This past Valentine’s Day was a special day for Dr Ralph Gonsalves, the long-time prime minister of the small island nation of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. On February 14, 2017, he presided over the official opening of an international airport near the capital city, Kingstown – a labour of love for the septuagenarian that has been some 16 years in the making.
The longest serving national leader in the Western Hemisphere, having assumed office in 2001, Mr Gonsalves looms large in Caribbean politics despite the diminutive size of his archipelago. This is in no small part due to the sheer force of his personality. An ardent left-winger known locally as ‘Comrade Ralph’, Mr Gonsalves has crafted an eye-catching array of global political allies and paymasters, a list that is a veritable Who’s Who of enemies of neighbouring superpower the US.
To help fund the more than EC$700m ($259m) cost of the airport – the largest capital project in the country’s history – Mr Gonsalves turned to what he describes as his “motley crew of friends”, including the now decreased Fidel Castro, Hugo Chávez and Muammar Gaddafi, as well as former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The former president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, also kicked in some money. While the pro-Western Mr Saakashvili may seem out of place in this crew, Mr Gonsalves says the pair found common ground as leaders of small countries lying in the shadow of big powers: Russia in the case of Georgia, and the US, of course, for Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.
Coming to fruition
Speaking to fDi in his Kingstown offices, in an epic, high-spirited three-hour conversation spanning a disparate range of topics from philosophy and politics to pop culture, the gregarious prime minister cannot hide his glee at having proved the doubters wrong regarding the feasibility of the ambitious airport project. Mr Gonsalves had faced a storm of criticism about the high price, logistical improbabilities and frequent delays as the years stretched on.
“When I first started talking about the airport, the opposition party took it as prima facie evidence of my madness. They even tried to get me to go see a psychiatrist,” he says, chuckling. “Now they can see this [ministerial office building] is no madhouse!”
The initial 'crazy' idea, which has now come to fruition, was to shutter the existing ET Joshua airport – a tiny, outdated facility serving mainly puddle-jumper aircraft going to nearby islands – and clear a wide swathe of land in Argyle on the eastern side of the island to build a modern international airport that could accommodate international airliners. If the first hurdle was the price tag, the second was the site. “I literally had to move mountains, four of them in fact,” says Mr Gonsalves. “I had to relocate 134 homes, eight small businesses, an apartment building, a church and a cemetery. And that was just for starters.”
Many in SVG see the airport as Mr Gonsalves’ lasting legacy – the Unity Labour Party, which he leads, wanted to name the airport after him, but he demurred, opting instead for Argyle International Airport – but he says he would rather be acknowledged for the “education revolution” he has pursued and about which he speaks passionately.
“The British ruled here for 200 years and only built two schools, one for boys and one for girls. That’s one school per 100 years of colonial rule!” he says. “I’ve built 10 schools. We have gone from having 39% of 12-year-olds enrolled in secondary school to 100%. We’ve increased several times over the number of people who have gone to university and community college.”
Re-elected for a fourth term in 2015, Mr Gonsalves says he won’t try for a fifth. He intends to step down in late 2018 or early 2019, making way for a younger generation to take over. Widely expected to run to replace him are his son Camillo, currently minister of economic planning, and agriculture minister Saboto Caesar, whom the older Mr Gonsalves describes as his “adopted son” and many see as his natural political heir.
Maintaining a 61% approval rating after 15 years in office is no small achievement, as Mr Gonsalves is quick to point out, but his career has not been without its controversy, the airport not withstanding. He has been dogged by allegations of sexual misconduct – all strenuously denied – about which he strikes a sanguine note. “Politics in these small countries are viciously competitive. All sorts of falsehoods have been made up about me, which are made worse by social media. But it matters me not,” he says. “Just look at the airport. I withstood so many attacks about it over the years. But I believe when the dust settles, they will all see that I was right.”
“Sixteen years I’ve been in this seat,” he reflects, patting his chair at the head of the boardroom where his cabinet meets. “I’ve seen Blair, Brown, Cameron, Bush and Obama all come and go. I’ve outlasted them all. But it’s time to go home.”
While Mr Gonsalves intends to stay on as an an MP, serving his the constituency of North Central Windward as he has done since 1994, he plans to spend more time in his hilltop country retreat where he intends “to live like an old rasta man”. With views for miles from this rustic vantage point, perhaps he will also enjoy the satisfaction of watching international jets coming and going from his once-disconnected island nation.