St. Vincent and the Grenadines, St. Lucia and other Caribbean countries were hammered on Christmas Eve by more than a foot of torrential rain. The flooding and landslides killed at least 13 people and caused widespread devastation.
This happened just before Ralph Gonsalves, the outspoken Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, took over this month as chairman of the Caribbean Community, or Caricom. Gonsalves, who lost a relative in the Dec. 24 disaster, talked with WLRN-Miami Herald News about the island recovery effort — and about the serious challenges facing Caricom.
Q: We’re very sorry about the devastation your country is recovering from, Mr. Prime Minister.
A: Thank you.
Q: Can you describe the damage these rains did to the eastern Caribbean and what countries like yours need most at this time?
A: It’s a terrible disaster, unprecedented in my lifetime. Horrific. The roads are dug up in the northern half of the country. We have 28 bridges damaged or destroyed. There is terrible suffering. We are trying to manage the humanitarian challenge so that it doesn’t metamorphose into a genuine humanitarian crisis. Right now, people need mattresses, appliances, clothes, building materials. [Infrastructure repairs] would be roughly in excess of $130 million.
Q: These were freak rains for this time of year out there, and you and the head of the Organization of American States have said they raise the alarm of climate change in the Caribbean.
Q: Why is that?
A: Look, in April 2011 we had horrific landslides and floods in the middle of the dry season. Now, at the start of the dry season, you have another of these [events], but this one larger. We see the unseasonable weather in Britain, we see it in the Philippines. There is a pattern.
How can Caricom convince the developed world to fund more mitigation for sea-level rise?
A: We have to make sure that the international community is sensitive to the issue, and just continue the campaign. For us this is an existential matter.
Q: One of your priorities is getting European nations to pay reparations to Caribbean islands for the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Why do you believe that effort can really succeed?
A: Well, not just the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but also for native genocide. We have international law on our side, and we have the facts on our side. Some European countries have a sensitivity to the issue and said, “Yes, Europe has a case to answer.” Some say no. Well, let us begin the dialogue between the Caribbean and Europe. And if we can’t come to a negotiated settlement, let the international court address this matter.
Q: You also want Caricom to get the Dominican Republic to reverse a controversial high court ruling that would strip hundreds of thousands of Haitian-Dominicans of citizenship there.
A: Absolutely. The [court] decision is plain unacceptable. You can’t deny people citizenship on the basis of their ethnicity. And you certainly cannot use law retroactively to deny people of their citizenship. I mean, I just had this conversation with Pope Francis [they met at the Vatican on Dec. 19] and he agrees with me on it. They have to have that decision corrected, and the sooner the better, otherwise the Dominican Republic will become a pariah internationally.
Q: The Caribbean today is also home to economic crisis and some of the world’s most indebted nations. How can they solve these problems, especially their overreliance on tourism?
A: The [economic] model which you are talking about, it cannot survive. The question is whether the international community is going to help us in making those changes. And the Caribbean people have to ask themselves, “Do we want to make those alterations in the social economy and the political economy?”
Padgett is Americas editor for WLRN-Miami Herald News.