Several months ago, with popular disenchantment with our overseas missions at an all-time high and rising, the host of a local call-in radio program sought to clear the mephitic atmosphere that continues to permeate the operations of our countless overseas embassies.
During a live, obviously unrehearsed phone exchange he asked a Washington-based diplomat to address widespread complaints that the $45 million or so annually paid her and other personnel at Saint Lucian missions in the US, Canada, London and elsewhere was a waste of public funds, in the existing economic atmosphere what my old religious knowledge teacher would describe as a sin crying to heaven for vengeance.
The host cited particular newspaper features supportive of the view that the returns from public investment in the missions were next to zero.
“Is that true?” the host asked, his tone clearly anticipating a detailed refutation at once informative and faith-restoring.
What he and his listening audience received instead, to put it diplomatically, was reminiscent of a con artist’s runaround. Still the host persisted. He had much riding on a positive response; he was not about ready to abandon ship without a valiant attempt at keeping it afloat. Not for nothing was he a frontline member of dee partee in power.
“What can you tell us about projects that without the efforts of our overseas embassies would never have come to Saint Lucia?” he asked.
His lackluster guest attempted yet again to duck for cover. Like the career diplomat she is, she hinted at unverifiable meetings with unidentified US and other foreign officials, not once giving away the results.
She talked about unspecified services to unidentified members of “the diaspora,” services to grateful individuals who had earlier been experiencing near insurmountable difficulty renewing their passports—a revelation that must’ve had her local audience wishing such services were available at home!
Then there were the overseas-resident Saint Lucians (I suspect she referred to the diaspora’s thousands of illegals who from time to time had found themselves in trouble of one kind or another and needed diplomatic representation). Nothing I heard her say justified the cost of operating our several overseas missions.
Finally, the clearly crestfallen interlocutor repeated his earlier question: “What about projects? Can you identify a few that came to Saint Lucia thanks only to your efforts?”
“Well,” came the half-hearted, absolutely vague response, “what we do can’t really be quantified. But I can tell you we do a lot of work that most people are unaware of. That I can assure you.”
“Okay then,” said the talk-radio host, now sounding peevish. “I guess we’ll continue to hear the complaints and the suggestions that we are not getting value for money from our overseas representatives. Thank you so much for your time!”
His disappointment as it reached me via my radio was palpable. And yet the 10-minutes or so interview had not been a total waste of time. It had certainly proved how on the button had been the wall-to-wall complaints about our overseas missions, including that its personnel live high on the hog at public expense—their reward for services earlier rendered the incumbent party!
Few of our diplomatic corps are known to the general Saint Lucian public. What qualified them for their jobs were their partisan political contributions made in the dark. Often disguised as public servants, some had surreptitiously served only the opposition party, leaking important documents potentially embarrassing to their employers. A few had been saboteurs of well-intentioned government projects.
And lest what I’ve just stated be misconstrued, permit me to say the above suicidal behavior has been encouraged by both Labour and UWP administrations—and hints at why there are no overseas-based Saint Lucian ambassadors known to be supporters of the day’s opposition.
Count on it, the blood that flows through their veins is Red Zone-red. It need also be said that the most popular color at our missions between 2006 and 2011 was the color of pus!
The immediately above explains why, when our overseas representatives have screwed up badly in London, New York or Washington, rather than hold them accountable, every official effort is made at covering up their dirty tracks.
Remember Earl Huntley? As our UN ambassador, he somehow had managed to transfer ownership of a multi-million-dollar government-owned building in Brooklyn to a friend, ostensibly without the prime minister’s knowledge. The consequences cost local taxpayers untold millions of dollars—while Huntley emerged relatively unscathed!
And just in case you’re wondering, this is the same Earl Huntley to whom the current prime minister had entrusted the secrets of the Jack Grynberg arrangement, while parliamentarians were kept in the dark—including Philip J. Pierre. Also excluded from the loop was the governor general, at whose door we’ll soon be knocking.
Before Earl Huntley there was Charles Flemming, of whom little is known here even today, save that as Saint Lucia’s UN representative he had somehow managed to finagle hundreds of thousands of UNDP dollars for local projects that never materialized—funds that Flemming later told a commission of inquiry had benefited only the UWP election machine.
This is but a small part of what he also told the commission: “I made no attempt to disguise my participation in sourcing the funds, yet no one can find a response from me in relation to any of the requests for reports on the projects. Not even a letter saying ‘please give the Eastern Caribbean Research Center a little more time to report.’ Is that not a little curious?”
The day’s prime minister was also questioned about his government’s relationship with his UN representative.
“Do you know Dr. Flemming? If so, then when he did he first come your notice?”
The prime minister replied that they had been introduced in 1982, shortly after that year’s tumultuous general elections, during an official visit to New York. At the time, he said, there was only one ambassador and two other officers attached to the Saint Lucia mission. The ambassador was Dr. Barry Auguste, a native Saint Lucian employed by the Trinidad and Tobago government. The two other officers were Donatus St. Aime (himself later to be promoted to UN ambassador!) and Charles Flemming.
Additionally: “After Dr. Auguste returned to his job in Trinidad, another Saint Lucian named Dr. Edsel Edmunds took over. He was later appointed head of our Washington embassy. Shortly afterward Mr. St. Aime left the mission to work with ECLAC, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. It was then that Dr. Flemming was put in charge of the mission. The year was 1989.”
“Were you and Dr. Flemming political associates?”
“No,” said the prime minister, emphatically. “We were not!”
But then an earlier witness closely associated with the prime minister’s party, a permanent secretary at the Ministry of Planning, had said otherwise. He had recalled before the commission a conversation with Flemming concerning the unaccounted for UNDP funds and that Flemming said had been “put to a good cause.”
Said the PS: “That’s what he told me. That’s what I remember him telling me. I did not ask what this good cause might be . . . I had a suspicion what that cause was. I did not think it prudent to confirm it.”
He later admitted under oath: “The suspicion I had was that the funds might have been used in support of campaigns, electoral campaigns, things of that sort, things of that nature. It was not a hard and fast suspicion that I had. There were certain things that may have led me to form that suspicion, among them Dr. Flemming’s own allegiances, if you might call it that, things of that sort!”
“Are you saying it was your view that Dr. Flemming was closely aligned with a particular party?” asked the commissioner.
“He may have been,” said the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Planning, with the straightest of faces.
The rest of that sordid story is detailed in, yes, Lapses & Infelicities, available from STAR Publishing. Suffice it to say the man who, when he was Saint Lucia’s UN ambassador had allegedly sourced from the UNDP, by fraudulent means, close to a quarter of a million dollars, was permitted to return to New York before the commission had arrived at its natural conclusion—and with absolute impunity.
It later emerged the UWP administration headed by Vaughan Lewis had quietly paid back the UNDP funds that Flemming claimed had been used by Lewis’ party for electoral purposes, not for the reasons sourced. (The former UWP prime minister and minister of finance, now a Labour administration special advisor, has since claimed he knows nothing of the refund!)
In its report on the matter, the commissioners offered several recommendations, among them that future governments keep close tabs on the activities of their overseas missions.
Additionally, that “particular attention be paid to the issues of accounting and accountability, and clear and definite criteria should be established and applied. Also, the role and functions of the permanent secretary, and his or her role with the minister, should be set out.”
Evidently, and for their own good reasons, successive administrations have ignored the commission’s advice. Otherwise the costly matter of the Helenites Building in New York might’ve been averted.
The 1995 commission also proffered the following advice: “There should be an annual meeting of Heads of Missions in Saint Lucia . . .” And so we come to last Wednesday’s “Foreign Service Retreat.”
The list of participants, headed by the foreign minister Alva Baptiste and his permanent secretary, included special advisor Vaughan Lewis, UN ambassador Menissa Rambally, Caricom/OAS ambassador June Soomer, Consuls General Michael Willius, Yasmin Walcott, Julian DuBois and Kent Hippolyte, and others whose names would be meaningless to most Saint Lucians.
Then there were the special invitees: local government ministers and their permanent secretaries, and diplomatic representatives of Brazil, Taiwan, Cuba, France, Mexico, Britain, Argentine Republic, the OAS. Conspicuously missing was the head of the Barbados-based American embassy.
Yes, a long list headed by the governor general and Anthony Severin of the OECS Secretariat. I have no way of knowing the precise cost of bringing these fat cats together for three days of talk-talk-talk, but I would conjecture it amounted to a tidy sum. Hopefully, the incurred expense will prove a worthwhile investment.
But let us consider the speech delivered on the occasion by Dame Pearlette Louisy. It is a no-nonsense telling off that recalls the recommendations of the earlier mentioned 1995 UN funds inquiry, headed by Sir Fred Phillips (deceased).
Said the governor general, in tones reminiscent of her reaction to a question about her involvement in the Grynberg scandal: “I do appoint the heads of missions, on conditions discussed and negotiated with the executive. I have to admit I have no idea what those terms and conditions are, and whether there is any consistency in the terms and conditions across the range of officers appointed to serve overseas. I would really like to hope there is transparency in these negotiations.”
Was Dame Pearlette saying she appoints unquestioningly on the advice of the prime minister even when she has no idea about what is expected of those she has appointed?
It gets worse. The governor general also confessed last Wednesday she was “unable to advise missions, those who ask for advice, that is. Neither can I speak with any degree of confidence when representatives of foreign countries engage me in conversation.”
True, she said, she was able to make herself “sound knowledgeable” regardless. But there was also the understandable embarrassment of her knowing “very often what I say lacks the substance I know they are looking for.”
Her Excellency stopped short of saying how it felt knowing she had disappointed her visitors, who had quite likely been left with the erroneous impression she was less educated than they had expected!
She added that even in areas of protocol and effective service some of the missions had fallen short. Echoing Sir Fred Phillips, the governor general said: “The time has come for decisive action to be taken.”
For those who continue to see the governor general as a programmed robot and rubber stamper, the erudite former educator recently (while referencing her total lack of any information relating to the Grynberg issue) had directed their attention to Section 65 of the Constitution of Saint Lucia:
“The Prime Minister shall keep the Governor General fully informed concerning the general conduct of the government of Saint Lucia and shall furnish the Governor General with such information as he may request with respect to any particular matter relating to the government of Saint Lucia.”
Additionally: “No Prime Minister from March 2000 . . . has taken up this subject [Grynberg] with me, neither, admittedly, have I requested any information relating to it, since it would seem successive administrations are content to have this issue of national interest aired out, debated and somehow resolved in the media.
“Sadly, the current situation reflects only too poignantly the general perception—and delusion—that the role of the Governor General in our governance system is purely ceremonial. Except, it would appear, when we are faced with a constitutional or legal crisis, as this one [Grynberg] seems to be.”
As I write, Dame Pearlette is off island. Hopefully her return to Government House will be without incident. Admittedly officials of lesser rank but equally vulnerable, who were deemed to have spoken out of turn or said what some might’ve preferred they had kept to themselves, were soon after making
their revelations shown the door—on the advice of the prime minister!