English poet Robert Browning said, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?” In other words, suggesting that, in order to achieve anything worthwhile, we should attempt even those things that may turn out to have been impossible.
The current narrative is the interesting construct to the new cabinet of ministers in Saint Lucia, particularly prime minister Allen Chastanet and minister for just about everything else: finance, economic growth, job creation, external affairs and the public service, apparently suggesting that he is trying to attempt the impossible.
Major stand-alone ministries like finance, external affairs, tourism and the civil service, will therefore be submerged under the leadership of a single senior minister — albeit the first among equals. The scenario is not dissimilar to some African leaders, who attempted to create a dictatorship within a democracy, but look where it got them!
Still, that paradigm is showing signs of life in Saint Lucia by the seemingly haphazard conflation of key government ministries and portfolios in silos within the office of the prime minister, assisted by three other junior ministers: Bradley Felix (with responsibility for commerce, industry, investment, enterprise development and consumer affairs); Dominic Fedee (with responsibility for tourism, information and broadcasting); and Senator Dr Ubaldus Raymond (minister in the ministry of finance).
What is the rationale behind the strategy of keeping major portfolios within a single ministry? Is it even constitutional? Let alone the resulting eight ministries but fifteen ministers. When the attorney general is added, a huge Cabinet of sixteen ministers of government is created.
The danger of this lays in the possible conflict of interest when one minister, let alone the prime minister, is the primary decision maker in matters of finance, external affairs, civil service, commerce and investment, tourism and broadcasting portfolios.
In other words, deal making and decisions that have a very slim to no chance of verification on the domestic front, and subject to personal vagaries, a propensity to embellish data and a questionable astuteness that may circumvent normal checks and balances.
Furthermore, what will other countries and their donor agencies, as well as other international organisations make of the mismatch and consolidation of portfolios that indicates potential pitfalls. Such international partners are well aware of the historically unhappy results when governments have no clear economic, foreign policy, national security or domestic agenda, and sustainable democracy is threatened.
As Caribbean News Now reported before the recent general election, the United States in particular is determined to see real progress in addressing the still unresolved human rights abuses in the shape of alleged extra-judicial killings by members of the Royal St Lucia Police Force that led to suspension of all law enforcement and military aid under the provisions of the so-called Leahy Law.
The US will therefore expect to see bona fide prosecutions of those responsible and any future grants, aid or loans to the Saint Lucia government will be subject to enforcement of strict transparency and accountability requirements.
Any failure or delay in addressing these issues will result in even more stringent application of the Leahy Law by the US along with other relevant sanctions, notwithstanding Chastanet’s bizarre promise, unchallenged by the St Lucia Labour Party during the election campaign, that Saint Lucians will no longer need visas to visit the United States — at a time when even the visa waiver programs between the US and Europe are under renewed scrutiny on both sides of the Atlantic.
In the case of the United States, such programs, permitting citizens of specific countries to travel to the US for tourism, business, or while in transit for up to 90 days without having to obtain a visa, are only extended to high-income economies with a very high human development index that are generally regarded as developed countries.
Given the fact that at least two of the new cabinet ministers have questionable backgrounds (of which more in a later commentary), the US is hardly likely to be impressed by the composition and structure of the new government.
Not only a conspicuous lack of effort to address symptoms, root causes and scrutiny of fraud and corruption, or strengthen governance practices while enhancing the rule of law, but decisions that make matters worse, will therefore certainly place the visa waiver slice of heaven well beyond Chastanet’s grasp and that of the populace at large.
In addition to the considerations of the Leahy Law and other possible sanctions, the United States-Caribbean Strategic Engagement Act (HR 4939), recently passed by the US House of Representatives, puts particular emphasis on energy security, countering violence, expanded diplomacy, and other priority areas.
“That’s the aim of this bill, which would prioritize US-Caribbean relations for years to come,” said co-sponsor, Rep. Eliot Engel.
Any outward sign of economic and political deviation from the norm in Saint Lucia is not going to be helpful to the country in this new environment of re-engagement by the United States, or the similar re-engagement promised by Britain last year.
I have to ask, therefore, what was Chastanet thinking when he decided on the allocation of cabinet portfolios. Does his reach exceed his grasp? For the moment, I’ll be charitable and describe his intentions as ill-defined.