Caribbean small states is that they’re not poor enough.

By standard World Bank macroeconomic measures such as Gross National Income (GNI) per capita, they’re not as badly off as sub-Saharan African countries. It means that when the bank and other multinational agencies decide on the allocation of aid and development dollars, they’re given less access and fewer concessions.

Correctly so, you could argue. The poverty and deprivation I saw in rural Sierra Leone in West Africa were far worse than I’d seen elsewhere, including Haiti. Added to that, the country hadn’t recovered from a brutish civil war abetted by notorious Liberian warlord Charles Taylor—the kind that saw unspeakable atrocities, such as soldiers carving foetuses out of the bellies of pregnant women.

SVG, Haiti and Guyana are underdeveloped countries, but not as much as Sierra Leone. However, regardless of the facts on the ground or the numbers in the computer, the bank recognised that GNI per capita was an incomplete measure of a country’s development.

All countries are rich or poor to degrees that are macroeconomically measurable. But when climate change can wipe out some of them, GNI measures can’t capture that. Additionally, in the case of Caribbean countries, they’re set back decades by hurricanes, as Grenada was by Ivan in 2004 and Dominica by Maria in 2017.

A Caribbean or Pacific small island state can go from middling prosperity to poverty in the course of one natural disaster.

In a report titled “Small States: Vulnerability and Concessional Finance”, the World Bank acknowledged calls by countries in its Small States Forum (SSF) “to include vulnerability as a criterion for accessing concessional resources”.

It said that work needed to be done in defining a Vulnerability Index. That report was in 2018. And yet as I recall, the index was an issue at SIDS 1994—the United Nations Global Conference on Sustainable Development held in Barbados 24 years earlier.

“SIDS” means Small Island Developing States. That is a misnomer, since big states were represented. The sight of Fidel Castro walking into the room and instantly causing a rock star stampede won’t be forgotten.

The World Bank’s Vulnerability Index incorporates “small states” of the SSF, including Namibia and Botswana. Namibia is two-thousand times bigger than St Vincent, four times Guyana, and mineral rich. Their resilience to shocks is much stronger than SVG’s. Why are they even in the small states conversation? This definitional elasticity doesn’t seem helpful to the cause of SIDS.

From SIDS 1994, the UN crafted the Barbados Programme of Action. Top of the list were climate change, and natural and environmental disasters. It’s remarkable that the World Bank was still talking about defining a Vulnerability Index more than two decades later.

Climate change continues to be the main consideration, but the volcanic eruptions on St Vincent should reopen the conversation.

Most Caribbean volcanoes do not seem to be a present danger in the way that La Soufriere in St Vincent is. Mount Liamuiga in St Kitts, for example, is a great hike. When you reach the top, you can descend into the crater.

Nonetheless, The UWI Seismic’s website says that “there are 19 ‘live’ (likely to erupt again) volcanoes in the Eastern Caribbean. Every island from Grenada to Saba is subject to the direct threat of volcanic eruptions”.

In St Vincent, overseas relief kicked in to ease water and other shortages. But short-term emergency measures are not enough.

Here’s the bind in which small Caribbean states find themselves. The World Trade Organisation (WTO) told them that no, they have to compete at market price to sell their bananas and sugar. No more preferential pricing that recognises their disadvantages on economies of scale.

WTO regulatory insensitivity effectively killed these industries. In many Caribbean SIDS, all their eggs are in one basket. If that isn’t acute vulnerability, I don’t know what is.

For Caribbean SIDS, we should have been at a place where development aid allocation matches a universally-agreed index; and we have strategic, joined-up planning/execution from the UN, the World Bank, the IMF and others.

Small states partially compensate by playing geopolitical games of influence. Getting money from China or Taiwan. Throwing in their lot with Japan on whaling, to the consternation of their own conservationists.

It’s not enough.

Last week I wrote about how Montserrat has done since the 1997 eruption. They are a British Overseas Territory, but the British-funded rebuild has been sluggish. In my two visits in 2007 and 2014, little changed. I was told in 2007 that a new airport would be built soon. To date, it hasn’t.

However Montserrat’s former premier Reuben Meade told me last week that “the Brits covered all of our expenses for the volcanic situation during and post eruption”.

“They continue to fund some 60 per cent of recurrent expenditure each year”.

Meade said the task of Ralph Gonsalves, the Prime Minister of SVG, will be hard.

“SVG will need to find a donor to fund the continuing evacuation expenses which will be very high. Their economy will be in freefall for quite some time. It’s going to be tough for them”.

For SVG, mother country largesse is not an option. They’re nearly broke. Even if La Soufriere stops erupting and the pandemic is eradicated tomorrow, they’ll need smarter, long-term development engagement by donor agencies. A true measure of their vulnerability would be a good start.

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