He may at times have appeared a dancer for money, a flip-flopper extraordinaire, ready to say whatever might please his particular audience. But let no one say Kenny Anthony lied when as Leader of the Opposition in 2006 he declared the Value Added Tax “an oppressive law” that would do hideous things to the cost of living in Saint Lucia and lay further burdens on the broken shoulders of the poor.
If he appeared to have had a change of heart following his reelection last November, that was only because he had no other choice, he said. VAT was “inevitable.” All of the other OECS territories had implemented the tax system several years earlier, as directed by the WTO, the
IMF and other organizations with their boot heels at
our throats. The nation now had no alternative but to make the best of an oppressive thing, to accept what it could not resist, not without “serious repercussions” that no one had ever seen the need to identify. Come September, the prime minister said, the oppressive VAT would become the law of the land, predicted consequences be damned.
The opposition made the usual noises. But their protestations lacked conviction: when he was prime minister Stephenson King had himself promised in parliament to put VAT in place by April 2012. Reportedly, the Chamber of Commerce wrote somewhat discouraging private letters to the immediate past and present prime ministers, as usual to no avail. Finally, with all the CARTAC-recommended preparations noisily underway an already recession-ravaged Saint Lucia readied itself for further misery. The last thing anyone expected was a stay of execution.
The ho-hum public reaction was hardly surprising: pointless rejoicing over a month’s postponement of “inevitable disaster.” Delaying VAT by one month to October 1 would have come as cold comfort for this economically moribund nation that is nevertheless expected to provide the multi-millions the prime minister says he must have to pay for his several nicely named welfare programs.
Meanwhile it is hardly comforting to note it’s business as usual with the public sector: obviously over-staffed and non-productive government departments; luxury gas guzzlers on our high roads and low roads, day and night; nonstop overseas travel. Then there are the countless costly overseas missions whose purpose is today as much a secret as it had been before the invention of the Internet and Skype. When will a Saint Lucian prime minister discover the courage to take a stand on behalf of the people by at least attempting to reduce the price of operating our public service?
The government has chosen instead to costume itself as Robin Hood while squeezing the haves to give to the poor in the name of economic equality. The problem here is the reality: those who can are moving out to safer havens with whatever they can carry, putting their immoveable properties up for sale or rent and leaving government to render the rest of the tribe equally poor. Ominously, most of our business houses are predicting their closure dates soon after VAT gets underway. With much regret some have been sending cherished workers home after more than a decade of faithful service.
Especially frightening is that the discourse on the world economic crisis continues without the smallest mention of the Caribbean, as if out here everything were hunky dory. There’s talk about the Eurozone crisis, how long before Greece opts out, what Germany may or may not do in consequence, Spain’s immediate future. There is much discussion about the U.S. economy, how things are likely to remain as they are until another five years or so. But not a word about us, not from the overseas pundits and certainly not from our self-congratulating, chauffeured Caricom leaders.
Is it that nobody cares? Or have we arrived at the every-man-for-himself station? Are we being judged by our exciting carnivals and our demonstrated cockeyed optimism that permits us to crow about the success of the tourist board’s Staycation campaign?
Now if only we could get sufficient Staycationers to pay their hotel and restaurant bills with pounds and U.S. dollars. For one, there’d be no need for subsidized flights from New York and Miami. We might even consider shelving altogether those expensive expansion plans for Hewanorra. Meantime, might the prime minister consider another VAT postponement, say, until Staycation really takes root? Now here’s something guaranteed to prove how much he cares!