I’ve been around long enough to have known the governor of the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank when he was a mere top-tier public official obviously destined for superstardom. He was John Compton’s Director of Finance, one of the premier’s two most trusted advisors (vision commissioners had not yet been invented!). The other whiz kid was none other than Ausbert d’Auvergne, Compton’s Finance Secretary and monarch of all he surveyed, in particular the public service.
No surprise if the talented twin pillars that comprised the then premier’s brains trust seldom stood together. That’s precisely how the Compton I knew would’ve wanted it, for reasons idiosyncratic that I need not go into here. Suffice it to know that on at least one occasion I’d had cause to write about who was receiving what tax-free salary and other special perks—and what was the other guy’s reaction, expressed with attached pre-conditions, needless to say.
Unlike Ausbert, Dwight seldom entertained media inquisitions. He seemed to go out of his way to avoid journalists. Which is not to suggest he had ever been less than affable in my presence. I always knew Venner to be gregarious, at all times the perfect gentleman, generous with his time—provided there was no risk of discovering his name in the next day’s headlines.
I recall being quite surprised to learn he had agreed to address the newborn local media association, when its president was Ras Earl Bousquet. But then Earl had always been well connected. Afterward, Venner had stuck around for almost an hour to partake of donated beverages and to smalltalk. Did I mention that he had always been extremely cautious about what he says, where he says it—and when? Which may or may not be why he and his earlier-mentioned frenemy are where they are today!
Last Friday Dwight Venner decided it was finally the right time to address the Saint Lucia Chamber of Commerce on the country’s economic horoscope. For reasons doubtless well calculated, he preferred to describe the event as “a conversation,” maybe in anticipation of an exchange of ideas. The audience comprised mainly people normally engaged in local business. That is to say, when there is local business in which to engage.
Presumably the commerce minister and her government colleagues were otherwise occupied. Maybe they had not received the memo, or were invited but had other more important earlier commitments. Perhaps they were at sea, making certain the fish behaved while Matt Damon and his entourage took in the Sulphur Springs ambience. To be present at a discussion centered on how the local economy is doing must’ve seemed to the prime minister an unnecessary provocation, a childish waste of precious time, time that might better be spent wrestling with his overpaid wise men.
In all events the only government-related attendee was a senator far better known for her business adventures and her recorded generosity toward a particular politician. Would it have come as news to the senator when Venner prophesied, reminiscent of Sodom and Gomorrah, the continued existence of the OECS would depend on how quickly its citizens quit worshipping lesser gods and acknowledged their main problem was not their shortage of money; that the root cause was poor leadership?
What might the business-woman in the senator’s soul have been contemplating while the ECCB’s head honcho proffered the following advice: “Current circumstances pose a very real threat to our actual existence as independent nations and require major approaches to changes in the way we think and solve our problems at all levels.”
Did she concur when Venner identified as one of the region’s killer traditions the fact that to win elections candidates must make promises that “far outweigh their ability to deliver?” Did the line ring a bell in the senator’s head?
What was the impact on her nervous system when Venner boldly acknowledged “somebody went off the rocks somewhere and now we are having to put Humpty Dumpty together again, without much time?”
Who might that somebody be? When did that Humpty Dumpy have his great fall? In 1997? In 2001? Or had the accident occurred that unforgettable evening in 1979 when Castries abruptly turned into Plywood City? The current prime minister had witnessed with his own brown eyes the unforgettable transmogrification. Witnesses later suggested he had stood on the sidelines in the concealing semi-darkness while the river-stone throwers fired their missiles and Rome burned!
More importantly, is our once upon a time alleged Plywood City traffic director turned driver the man to put Humpty Dumpty back together again—never mind that some will say problems cannot be solved by the same thinking that created them.
Our businesswoman-senator had rubberstamped the success formula the prime minister presented last April, with its over optimistic reliance on tourism’s imminent resurrection and an envisaged fantastical construction boom that would result from debt-financed government concessions to new-home builders. We can only speculate about what may have gone through her mind when Venner implied that when it came to private sector business the finance minister was absolutely clueless, that “what in fact pushes the economy is not construction but foreign exchange!”
With all her demonstrated faith in her leader, did the senator-businesswoman consider even for a moment that Venner might be on the money, that in po-ass backwaters like Saint Lucia with an almost non-existent tax base it takes foreign cash to make even hummingbirds fly? Or was she secretly thankful to Venner who obviously knew the difference between public and private sector fruit?
By his own open admission the ECCB governor had been close to what now threatens our very existence. If only he had said in 2007, “when the crisis began,” what he was now saying about tourism and construction and foreign exchange, what miseries he might’ve spared this nation? Or even in 2009 when, at Venner’s own telling, the crisis really started “biting into the Currency Union.”
Poor hapless Stephenson King, no, poor gullible Saint Lucia, how we might’ve benefited from what Venner knew at least seven years ago but had chosen to keep to himself! Consequently, the people were coerced into forking out public sector wage increases of over 14 per cent, which the prime minister recently cited as one of the main contributors to our apparently irrevocable (inevitable?) fiscal problems. And so, some 50 years after the OECS horses had bolted, our loser stable keepers decided to come together this week for yet another conversation, this time with the governor of the ECCB on hand, as if there had never been warnings about the consequences of persistent wastage, state-endorsed corruption, blatant nepotism and limitless arrogance. As if Sir Arthur Lewis had never written about the reasons the dream of federation had failed.
Indeed Kenny Anthony, Keith Mitchell, Ralph Gonsalves and their drowning-in-the-red comrades, had all talked the obligatory talk about what awaited us down the road if we (?) refused to curb our (their?) profligate ways.
If only they had also walked the walk. If only they had understood while pursuing their UWI degrees that the thinking that created the now entrenched OECS problems never stood a chance of solving them.
Oh, but I, for one, refuse to believe all is lost. Not when Dwight Venner has finally admitted our main problem all these years has been effete leadership. Notwithstanding the IMF’s slimy green monster at our door, the ball remains where it has always been, in the people’s court!
The preceding was first published in The STAR on April 27, 2013.