Time for twin-Ks to come clean!

Prime Minister Stephenson King (right) and Opposition Leader Kenny Anthony. Is there a chance they can be persuaded to take a common position in the best interests of a confused, near- resourceless, desperate people?

When the prime minister and minister of finance announced during his budget address two months ago that in 2010 the Saint Lucian economy experienced four percent growth, there could not have been many among his listening or TV audience whose jaws did not reflexively drop. Indeed it must’ve taken Spartan courage on the part of Stephenson King, not to say balls of stainless steel, to read the particular line from his scripted speech. After all, he would’ve known better than anyone else that the island’s main foreign exchange earners, bananas and tourism, had for some time been all but comatose.
As I took in his live performance from Florida, I fully expected to see his nose extend several inches into the videocam’s eye, reminiscent of Pinocchio. But then the finance minister had spoken nothing but the truth as received from the all-knowing folks at the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank. His nose experienced no discernible growth, not even when he congratulated himself on his “sound planning and effective management . . .  in spite of the seemingly insurmountable challenges.”
An old saying, that you should not put your faith in statistics until you’ve carefully considered what they don’t say, came to mind as King announced his great expectations. And just in case he had left anything out, an all but gloating leader of the opposition pedantically explained the ECCB’s new magic yardstick for determining economic growth that had permitted the finance minister truthfully to say the Saint Lucian economy was well on its way to recovery when all the evidence indicated the depressing contrary. Predictably, the opposition in the House laid full blame for the nation’s woes, economic and otherwise, on the government’s policies.
Meanwhile, Saint Lucia’s private sector was hurting as never before—its excruciating pain exacerbated by the evident lack of concern on the part of the very people whose sworn responsibility it is to maintain the right environment for the country’s economic welfare. On the one hand King was dishing out buckets of fulsome praise to the private sector and the “resilient Saint Lucian people” for the growth that he himself had admitted was a mirage. On the other there was the leader of the opposition in full election mode, doing his utmost to score from the ravages of wall-to-wall criminality, unprecedented unemployment and the suggested manipulation of figures that sought impossibly to make the government appear less effete than the evidence proved. There was not a single useful word from either side that might have comforted the sick and dying business community, let alone its thousands of dependents.
Oh, there were the politician’s promises—as usual, all written in sand—that the post-Tomas restoration effort was about to start, as was the Hewanorra project. Alas, not a word about how the nation would survive while the government sourced the necessary money to pay for its promises (in the season of elections predictably rendered controversial by a hypercritical opposition), to say nothing about retarding bureaucratic red tape. The opposition actually advised the government to suspend most of its development plans in the best interest of early elections and the possible emergence of a new administration.
In the meantime, there can be no further postponement of the inevitable questions: “What is to happen to the nation in the next several months, better to say several weeks, when daily the economy further plummets? What is the government doing, not just to relieve the nation’s pain but also to keep it alive, perchance to fight another day? Rather than permitting the nation’s broke businesspeople, for their own survival, to hang on to what little they have left, the government seems hell-bent on twisting the knife in their festering wounds with new taxes.
Of course, the leader of the opposition has promised relief. In the event he should find himself in the shoes of Stephenson King following the elections, he says, his government will suspend penalties for unpaid taxes. Another deciduous pledge to be forgotten the minute the returned finance minister has resumed his seat? A wonderful idea, to be sure, and a particularly welcome, if sudden attitudinal change, considering it was the Kenny Anthony administration that had turned its tax collectors—whether at Inland Revenue or the Customs—from half-human bloodsuckers into full-time vampires. By all accounts, they receive special rewards for breaking their monthly collection records. Small wonder that the current government has never sought to heel the hounds from hell.
But then surely Saint Lucians have learned from bitter experience that there really is no such thing as a free lunch, that tax breaks will be paid for eventually—by taxpayers. Besides, the protean policies that had inspired Bingo’s classic “Kenny An’ Tony” calypso will not easily be forgotten. Then there’s the matter of deciding who will be the beneficiaries of the suspended penalties. Hoteliers? Retailers? Well-known funders of election campaigns? How will a Labour government explain such seeming preferential treatment to the malaway arcade vendor and the small shopkeeper around the corner?
Then again, the leader of the opposition has also been promoting gas subsidies, despite that Saint Lucia cannot afford them and is paying through the nose for such generosity. Lord alone knows how much is currently owed Shell for subsidized gas supplies over the years.
Still, to be fair, and regardless of how desperate its promises, the opposition has obviously heard the nation’s cries. Which is more than can be said about the current administration. Indeed, if an argument can be made for the postponement of the Hewanorra Airport project, earlier considered necessary by the Kenny Antony administration, it will doubtless center on the government’s recent decision to further burden travellers, both local and from overseas, with higher ticket prices . It certainly is the wrong time for new taxes, to my mind, regardless of the arguments of their promoters.
If indeed Saint Lucians are as resilient a people as the prime minister has claimed, evidence of this may be found in their sleepy acceptance of the worst that can happen to them. Almost daily, businesses large and small are shutting their doors for the last time. Those still in operation are open thanks only to the heart-rending sale of family lands and homes. Yes, the hardest working Saint Lucians are being forced to sell all they have in an attempt, however suicidal, to keep their businesses afloat even as the wolves, official and otherwise, bay at their heels.
Even for the island’s most successful employers monthly payrolls are becoming more and more a mission impossible. Long-established businesses houses have no other recourse but to let go cherished staff, some after they have taken pay cut after pay cut that they could ill-afford, all in the best interests of staying employed. Confidence in the government of the day, or in the notion that things will soon return to normalcy, is daily eroding. Without tangible proof that a future exists for their businesses, the toughest entrepreneurs will call it a day and close shop. Their employees, with nowhere to turn, will be more than ever vulnerable to the worst temptations. Peter will pay for Paul and Jane for Janet.
Already we are turning on each other in the worst way. We are reluctant to continue investing in what looks like an impossible future. Businesspeople, who for some time now have been juggling their bills to stay afloat, are now inventing earlier inconceivable ways simply to avoid paying. They take no phone calls from their suppliers, are forever at non-existent meetings. Some business houses no longer trust long-standing patrons. These days it’s cash up front or nothing. Consequently, the particularly desperate take their business outside the country: this month to Trinidad, next month to Barbados—always paying cash, sometimes in advance. Better to fork out five hundred dollars to a new supplier away from home than to pay local debts amounting to three times as much. More and more consumers are buying from the Internet. The buy-local slogan has become a particularly sick joke.
Left untackled, this sorry situation can only get worse. Already, once cooperative banks have become egregiously tight-fisted, even with respect to long-time, previously cherished patrons. Loans are becoming harder and harder to access, still harder to pay back. Bankruptcy beckons at every turn, even as local interest rates reach for the sky and the reverse applies overseas. More and more, nationals are encouraged to take their loans overseas where banks are relatively humane, in the process staying one step ahead of local competitors who have no access to European or American lending agencies.
Our banks have become parking lots for repossessed cars barely six months old. Weekend garden sales are now a regular activity at Rodney Bay and elsewhere around the country as retail stores seek to offload used appliances, from TV sets and home furniture to computers and heavy equipment. Everywhere, there is evidence of life going to the dogs. LIAT’s recent announcement only underscores the local predicament.
Then there are our young people, allegedly representative of the nation’s future, who must disrupt their school studies because their parents can no longer afford tuition fees and their upkeep overseas. Other young folk simply have given up on ever getting a loan—or the university education on which their future depends. Too many now display their wares in the nation’s busiest flesh markets. Also too many must bank on the proceeds of violent crime—with the police in their present mood, a suicidal pursuit. What kind of future awaits our country when its youngest, fittest and brightest are dying from neglect of body and soul?
How will our hospitals continue to serve the nation? Who will fund the institutions when the tax-paying public is for the most part on the breadline? I could go on, but surely by now the depressing message is clear: we cannot continue existing as we have been these past two years or so. We are on the edge of the abyss. Empty talk and pre-election BS will no longer cut it. Both the government and the opposition must tell the nation now their relief proposals, beginning with the business environment. To withhold such vital information from the electorate until the release of confusing party manifestos on the eve of Polling Day is not only unfair to a long-suffering over-tolerant people, it is also devious and corrupt and disrespectful of the principles of social equality. Speak now or pay the price. Otherwise, this nation’s businesspeople will have no other choice but to shut down before they lose all they have earned over the years. And I mean shut down together—in protest, consequences be damned. Sounds crazy? Maybe, but then Saint Lucia has never known a crazier time!

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