Dominica makes no apology for choosing its friends and who it aligns itself with, Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit told nationals and friends of the Caribbean island at the Commonwealth of Dominica Ontario Association’s (CDOA) 40th anniversary banquet last Saturday night.
He raised eyebrows in March 2004 just two months after becoming the world’s youngest PM at age 31 by severing the island’s 21-year diplomatic relationship with Taiwan and establishing ties with the People’s Republic of China.
The relationship with Taiwan was forged in 1983 under the Freedom Party administration of the late prime minister, Eugenia Charles, and maintained by successive governments, including previous Democratic Labour Party administrations.
Dominica also established relationships with Cuba, Venezuela and Morocco under Skerrit’s leadership. The island nation is part of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas that promotes regional economic integration based on a vision of social welfare, bartering and mutual economic aid, rather than trade liberalization as with free trade agreements.
Borrowing a line the late Barbados prime minister, Errol Barrow, used at the United Nations in December 1966 to articulate his country’s foreign policy, Skerrit said “we are friends of all, satellites of none.”
“If we did not have the help of our international partners, it means that we would have had to increase taxation and go and borrow money at high interest rates and create the same problems that we had in the 1990s and early 2000s,” said Skerrit who is the chair of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). “Our main focus is developing our country.”
The Dominican government was forced to impose an austerity budget in 2003, slashing spending 15 per cent and introducing new taxes. The measures proved unpopular with many workers and led to strikes in the former British colony. The national debt was close to Can$362 million when Skerrit was installed as the PM following Pierre Charles’ death.
In the past six years, China has financed the Windsor Park stadium, the Dominica State College redevelopment, the rehabilitation of the Princess Margaret Hospital and the Portsmouth road project. In addition, more than 100 Dominicans are pursuing post-secondary education in China. Venezuela, on the other hand, wrote off a US$1.5 million debt to Dominica and provided the island with a US$10.1 million grant to expand the Melville Hall airport.
Dominica established diplomatic relations last June with Morocco which has pledged to help finance construction of a US$13 million, 50-room hotel near the airport which started to accommodate night landings last month.
With night landings, North American tourists can fly into Dominica the same day they departed instead of spending the night in another Caribbean destination.
“As a small island state exposed to so many challenges, fiscal prudence and responsibility is necessary,” said Skerrit. “We can’t afford an international airport and it would be reckless of us to build one.”
Skerrit shared his nationals’ concerns about the increased in violence and murders in Dominica.
Six murders were recorded in a two-week span last month and there have been 11 homicides so far this year which is two shy of the record 13 registered last year.
“This government has a zero tolerance policy in respect to crime and this is why we say to our families that if we know of anyone who is involved in criminal activities, we must dissuade them and discourage them from participating,” he said. “In fact, we are going to parliament shortly to pass some draconian legislation to deter crime. Anyone found with an unlicensed firearm will go straight to jail. We have to show people that they can go to the beach or walk the streets of Dominica without being fearful for their lives.”
Skerrit assured nationals here that their contributions are vital to the development of Dominica and he encouraged the CDOA to consider supporting the government’s “Yes We Care” program aimed at assisting the elderly with food supplies and direct home care.
He also challenged Dominican-born teachers and law enforcement officers to spend part of their annual vacation in the land of their birth.
“You can have a vacation and at the same time make a contribution to the country’s development by training our police officers and teachers and running summer programs for our young people,” he said. “We will cover your accommodation costs and, if necessary, your airfare.”
“We are comfortable in the fact that Dominica is in good hands,” CDOA’s immediate past president, Frances DelSol, told the country’s seventh prime minister. “You have raised the country’s profile and bore the burden well of leading our country at a young age.”
David Douglas, who migrated to Canada in April 1961, assembled the very few nationals in the city at the time and convinced them to form the CDOA with the aim of socializing among themselves and helping to facilitate the integration of new immigrants.
“David and the other founders are the ones who laid the strong foundation that enabled us to get where we are today,” said DelSol who is the chair of the Council of Caribbean Associations (Canada). “We came as an immigrant community wanting more for ourselves and working lawfully and diligently to raise the bar for us and our children…We are extremely proud of the contributions we have made in every capacity in our new homeland.”
Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) High Commissioner, Brendon Browne, also paid tribute to the CDOA.
“Attaining 40 years is a significant milestone,” said Browne. “Your association is older than CARICOM, the OECS and PM Skeritt.”
Justice Dr. Irving Andre presented a bursary to Milliken Mills High School graduate Otis George while Seneca College social work student Shem Shillingford and University of Cincinnati, Ohio soccer defender Chris Mitchell were awarded scholarships.