Major Vincentian diplomatic shake-up

Declaring that changes are good for the nation, St. Vincent and the Grenadines’ Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sir Louis Straker, says the administration of Prime Minister Dr. Ralph E. Gonsalves has made several diplomatic changes to its overseas offices.

Sir Louis said that, while the recommendations must be confirmed by the Public Service Commission and signed off by Gov. Gen. Sir Frederick Ballantyne, the changes are necessary and are aligned with the government’s policy of not keeping any diplomatic representative indefinitely in any position.

“The Cabinet feels, sometimes, we keep people in office for too long,” the foreign affairs minister told Caribbean Life, in an exclusive interview on Saturday, ahead of the administration’s diplomatic week, which began the next day.

“I think we have to make changes,” he added. “Sometimes, changes are for the better.”

Sir Louis disclosed that Howie Prince, the head of the National Emergency Management Organization (NEMO), will replace New York Counsel General Selmon Walters, who has been under fire for what observers alleged is his mismanagement of the New York Consulate General that provides consular services to the largest concentration of Vincentians in the Diaspora.

The deputy prime minister said Walters, a former government minister in the Gonsalves administration, will officially demit office by end-August.

He described Walters’ successor as possessing “outstanding” managerial skills and experiences, adding that Prince “will be good for the country.”

Walters’ departure comes about 2 ½ years after a major scandal erupted at the New York Consulate General involving Walters’ deputy, Edson Augustus, a former Seventh-day Adventist Church pastor, who was recalled on Feb. 5, 2014, because of what the government said were “activities outside the scope of his employment and inimical to interests of the Consulate General and the government and people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines.”

In the wake of the scandal, Opposition Leader, Arnhim Eustace, called on the government to overhaul the New York Consulate General, stating that the negative image of the New York Consulate General must be immediately changed.

That “overhaul”, Eustace, a former prime minister, said should involve Walters, saying that the alleged “scandal” had taken place on his watch.

Additionally, during a town hall meeting at the Friends of Crown Heights Educational Center in Brooklyn in May 2014, Eustace and Opposition Member of Parliament for Central Kingstown, Sen. Maj. St. Clair Leacock, accused the government of corruption and of running an inefficient economy.

Leacock was particularly scathing in his attack, pointing to two documents, “Report of the Director of Audit” and “Audit New York Consulate” to corroborate his allegations.

Caribbean Life had received a copy of both documents and noted that, in the latter, the Office of the Director of Audit in St. Vincent and the Grenadines described as “extremely disorganized” and “devoid of important supporting documentation” records presented by the New York Consulate General for an audit conducted on the Consulate’s accounts for the period, Aug. 2011 – Aug. 2013.

The report on the audit was conducted from Sept. 9-21, 2013. It said the audit was performed to assess the extent of compliance with finance regulations and other rules governing public sector expenditure.

The report said that because of disorganization and lack of “important” supporting documents, the scope of the audit was “limited,” adding that “as such, significant errors and irregularities may not have been detected.”

Significant findings of the audit, however, pointed to, among other things, “several shortcomings highlighted in the previous audit report” not being addressed; quarterly allotment remitted to the Consulate not transmitted on a timely basis; no monthly expenditure summary to reflect the expenditure incurred for the period under review; and no bank reconciliation statements prepared for the operating and passport accounts for the same period.

But, even with Augustus’ long departure, Vincentians, in some quarters in the Big Apple, have reportedly been displeased with Walters’ performance. Some also said he was “heavy-handed” in dealing with Augustus’ successor, Sehon Marshall, who, himself, had received a “hot baptism” prior to his appointment for condescendingly referring, on local radio, as a talk show host, to some nationals in New York as, among other things, “dog walkers.”

Subsequently, at a town hall meeting at the Friends of Crown Heights Educational Center, Walters announced, and new government minister Camillo Gonsalves, a former foreign affairs minister, confirmed that Marshall was transferred to the St. Vincent and the Grenadines’ Mission to the United Nations.

Sir Louis said that Marshall, now a Minister Counsellor, will be among new appointments at the Mission, as the administration seeks to “boost” the office ahead of its application for non-Permanent Membership on the United Nations Security Council in 2019.

He disclosed that Marsena Ballantyne, the former aide to the Ambassador to the UN, I. Rhonda King, has been promoted to minister counsellor, and that another minister counsellor will soon be appointed.

“We have to beef up our staff [at the Mission],” Straker said. “We have to show that we’re involved in various organizations of the UN.”

But, even with the shake-up, the deputy prime minister said King will remain in place.

Straker said Prince will serve without a deputy, but will work alongside Bernadette Ambrose-Black, current head of SVG Invest, as the new trade attaché.

Sir Louis said Ambrose-Black’s primary role will involve generating “business for the country” — a task Eustace had told Caribbean Life that a New Democratic Party (NDP) administration would pursue if it had assumed office.

The deputy prime minister said Chief Education Officer Lou-Ann Gilchrist will replace La Celia Prince as ambassador to the United States and the Organization of American States (OAS). Prince departed last year to assume a position with the Washington, D.C.-based OAS.

Omari Williams has been acting as charge d’affaires since Prince’s exit. Gilchrist will adopt her new office on Sept. 1, Straker said.

In Canada, he said Counsel General Fitzgerald Huggins will remain in place; but, in the United Kingdom, High Commissioner Cenio Lewis, of Calder, will serve for another year.

“We’re considering a number of things,” said Sir Louis without elaborating.

In Havana, Cuba and Caracas, Venezuela, the foreign affairs minister said that Ambassadors Dexter Rose and Andreas Wickham, respectively, will be recalled.

Straker did not say who will replace Wickham, but disclosed that Ellsworth John, a former ambassador to the U.S. and OAS, will succeed Rose on Oct. 1.

Wickham will return home next June, said Straker without disclosing what new assignments will be given to Rose, Wickham, Lewis and Walters.

More from Around NYC