Who’s Crying “Crocodile Tears”? - August 15, 2005
INTRODUCTION: TWO USEFUL INITIATIVES
Good Day St. Lucia,
Last week’s Conversation about PetroCaribe attracted considerable attention and feedback. Most people welcomed the news about the Venezuelan initiative because they too believe that it holds out the possibility of cheaper fuel supplies. Indeed, most persons who spoke on the issue, whether to me personally or through the media, have urged the Government to move fast and take up the Venezuelan offer. But as I have explained, before we can make use of the initiative, there are real challenges to resolve.
Another development which elicited considerable interest was the announcement of the eye care programme by the Cuban Government. Ever since I unveiled this initiative with the Cuban Ambassador, many have commented effusively about the programme. The Cuban Government will make available two ophthalmologists to examine and treat persons for various eye diseases such as cataract and glaucoma, among others. Persons, who need surgery, will be flown to Cuba at the expense of the Cuban Government. And in cases where persons may have to travel to Cuba for treatment, they can take someone along to care for them while in Cuba. Here again, people have been inquiring as to when the programme will get under way. I can assure you that it will commence this month. Meanwhile, listen to the announcements confirming the dates when the doctors will be in your communities.
BACK TO BANANAS
These two initiatives are crucial and important, but I have something else on my mind. I am preoccupied again with the continuing issues surrounding the banana industry. Once more, my topic is about bananas, which has been in the news ever since the World Trade Organization ruled that the proposed tariff of 230 euros per ton on banana exports from Latin America would be illegal if implemented.
Time and time again, the Government has explained the challenges we face and what’s at stake in the negotiations between Europe and Latin America at the WTO. I have spoken on the issue; the Minister of Agriculture has spoken on the issue; the Chairman of the St. Lucia Banana Corporation and the Chairman of WIBDECO have spoken on the issue; the representatives of the other local banana companies have spoken; and so has a former Prime Minister.
It is clear from all that has been said that we have to work feverishly on the diplomatic front while we await the outcome of the negotiations between the Europeans and the Latin Americans. There is no sign that the Latin Americans wish to compromise. They want nothing less than complete dominance of the European market. The most we could hope for in the circumstances is that the status quo remains – that we are allowed to hold on to the little bit of protection that we have left on the European market.
Even though we all know that things have changed significantly in the banana industry worldwide, there are still those who feel they can and should milk the issue dry for political reasons.
Take the latest statement by the Leader of the United Workers Party, Sir John Compton, on the WTO situation. Last week, Sir John issued another of his weekly statements. It was indeed a strange statement. He went on and on about how bananas built St. Lucia; about how many millions of dollars bananas earned for St. Lucia in the past; and about how banana production figures have declined significantly. Sir John lamented that the industry was destroyed by his political opponents. He said banana farmers were neglected today and left to look at their land with nothing else to do. He said the industry was mismanaged by the Government. And, as has become his habit, the UWP Leader sought to miniaturize – to downplay – the importance of tourism to our economic survival today. Of course Sir John has never been magnanimous to concede that it was the SLP Administration under George Charles that established the banana industry. Surely, he should allow history to speak, at least for a change.
NOT A WORD
In all that Sir John said, there was not a word about the fact that the rules of international trade have changed significantly; not a word about the tough competition from Latin American producers. There was not a word about the fact that he ignored the signals of decline during his tenure in office; not a word about the fact that he abandoned office in 1996 when he saw the signs of hard times for bananas. He knew he could no longer ride on the back of the banana industry.
Sir John talked about STABEX funds, but said not a word about the EU funds which financed new packaging sheds built on farms; not a word about the EU funds which financed Inland Reception Depots constructed by this Government, not a word too, about the EU financed irrigation programme that this Government introduced but which he never worried about when he was in office; and finally not even a squeak about the introduction of tissue culture and other assistance such as the input revolving fund which farmers continue access.
I need not remind you, that the decline in the banana industry began under Sir John’s watch. Nor do I need to remind you that it is this government that has spent over one hundred and fifty million dollars since 1997 to keep the banana industry alive. Nor should I have to remind you that it was this Government that paid off the over $45 million debt of the SLBGA created under Sir John’s watch. No one can or should forget that it was this Government which established the Banana Emergency Recovery Unit (BERU).
In all that he had to say, Sir John did not once utter the word “diversification.” Despite all the years of being urged by the British to promote diversification of the agriculture industry and of the economy, successive governments he led simply refused to even use the term. They preferred to lure banana farmers into a false sense of security by telling them that bananas would always be “Green Gold” – that it would never lose its shine. Instead of encouraging banana farmers to look beyond the horizon and to begin to brace themselves for the impending storm, he opted instead to simply allow the banana boat to run aground. Under Sir John’s captaincy, like Michael in the song, they simply “rowed the boat ashore” – but Sir John bailed out and jumped overboard the when he saw the ship was about to hit the rocks.
TAKING THE BULL BY THE HORNS
But while Sir John and the Government he led were afraid to “take the bull by the horns”, it was this government which had the responsibility to reorganize the industry to meet the new challenges of these times. It was this Government that set out to encourage banana farmers to adjust to the realities of the market place.
Understandably, production has declined throughout the Windward Islands. Grenada has abandoned bananas. Dominica is struggling to stay afloat. St. Vincent and the Grenadines too, is struggling to keep the industry going. In St. Lucia too, production has declined but despite this, St. Lucia still remains the leading producer in the Windward Islands, producing more than half of all the bananas exported to Europe. This is indeed a tribute to the resilience of our banana farmers; especially those who have not given up hope and who have embraced the need for change in the way they produce and package bananas for export.
DIVERSIFICATION BEYOND BANANAS
Despite the contraction in export of bananas, this economy continues to grow. The IMF has confirmed that the economy grew by 4% last year, the highest growth rate since 1992. Take a look around St. Lucia today and you will see just how much Castries and Gros Islet – and the areas in between – have changed. Look at the number of new hotels going up as we speak, adding another one thousand rooms to our local hotel plant. Look at the number of local and foreign companies that have taken advantage of the Government’s incentives to expand. Look at Brazil Street and Bridge Street – see the changes taking shape. Look on the streets and see the new tourism taxis and local minibuses that ply our streets and highways.
DOOMED TO FAIL
Sir John’s weekly efforts to belittle the Government and to downplay its achievements do not change the reality of progress, nor do they hide his past. They may mask his intentions, but they do not erase his history.
So then, I wish to ask: “Who is crying crocodile tears?” Who is it, who misses office and power so much, that he has emerged from retirement on a third occasion. Who is it, who cries every day to the media about things no longer being like it used to be when he was in charge? Who is it, who so desperately wants to return to office that he would defy reason and offer to put us in reverse, and take us back to the old days? Yes, crocodile tears are being shed, but they certainly aren’t mine.
One thing is clear. We are not turning back now!
I thank you for listening today. As usual, I invite you to tune in again next week when I’ll be back with another Conversation With The Nation. Until then, may the Good Lord bless and keep you.
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