Country profile: St Vincent and the Grenadines
Indian Bay, a pretty stretch of beach where white coral sand meets volcanic black, plays host each morning to small groups of retired Vincentians seeking health, exercise and discussion. Several have returned from a working life abroad: predominantly the UK, US or Canada. Salaries back home in St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) are lower, but other aspects of life offer compensation.
St Vincent, the country’s largest island, known as ‘Mainland’ and home to over 90 per cent of the population, is blessed by nature. The La Soufrière volcano has erupted five times in the last 300 years: most recently in 2021, when it forced 20,000 of the island’s 100,000 people from their homes. Thanks to early warning systems and evacuation plans no-one was killed, and after an extensive clean-up, the eruption has left even more fertile soil and verdant land – a blessing for an economy dependent on agriculture in general and bananas in particular.
The French founded Kingstown, the current capital, in the early 18th century, leaving the east of St Vincent to the Garifuna, a mix of South American Caribs and escaped or shipwrecked West African slaves, who fiercely defended their land and independence. In 1763, the Seven Years’ War in Europe saw the island handed to the British. They sought the richer land of the island’s east, fighting two wars against the Garifuna. They were nearly defeated in 1795 by the forces of Joseph Chatoyer, the general who today is regarded as a national hero. But Chatoyer was killed in battle, his people rounded up and deported to Roatán, an island off Honduras, and the majority of the remaining Garifuna population was purposefully exterminated.
The British monarch still reigns, albeit over an independent state since 1979. The Unity Labour Party (ULP) – a merger between the more centrist Labour Party and the radical, pro-Cuban Movement for National Unity – has been in power since 2001. Despite its leader Ralph Gonsalves’s Marxist writings and association with revolutionary figures like Grenada’s Maurice Bishop, he has pursued milder social democratic policies in government. SVG is a member of the Hugo Chávez-founded ALBA alliance – but it also enjoys good relations with the UK, US, Canada and Taiwan.
Gonsalves sought to create a republic in 2009 but lost the referendum. The Windsors cannot rely on mass support, however. In April 2022, two minor family members visited the St Vincent to little fanfare and some protest. Most paid no attention. Royal influence is more visible in the Grenadines, the stunning chain of islands that run south of mainland towards Grenada. The most popular beach in Bequia is named after Princess Margaret, who used to holiday in nearby Mustique. These islands, which attract many tourists along with Western expat retirees, feel like a different country: insulated from St Vincent and connected to the global elite.
The government wants to bring more tourists to Mainland but has had limited success. With expensive imports greatly outweighing exports, increasing domestic production is a priority. Local food and drink – saltfish eaten with breadfruit is a staple – are affordable, as is public transport. The sole main road, a u-shape around the island, is home to vans, privately-operated minibuses like Nairobi’s matatus or Manila’s jeeps, that hurtle along blaring soca music. Mass gatherings were cancelled during the pandemic: the much-loved carnival Vincy Mas is set to return this year but only for the fully vaccinated. Vaccines are freely available but only a third of Vincentians have taken a shot.
Back in the waters of Indian Bay, whether the government will ultimately close Carnival to the unvaccinated is the subject of fierce debate. Its decision, as well as the development it can bring to the people, will shape the ULP’s chances of securing a sixth term in 2025.
LEADER: Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves
ECONOMY: GNI per capita: $7,300 (St Lucia $9,300, UK $40,300).
Monetary unit: East Caribbean Dollar (1 USD = 2.70 ECD).
Main exports: Bananas, arrowroot, fish, ground provisions (dasheen, yams), fruit and vegetables.
St Vincent and the Grenadines maintains a hugely negative balance of payments, importing many times the value of its exports.
POPULATION: 110,00. Annual population growth: 0.3%. Population density: 284 people per square kilometre (St Lucia 301, UK 281).
HEALTH: Under-5 mortality rate: 14 per 1,000 live births (St Lucia 24, UK 4). Maternal mortality per 100,000 live births: 68 (St Lucia: 117, UK 7).
ENVIRONMENT: The St Vincent ’mainland’ and five of the 32 Grenadines islands are inhabited. St Vincent contains mountains, dense forests, rivers, waterfalls and beaches and boasts an array of biodiversity. Temperatures hover in the high 20s year-round. Climate change poses a threat with rising sea levels a particular concern. The islands lie far enough south to be usually missed by major hurricanes moving through the Caribbean.
CULTURE: St Vincent and the Grenadines combines the cultural mix of the Caribbean with its Garifuna history. Relatively tucked away in the English-speaking Caribbean, it is more of itself and less homogenized than many cultures. Life is relaxed for many and supercharged by the local 86.4% proof Sunset rum, soca music, Vincy weed, cricket and football.
RELIGION: St Vincent and the Grenadines is a predominantly Christian nation (around 82%), with a small Rastafarian community.
LANGUAGE: English (official) and Vincentian creole.
HUMAN DEVELOPMENT INDEX: 0.738 (St Lucia 0.759, UK 0.932), rank 97 of 189 countries.
Income Distribution ★★★★✩
The island of St Vincent does not suffer from significant inequality, relative to other countries. While formal unemployment remains high, abundant food, shelter and access to land provide for most people. The Grenadines are another matter, with the hyper-exclusive Mustique and Canouan catering to a global elite.
96% of the population is literate, with children expected to undergo 14 years of schooling.
Life Expectancy ★★★✩✩
72.5 years. The country boasts abundant medical facilities and four training colleges, but healthcare is not free. Covid-19 deaths have been limited but vaccine uptake is only around one third.
Position of Women ★★★✩✩
Women are well represented in commerce and the professions, but politics is male-dominated. Abortion is illegal and women face barriers in a patriarchal society.
Vincentians enjoy freedom of speech, religion and association, as well as an independent judiciary and press. But the constitution does not grant them active socio-economic rights.
Sexual Minorities ★★✩✩✩
The LGBTQI+ community is not visible. While homophobic hate has been denounced by the government, same-sex sexual acts are illegal, a hangover from colonial rule.
Two WTO rulings, in 1997 and 2005, made banana exports to the EU more expensive, prompting government attempts to re-gear the economy towards tourism. The coming challenge is managing the transition from longtime leader Ralph Gonsalves to a younger generation. His son and finance minister Camilo and agriculture minister Caesar Sabato are frontrunners to lead the party into the 2025 election.
This article is from
the July-August 2022 issue
of New Internationalist.
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