PETER WICKHAM: Building bridges
ON TUESDAY OF this week, I was privileged to witness the opening of the Caribbean’s newest airport on the neighbouring island of St Vincent. It was attended by what was easily the largest group of people ever assembled on that island, along with guests like myself from across the region who wanted to demonstrate our support for this venture by our presence.
My interest in what has now become the Argyle International Airport (AIA) is both personal and professional as I recall a conversation I had with Dr Ralph Gonsalves in 1998 when he spoke of this idea that would become the defining project of his record-setting tenure as prime minister. At the time, Gonsalves spoke of the need for St Vincent to have an international airport, a need which to me seemed reasonable and obvious, but one with which several disagreed.
Like so many projects in this region, there was no consensus on the need for an airport and varying views on the best location and approach to funding. My conservative nature led me to support the option of expanding the E. T. Joshua at Arnos Vale, consistent with technical studies that had already been considered by the administration of Sir James Mitchell. That option seemed more practical; however, Gonsalves spoke extensively of his vision for the development of St Vincent and the Grenadines and this vision required what he referred to as a “bridge”, the likes of which could not be accommodated at Arnos Vale.
As prime minister, Gonsalves spoke at the opening, he again used the term “a bridge” in reference to the AIA and noted that this one would link St Vincent to the region and the world and end an era of detachment forcing Vincentians to access the world through a third party. This third-party arrangement has undoubtedly benefited Barbados over the years; however, I am happy to surrender any benefits of this transit stop as I am now confident that my Vincentian brothers and sisters can exploit the tremendous developmental benefit of direct access to the major centres of the world.
It was ironic that on the day, I departed Barbados (six days before the Argyle opening), I encountered a group of very unhappy travellers who were headed for St Vincent, but were diverted to Barbados on account of high winds. This disruptive and inconvenient event has been a regular occurrence over the years and, as tempers flared, I was consoled by the fact that the longer runway at the AIA would make this type of incident less likely.
As we reflect on the opening, it is important to note the tremendous challenges that the government and people of St Vincent have overcome to build this airport. Although the idea was mooted even before Gonsalves was elected in 2001, it was not until 2005 that an announcement of the proposed site was made and even at that time, anyone touring the site would have noticed several obvious physical challenges that the builders would need to overcome.
The major challenge; however, was funding and as Gonsalves explained, after being turned down by the World Bank, CIDA and the CDB, he was forced to build a “coalition of the willing” which was, interestingly enough, similar to the model used by Maurice Bishop to start construction on the Point Salines International Airport. That project was distinguished by the a diverse and left-leaning coalition of funding countries, while the AIA has taken the concept of diversity to a higher level.
On the issue of funding, the financial “heavy lifters” were identified as Cuba, Venezuela and Taiwan and it is noteworthy that Trinidad and Tobago was the only Caribbean country that contributed to this important project.
Having overcome the financial challenges, the developers set about shifting hills and rearranging a rugged Atlantic coast to present a modern state-of-the-art building that can boast facilities to which our own Grantley Adams International Airport still aspires. The development of the airport awoke both the living and dead since houses that were occupied and cemeteries where loved ones rested had to be relocated along with historic artefacts.
I am, however, most impressed by the political aspect and the extent to which this airport spanned a major global economic recession and three general elections in which it was a major issue. So infrequently does a single project define the political lifespan of an individual or administration; however, the AIA can be categorised as such since it was a promise of Gonsalves from the time of his entry into governance and has now been delivered during the term that he has hinted would be his last.
Peter W. Wickham is a political consultant and a director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES). Email: [email protected]