On the fringes of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in London, Antigua and Barbuda's Prime Minister Gaston Browne and his team said "
The highs and lows of political leadership
By Debbie Ransome
They say that a week is a long time in politics.
So one of the first things St Kitts and Nevis Prime Minister Denzil Douglas will tell you is that he has served 25 unbroken years in the profession.
The second thing he will talk about is sustainable development.
In fact, our interview came about because of a Caribbean Intelligence© article on Caribbean sustainable tourism.
St Kitts’s Prime Minister’s office responded on Twitter to favourite the story and point out that the philosophy outlined was a key part of the twin island federation’s tourism proposition.
Finding a tourism niche
It’s obvious what makes up the basics of Caribbean tourism. But today, as many other parts of the world can mimic the “sun, sand and sea” product, the region has been forced to find a new edge to the natural assets handed out by Mother Nature.
There is “very little reliance on all-inclusive hotels in St Kitts and Nevis”, Dr Douglas tells Caribbean Intelligence©.
He says that his country has been “pitching at the high end” of tourism for its niche.
He spoke as some of his Eastern Caribbean neighbours continued to launch new all-inclusive and mega resort hotel projects.
St Kitts and Nevis starts with a good track record for niche tourism.
The quiet island of Nevis was the 1992 bolthole for Princess Diana to escape the media with her then small sons.
Today the islands are focusing on types of tourism that add to the skills of the local population, such as sports tourism, heritage tourism, arts and entertainment.
“All stakeholders reap the benefits,” Dr Douglas explains.
He argues that focused, niche tourism can create what he calls “fully integrated tourism”.
St Kitts and Nevis is small: Wikipedia describes it as the smallest sovereign state in the Americas both in size and population.
That size has always forced it to think very carefully through its options, unlike its bigger and richer neighbours.
For Dr Douglas, the climate in which he grew up was an “unfair and unjust” system, dominated by the sugar trade.
He says that when he went into parliamentary politics from medicine in 1989, he wanted to challenge the status quo.
He describes growing up in a country where the majority of people had been “locked out” of the secondary education system.
For that reason, his philosophy is that education should turn the “very poor” into the “new drivers” of life in St Kitts and Nevis.
“This country has been one large plantation,” he says of the island’s sugar industry and colonial history. At one time, five major families owned most of the land.
Politicians before Dr Douglas had nationalised the sugar industry in the 1970s. But on his watch as prime minister, the time came to contemplate its demise. That decision, agonised over by many countries in the region, fell to his administration in 2005.
“One of the darkest challenges that I had was, after 10 years in office... coming to the realisation that we had to close an industry,” he told Caribbean Intelligence©.
“It was very, very, very frightening,” he explains, describing the weighing of the options as “groping in the dark”.
While many Caribbean countries still struggle with the future of the sugar industry – which, whether we like it or not, founded the West Indies and its dark history of transatlantic slavery – St Kitts and Nevis bit the bullet and shut the whole thing down.
Today, Dr Douglas says that more than 43% of the population have been moved into new housing developments. He feels that changing the pattern of land ownership has been a great achievement of his term.
After 400 years of sugar, the country’s plantation economy has given way to one based on services and sustainable tourism model. That transition, he says, is a high point of his time in office.
But as Dr Douglas outlines the achievements of his quarter-century in office, it hasn’t earned him the fans he might have expected.
Political tensions have been intensified since two members of his government crossed the floor in July 2013.
Opposition MPs have alternatively boycotted or protested against parliamentary sittings, as they continue to press for debate of a no-confidence motion in Dr Douglas filed back in 2012.
The two departing government ministers and the official opposition have led thousands in marches calling for Dr Douglas to step down and allow their unity government – of official opposition and departing former government ministers – to take over.
They have also filed a motion in the high court seeking to get the Speaker of the House to place the no-confidence motion on the parliamentary agenda.
When the opposition took their protest to Caricom in March 2014, the regional grouping said that no human rights issues were at stake.
The stalemate continues.
From within his office, Dr Douglas is reflective as he’s asked about the dark days of politics.
He has refused to engage in the no-confidence debate which he describes as opposition mischief-making, accusing some of his opponents of being power-crazed.
Asked by Caribbean Intelligence© about the lows of politics, he said: “I’ve seen it [politics] bring out the worst of human beings and the best of human beings.”
For his regrets, he does not turn to the immediate political furore on his doorstep, but to the longer-term changes which he wished had happened during his political lifetime.
First and foremost, he cites the failure of the sub-regional model of the Eastern Caribbean, with its single currency and freedom of movement, to become a model for the wider 15-nation Caricom grouping.
He laments that Caricom did not achieve what he calls “unity of purpose” by reaching a wider integration.
“I am not satisfied that we have created in the region, an integration of culture... freedom of movement... that we would rely upon for our success,” he says.
His regret, he admits, is that he has not seen in his political career the “emergence of the kind of Caribbean region” that he would have expected.
“I hope I will be able to see it in my lifetime,” he adds.
His other regret is a very personal one.
“Politics is all engaging,” he tells Caribbean Intelligence©. “It has consumed a lot of my time.”
While he states that he has loved his time in politics and his chance to change people’s lives, he adds that he has missed a personal opportunity to make an impact on medical developments and work in the area of non-communicable diseases.
He even mentions the opportunity to write about his experiences and pen his autobiography.
When talking about his experience as one of the longest-serving prime ministers in the Caribbean and also in the Commonwealth, he also outlines politics as a vehicle for what he calls “the darker side of the human spirit”.
In the very next sentence, he also describes his time in office as “very rewarding” and returns to the theme of enjoying a job which can “see people’s lives changed forever”.
So, with such a dual perspective on life leading a former colonial island transforming itself into a modern economy, would Denzil Douglas recommend politics to a young person contemplating possibly entering politics?
His advice is to “acquire a profession” first; what the St Kitts leader calls a “career path” a person can rely upon.
“Go into it with in sincerity,” he says, “you have to be sincere upfront.”
And, finally, don’t make commitments you can’t meet, he concludes.
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