Former minister pays tribute to late Vincentian PM

Bernard Wylllie, seconed from right, with former Cuban President Fidel Castro, center, and Sir James F. Mitchell
Left to Right; Sir James Mitchell, Fidel Castro, Alpian Allen ,Bernard Wyllie and Alfred Bynoe.
Bernard Wyllie

A former minister in the New Democratic Party (NDP) administration in St. Vincent and the Grenadines has joined with the people of the multi-island state in extending condolences to the family of the late Prime Minister Sir James Fitz-Allen “Son” Mitchell, founder and first president of the NDP.

Sir James, who died on Nov. 23, was accorded a State Funeral on Saturday. He was 90. 

Bernard Wyllie — a former minister of Trade, Consumer Affairs, CARICOM Affairs, Agriculture, Labor, Forestry and Fisheries, in Mitchell’s administration, from 1989 to 1998, who also served as a Minister Counsellor, from 1999 to 2001, under Mitchell’s reign, at the Mission of St. Vincent and the Grenadines to the United Nations – told Caribbean Life over the weekend that Sir James was “highly regarded and respected as an astute, unique, political leader and statesman not only in the Caribbean but throughout Africa, Europe, and North and South America.”

Wyllie, who also serves as public relations officer of the Brooklyn-based St. Vincent and the Grenadines Progressive Organization of New York (SPOONY), the NDP’s New York arm, said Sir James was “known for his political shrewdness, having served as a minister of Agriculture and Trade in the St. Vincent Labor Party (SVLP) administration of the day. 

“He later fell out of favor with the Labor Party and ran independently in 1972,” he said. “In an election, which resulted in a tie of six-six, Sir James was able to negotiate his way into the premiership by joining with the People’s Political Party (PPP).”

With the collapse of the “Junta” administration, as it was pejoratively called, in 1974, Mitchell, a year later, formed the NDP, Wyllie noted.

“He was the lone voice in the opposition for many years, notably speaking for several days in budget debates, a platform which he used to attract the hearts and minds of the people by his eloquence, his research and mastery of facts and figures,” Wyllie said. “This continued until Calder Williams won the North Leeward seat, giving the NDP its first seat on the mainland.” 

In 1982, Wyllie said he joined the NDP, “which I have been a member to this day.”

In 1984, the NDP defeated the SVLP at the polls, which began a 17-year reign, with Sir James as prime minister. He retired as prime minister in 2000. 

“His contribution to national and regional development was, undoubtedly, legendary,” said Wyllie, stating that Sir James was a founding member of the Caribbean Democratic Union (CDU), an alliance of “center right” political parties in the Caribbean. “The CDU continues to advance the values of good government practices that is fiscally responsible and socially compassionate, where people remain the center of all development. 

“Sir James was a supporter and ardent advocate of regional integration,” he added. “He devoted a considerable amount of his time in fostering regional cooperation and unity between the islands of the Caribbean, but, more so, in the OECS (sub-regional Organization of Eastern Caribbean States)/Windward Islands.”

Wyllie said he had the privilege of accompanying Sir James to many of these regional meetings. 

“He was also involved in the formation of the Caribbean Agricultural Research and Development Institute (CARDI),” he said. At home, Sir James was a champion for education. The St. Vincent community college was his brainchild. 

“He believed that an educated mind is a sure way out of poverty, and a way to become a productive member of society in keeping with a well-known adage that ‘a mind is a terrible thing to waste’”, Wyllie added. “He ensured that his government paid the economic cost for all students attending the University of the West Indies, thus making university education more affordable.” 

Wyllie said Sir James also believed in the principle of a land-owning democracy, adding that “on many occasions, one would have heard him say ‘he who owns the land owns the country’. 

“Thus, he presided over the most historic land reform program in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, which was responsible for building a middle class than was never seen in St. Vincent and the Grenadines at that time,” he said. 

“He walked with kings, queens, presidents, prime ministers and academics, but he never lost his common touch,” Wyllie added. “He was at ease in the marketplace with the vendors as he would be in the halls of justice. He never paraded our streets in armored vehicles with a caravan of security escorts. 

“Sir James was a father figure, a mentor, a counselor, a leader, a visionary, a political leader and a hero,” he continued. “Like many Vincentians, irrespective of one’s political leaning, once you have encountered Sir James Mitchell, it is an experience that you will not forget. He leaves an indelible impression on your mind as he challenges you to be your better self.” 

Wyllie said that when the news broke that Sir James had passed, there was “a deep and profound feeling of sadness and loss; and, as the reality sank in, it became clear that a giant had fallen, the likes of whom we may never see in St. Vincent and the Grenadines again.”

The former minister said he felt “privileged to have known and worked with” Sir James “and to have shared his wisdom and experience over those years.

“I have learnt a lot from Sir James, and, with gratitude I will say again, what I have said to him personally – ‘thank you, Sir James,’” Wyllie said. 

Sir James, a former Member of Parliament for the Northern Grenadines, died a few days after he was discharged from the Intensive Care Unit at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in neighboring Barbados, where he was transported to after falling ill at his home in Bequia, the largest and most northern of the Grenadine islands, on Oct. 30. 

The Office of Prime Minister Gonsalves said Sir James, who represented the Grenadines for a total of 33 years, was the multi-island state’s second prime minister, serving in that capacity from 1984 to 2000. He also served as premier from 1972 to 1974.

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