Thursday, August 13, 2009

Editorial from Searchlight

Argyle Airport- Our collective responsibility

St. Vincent and the Grenadines must be a strange place indeed, if we are to judge by the attitude of its people. For umpteen years we have lamented the lack of an international airport, suffering from the consequences much like our sister island Dominica. These two countries are the only ones among independent nations in the Caribbean which lack direct international connections by air. As a result, there is a brake on the pace of economic development, both from the standpoint of limiting export possibilities, as well as restricting the flow of foreign investment, especially in the tourism sector. The difficulties being faced in our air transport provisions, currently, only serve to underline the importance of having such a facility, thereby enhancing choices.

Given this situation, it is no surprise that the construction of an international airport on national soil has long been a Vincentian dream. Over the years, successive governments have tinkered with the idea, but seem to have been daunted by the sheer size, and cost, of such a project in a country in which flat land is a scarce commodity. It has taken the courage and audacity of Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves to take the plunge and actually embark on this gargantuan task. 

One would have thought that there would have been overwhelming support for the realization of the national dream, but, lo and behold, the vagaries of partisan politics are such that even some persons long considered as "patriots" are expressing reservations and, in some quarters, scarcely concealed opposition to the project. Not that every act or pronouncement by the government in pursuit of this goal has been beyond criticism, but it is one thing to be critical of certain approaches and to be concerned about the financial implications of the undertaking, quite another to be openly opposed to what can only be good for St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

This is no easy period to be undertaking such a mammoth task. Since the Argyle airport project was launched, the international economic climate has worsened with recession the order of the day in most countries, small and large alike. This makes it far more difficult to attract funding for such an endeavour. But what does one do? Put a halt to the project and wait and hope for better conditions? By that time, the cost is sure to escalate as it has already done even while work is in progress. When will be "the right time?" Or are we doomed never to have direct international air transport connections?

The airport project is proceeding, thanks to the generosity of a wide range of countries assisting us, from Taiwan to Iran, from Austria to Cuba, from Trinidad to Venezuela. We must all be grateful to them for their kindness and demonstration of international solidarity. But these countries are themselves not immune from the global economic crisis and natural disasters. Venezuela, for instance, a major donor to the project, has seen its oil revenues decline drastically. As a result, it has been forced to make budgetary adjustments at home and to propose less generous terms for PetroCaribe assistance. It has also not yet been able to supply the quantity of heavy equipment requested by the government of SVG.

Cuba, whose major contributions are in kind, is itself reeling from the economic crisis and from the blows of successive hurricanes last year. It has just readjusted its growth projections for this year downward from 6 per cent to 1.7 per cent. Even Taiwan, one of the "Asian Tigers," is feeling the pinch. Tax revenue in the first half of this year fell by 20 per cent, as compared with last year. Now it has had a major hit from a typhoon, compounding the economic woes.

All this means that completing the Argyle International Airport becomes all the more difficult, but complete it we must. The burden will become lighter if we first adopt more positive attitudes to it. Listening to some people on air, it seems as though we are willing it to fail. In which case, who will be the loser? Ralph Gonsalves, the ULP or the people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines? It would also help if not just the Opposition, but the Prime Minister and his Government, stop linking the airport project to the next general election. Support for the international airport must not be equated with support for any party, rather with a commitment to national development. It is also unfortunate that the government took so long to solicit contributions from Vincentians, thereby fuelling the skepticism and rumours that the project is in financial difficulties. Of course, the project needs funding, and if the people of Trinidad and Tobago, Taiwan, Cuba and Venezuela can help, it is our duty to play our part and help to shoulder the burden. We are the ones who will ultimately benefit.