Gonsalves’ straight talk
In this week’s Big Interview, Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves of St Vincent and the Grenadines weighs in on the ongoing regional dispute over REDjet.
Gonsalves, who is the lead Caribbean Community (CARICOM) prime minister with responsibility for air transportation, has some advice for Barbados, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago on how they should take forward the matter.
In the following edited interview, Gonsalves spoke to Editor-In-Chief Kaymar Jordan about this and other matters arising out of last week’s CARICOM leaders’ summit in St Kitts.
Q: You were conspicuously absent from last week’s CARICOM Summit in Basseterre. Is this an indication that you have given up on CARICOM?
Gonsalves: No, no, no, not at all! I had an injury to my foot, from my knee down to my ankle and the doctors told me: ‘Listen man, don’t go and harass yourself,’ so I just basically stayed home.
Q: But are you satisfied with the outcome of the meeting?
Gonsalves: There are a couple of things I need clarification on. I mean obviously, there will be a general disappointment that we didn’t get to finalise [the appointment of] the secretary general, but there is nevertheless a sense of urgency to have that done.
You see, this is not only an issue for us, but countries with which we engage on an ongoing basis. They would like to know that, rather than a transitional figure, there is someone there to work with on a more permanent basis.
Q: So who are you backing for the post?
Gonsalves: Well, you know there are several candidates who have emerged out of the wash. I don’t know the Surinamese ambassador [Henry MacDonald] but naturally, I know Ellsworth John [the former permanent representative of St Vincent and the Grenadines to the OAS]; we have put him up. I also know Irwin La Rocque [of Dominica] quite well, Carla Barnett [of Belize] and Bernadette Lewis from Trinidad and Tobago, but it would be unfair for me to name somebody if the process is going through.
Q: Be that as it may, it seems pretty clear that you are backing your man – the Vincentian – for the job?
Gonsalves: Yes, I mean Ellsworth is a good person. Always, however, I look at the bigger interests of the region, so I am not out there campaigning but I would affirm that he is a good candidate.
Q: But why is it taking so long Prime Minister? Since last year, Carrington left the job and halfway into a new year, we still don’t have a replacement.
Gonsalves: It is a valid question and it is unfortunate. I myself am disappointed that we haven’t done so, but we appear to be getting there and hopefully, we are at the terminal stages.
Q: Let me switch gears to air transportation. As lead prime minister with responsibility for this area in CARICOM, you were missing from the robust debate that took place in St Kitts, but where do you stand on the REDjet issue?
Gonsalves: On these matters, I am a process man where good results are delivered out of a process. I know my brother Bharrat [Jagdeo of Guyana] says we must be less concerned with process than with results.
I understand the point he is making in relation to too much bureaucracy, but when it comes to certain matters we need to have the processes work.
In this case, you have two sets of authorities in each jurisdiction – the licensing board for air transport and the civil aviation authority, and before the licensing board can address the actual licensing, you need the civil aviation authority to give the clearance on all the issues relating to the law.
Q: But aren’t regional countries signatories to a CARICOM air services agreement?
Gonsalves: Not everyone is signatory but almost all. However, this agreement does not obviate the necessity to get your national civil aviation authority to do the clearances. They wouldn’t automatically accept an Air Operating Certificate from one jurisdiction to the next. But clearly, if one jurisdiction provides the Air Operating Certificate, one would think that it is a reasonable basis for expeditious processing in another jurisdiction.
Q: So why is the Redjet issue fuelling so much division?
Gonsalves: One of the things that some people get an uncomfortable feeling about is some of the comments attributed to the Government of Barbados through various spokespersons. They would seem to be saying that there is an underlay of “politics”, including protection [by the government of Trinidad and Jamaica] of the national airline CAL/Air Jamaica.
Q: What do you think?
Gonsalves: Well, I really do not know what are all the civil aviation issues, including the safety ones which have been commented upon. I have not, as the prime minister in the quasi cabinet with lead responsibility for air transportation, been kept into the loop, neither has CARICOM. The issue has been dealt with on a multilateral basis between Barbados, Jamaica and Trinidad.
However, I know for instance that when we had the problem between St Vincent and St Lucia when minister [Allan] Chastanet wanted to have CARICOM Airways come to be licensed in St Vincent, the position of the licensing authorities in St Vincent was very straightforward: get past the requests of the Eastern Caribbean Civil Aviation Authority and then the licensing authority in St Vincent and the Grenadines would address the matter.
Frankly speaking, it is very difficult for me to concede that the Civil Aviation Authority gives the all-clear and the licensing board would say no. I wouldn’t be able to understand the reason for that unless there is some special circumstance, which would make a licensing board take a decision, which would not permit one carrier from a Caribbean country to enter another.
Q: So you don’t think Trinidad and Jamaica are stalling on REDjet?
Gonsalves: It is difficult for me to know because I don’t know what are all the timelines, what documentation was submitted, what they asked for, what they didn’t get. I would hope that the civil aviation authorities in Trinidad and Jamaica would move with reasonable dispatch in addressing these matters and so too the licensing authorities.
Q: So you are agreeing with Barbados then?
Gonsalves: I am not saying that REDjet is a good thing or a bad thing. It is a company, they have an airline and one country [Barbados] has given the all-clear in terms of its civil aviation and licensing authorities, but they say they want to go other places. They are travelling between Barbados and Guyana.
I understand they have done some charters. I don’t see, frankly speaking, how you can stop an airline trying to operate or compete once it satisfies all the requisites. I don’t see it.
What I will advise generally though is that people keep good sense and balance on these matters and don’t get carried away with the advertised or published low fares and turn our backs against what is the bread and butter of air transportation in the region, which is LIAT.
Q: Can we take that to mean that you oppose Redjet’s entry into the marketplace?
Gonsalves: No, I feel sure that Redjet would generate its own share of business and would not necessarily eat into other people’s business. But there is a tendency to believe that the market is fixed and when another player comes in, that the others who are inside the market will get a lesser share because this new entity is getting some more. That new entity may well generate a market of its own.
In the same way I believe a ferry service will generate its own particular market.
Q: But there is still a limited number of people travelling between the islands daily.
Gonsalves: Yes, but I think the market is dynamic. It is a little flat at the moment because of the world economic situation, but it won’t be so all the time. I really just think we need to take a lot of the emotion out of this whole thing and be balanced.
I saw an editorial in your newspaper, which basically said: ‘Listen guys, on this Redjet issue, just cool it.’ Maybe it is the NATION editorial, which influenced me to be this reasonable (laugh).
Q: Have you taken up the phone though and spoken to either the Prime Minister of Barbados or Trinidad on the Redjet situation?
Gonsalves: No, I haven’t spoken to anybody on that. My conversations with my brother Freundel Stuart on air transportation matters have been focused almost exclusively on LIAT.
Q: So are you worried at all about Stuart’s endorsement of REDjet given both his and your government’s shareholding in LIAT?
Gonsalves: No, I don’t see his Government’s endorsement of REDjet as antithetical to LIAT. . . . In fact, I know that Prime Minister Stuart continues to be deeply committed to LIAT.
Q: Are you prepared then to welcome REDjet with open arms into St Vincent and the Grenadines?
Gonsalves: Well, I don’t think REDjet would be able to land or take off from Arnos Vale given the type of aircraft that is used. I think they would have a problem. But Redjet certainly would be able to land in Canouan, and of course when we finish our international airport in 2014, but I have no hostility a priori to Redjet.
Q: But yet you are telling Caribbean people not to get carried away with their advertised low airfares?
Gonsalves: I always make those kinds of points. I made them when Caribbean Star was engaged in predatory pricing against LIAT and mimicking its schedules, and my caution turned out to be well placed.
Q: Do you think the low-cost Redjet model is sustainable for this region?
Gonsalves: I would say only that on the face of it, and knowing what it is like to keep an airline in the skies, particularly one like LIAT, the numbers look difficult to me to sustain over the medium to longer term, but at the same time, in their favour, the people who I understand are involved in it out of Barbados and outside the Caribbean, these are not joke businessmen.