ST VINCENT had a last-minute public holiday on Tuesday, making a four-day weekend to celebrate their election just one week ago to a two-year stint on the 15-member UN Security Council.
Prime minister Ralph Gonsalves—aka “Comrade Ralph” —was in New York for the vote. He flew home in triumph on Sunday. In October, they’ll be feting again, to mark 40 years of Independence.
St Vincent and the Grenadines won with 185 out of 191 UN votes. I’ve no idea how they did it, but Gonsalves spoke of an 11-year campaign. Their rival candidate, San Salvador, raised its flag just hours ahead of the poll, and took only six votes.
From the start of next year, St Vincent, with just 110,000 people, will be sitting alongside China, whose 1.4 billion inhabitants number 12,600 times St Vincent’s population. At the table also will be the USA (population 327 million), Indonesia (264 million), Germany (83 million), South Africa (57 million) and nine others.
St Vincent is the smallest country ever elected to the Security Council. It is the first of the Eastern Caribbean islands to make it—but not first in the Caribbean.
T&T had a hazily-remembered two-year term running from 1985, Jamaica and Guyana have been there twice, and Cuba three times. The Dominican Republic is a member now, with one more year to run.
What does Security Council membership count for? Resolutions must be supported by nine of the 15. But the five permanent members—the USA, China, Russia, France and Britain—have a veto. They can block any vote single-handed.
So far this year, the Council has passed 23 resolutions. Of these, 19 dealt with trouble spots—South Sudan, Afghanistan, and on Monday this week, Libya. The other four dealt with conflict-related issues—guns, sexual violence, protection of civilians, terrorism.
The only one directly on the Americas was an April resolution, extending the life of the UN justice support mission in Haiti.
But next in line could be Venezuela.
Any big conflict that crops up in 2020 or 2021 will be run right past St Vincent’s representative, and straight on to Ralph Gonsalves.
Gonsalves says that if something crops up at one in the morning, a Vincentian foreign service official will “wake us and tell us what is happening.” He says: “This is not Concacaf, this is the World Cup … and we all have to lift our game.”
So, who is Comrade Ralph? Even by Caribbean prime minister standards, he’s a somewhat larger than life figure. Now 72, he has had the job since 2001.
He cut his teeth as a student radical. In 1968, as president of The UWI Students’ Guild, he led a protest against Jamaica’s deportation of the historian and Africanist Walter Rodney, who was assassinated 12 years later in his native Guyana.
The young Gonsalves published writings on imperialism, non-capitalist development and Marxism-Leninism. Back in St Vincent in the 1980s, he led a small leftist party, the Movement for National Unity, (MNU) and made a huge name as an ultra-successful criminal defence lawyer.
Merging the MNU with the long-established Labour Party, he was elected deputy leader and then leader, and went on to win power, defeating a 17-year governing party in 2001.
Ralph’s heir apparent is his son, Camillo, who is currently finance minister—and yesterday celebrated his 43rd birthday. He will find the UN’s New York headquarters familiar territory—he was St Vincent’s permanent representative from 2007. He was back in April to launch a book, Globalised, Climatised, Stigmatised, dealing with the challenges facing small island states.
The Big One for Ralph on the Security Council could be Venezuela.
“Comrade Ralph” has been a staunch supporter, first of Hugo Chavez and then of his successor Nicolás Maduro, who visited St Vincent in 2017.
St Vincent’s oil import bill was slashed by Venezuela’s PetroCaribe soft loans. St Vincent is a member of the Venezuelan-led ALBA group. In April, St Vincent was one of nine countries voting against recognition of an opposition-nominated Venezuelan representative to the Organisation of American States.
Venezuela, along with the ALBA Bank, was a generous contributor to the cost of Ralph’s mega-project, St Vincent’s Argyle International Airport, completed in 2017—along with other members of a “Coalition of the Willing,” including T&T, Cuba, Taiwan, Mexico, Austria, Malaysia, Turkey, Georgia, Iran and Libya.
Gonsalves said very clearly on Sunday that “I am not adopting and the government is not adopting a transactional approach” to St Vincent’s work on the Security Council: “We are not telling you that St. Vincent is going to get money.” There’s no suggestion of votes to be traded for soft loans or other favours.
But, given his outlook and track record, “Comrade Ralph” is more likely than most to lend a sympathetic ear to Maduro, if and when the Caracas crisis spins further out of control.
Will that make a difference? Perhaps not. The big veto-wielding countries are likely to be split, on Venezuela as on other issues. Russia and China will veto any US initiatives they don’t like. Security Council seat or not, little St Vincent won’t be ruling the world.