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St. Lucia's 35 Years of Independence Finds the Country With Challenges

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But none that it can’t handle effectively and with poise

By Tony Best
Special to the NNPA from the New York Carib News

Seen from the historic Brooklyn Borough Hall in New York City or the Connecticut state capital building in Hartford where St. Lucia’s national flag will flutter in the breeze later this week, the picture of the Eastern Caribbean country would attract admiring glances but words of caution.

That mixed bag isn’t unique in the Caribbean and it is certainly explainable.

The island of 174,000-plus souls is feeling the fall-out caused by the global financial crisis that spawned the serious economic problems now gnawing at some of St. Lucia’s neighbors – Jamaica, Barbados, St. Kitts-Nevis, Puerto Rico and Grenada. Also true, the country is working hard to get recover from the extensive damage done to homes, roads, bridges and government facilities by an unexpected act of nature — heavy rains and flooding just before Christmas. As if those problems weren’t enough it is searching for solutions to another Caribbean nightmare: a relatively high incidence of serious crime.

Flip the coin over to its other side and the scene which emerges would much more heartening. For one thing, St. Lucians at home and abroad are getting ready to celebrate the 35th anniversary of their birthplace’s independence from Britain. With parades and other colorful events taking place to celebrate the milestone, it’s obvious that the country which gave the world two Nobel prize winners, Prof. Sir Arthur Lewis in economics and Derek Walcott in literature is far more resilient than some people may have given it credit for. There is another reason: in the more than three decades since independence came, St. Lucia has dramatically improved its roads, schools, health facilities and the level of its amenities which has placed it in a position to respond quickly and efficiently to crises.

That may explain why Dr. Kenny Anthony, the country’s Prime Minister, praised the country for its collective “strength, courage and resilience” in the aftermath of the recent troubles and he was quick to urge the people to keep such strong qualities in motion because “if we can continue to help one another, then we can counter any further misfortune.”

It will need all the strength it can muster. St. Lucia, noted for its breath-taking beauty and picturesque twin peaks of Picons is suffering from a combination of widening budget deficits, high unemployment, estimated at more than 20 per cent and a large debt burden that when combined put the government in a straightjacket. As a result, the country which relies heavily on tourism can’t undertake the kinds of economic reforms which are necessary to stabilize the finances.

When a government has a deficit – the difference between government revenue and expenditure – of almost 10 per cent of gross national product it can’t simply narrow the gap by raising taxes.

“Further taxation is not the solution to our problem,” Dr. Anthony said the other day. “The solution lies in reducing expenditure and improving revenue collection.” That’s a realistic and indeed necessary stance to take but it is not always politically palatable because cutting expenditure invariably means laying off government employees and reducing the amount of money, the government spends buying goods and services from the private sector. It’s often enough to bring demonstrators out into the streets, something St. Lucia has avoided but which the government and the people of Greece were unable to do. Of course, St. Lucia is far from experiencing the kind of nightmare the Greeks had to tackle last year.

When Anthony met St. Lucians in Brooklyn almost two years ago, he was quite candid about the poor state of economy he had inherited and he talked about it again in a national address. The problems he described are not unique to St. Lucia and they require tough measures.

The issue of crime is more complex. Although police crime statistics for 2013 show a slight three per cent decline in the number of cases reported to the police last year, Anthony understands only too well there is link between the economic hurdles people are confronting and the criminal behavior of many unemployed adults and young people. Illegal drugs are also fueling the crime picture and unless and until the United States and Europe provide more help, not only to St. Lucia but the rest of the Caribbean, the specter of crime will remain a serious headache.

In the decades since independence, St. Lucia has undergone an economic and social transformation that many skeptics initially didn’t think possible. It has more college and university educated people than ever before and it achieved that by expanding educational opportunities for young people. The lifespan of St. Lucians has increased significantly and it has boosted the child survival rate while keeping a lid on the growth of its population. Interestingly, although St. Lucia remains a solidly Roman Catholic country, women have not been prevented from controlling their own fertility. They have ready access to information and services that help them limit the size of their families. Just as important the presence of women in leadership positions in government and the private sector is much stronger than 20 years ago.

Clearly, St. Lucia is going through tough times but progress is evident. It remains a vibrant and effectively managed society and is well represented in international councils at the United Nations, the Organizations of American States, the Commonwealth of Nations and elsewhere.

Undoubtedly, it has earned the praises which are being showered on it at this time.

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