2014 year in review: Caribbean rocked by Chikungunya

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chikungunya-740Peter Richards

BRIDGETOWN, Barbados, Tuesday December 30, 2014, CMC – Three general elections and continued socio-economic problems may have made the headlines in the Caribbean in 2014, but it was the Chikungunya virus, the mosquito borne disease that really caught the attention of the region over the past 12 months.

In addition, while no cases had been recorded, Caribbean countries were putting in place various measures to deal with the deadly Ebola virus that have killed more than 7,000 people in West Africa and spread also by the same mosquito responsible for the Chikungunya virus.

A crippling mosquito-borne virus with a tongue twisting name, Chikungunya first appeared in the Caribbean towards the end of 2013. But by the end of 2014, every Caribbean Community (CARICOM) country had recorded cases of the virus caused by the aedes aegypti mosquito that causes a dengue-like sickness.

Symptoms include a sudden high fever, severe pain in the wrists, ankles or knuckles, muscle pain, headache, nausea, and rash. Joint pain and stiffness are more common with Chikungunya than with dengue. The symptoms appear between four to seven days after the bite of an infected mosquito.

The Trinidad-based Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) warned the Caribbean has not yet felt the “full impact” of the disease.

“There is an estimate in excess of 600,000 cases in total, most of those being from the bigger countries like the Dominican Republic and Haiti with 37 deaths in total. So it continues to spread,” said CARPHA’s executive director Dr. James Hospedales.

Dr. Hospedales said that with a population of 17 million people, the region is still in the early stages of the virus, warning “the full bloom of Chikungunya virus is yet to come.

“I am saying because everybody in this part of the world and there is no resistance to this virus and we have an abundance of the vector and we have a lot of movement. In six months it has moved to all the islands and we can expect further increases in levels of cases because of what has happened elsewhere in the world where in some countries you find a 30 per cent attack rate of the entire population within a year or so.”

The situation forced regional leaders to hold a special summit in Trinidad and Tobago in November and at the end of the three hour deliberation, they outlined a series of measures to deal with both the Chikungunya and Ebola viruses.

“Heads of government expressed considerable concern, not just in relation to the possible health impact of the Ebola virus disease (EVD), but also about the disruption a single case could cause in the economic and social life of the region,” CARICOM Chairman Gaston Browne, the Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister said afterwards.

Browne said that the leaders had adopted a 10-point plan to deal with Ebola and a four point plan to deal with the Chikungunya virus with CARPHA coordinated the strategy that would have an international input.

“There must be a well-coordinated, continuous public education campaign on how the disease is spread, targeting the citizenry, travellers and tourism stakeholders,” said Browne, noting that the leaders had agreed that there must be a multi-sectoral approach to fighting the disease that would include education, tourism, media, local government and other sectors and capabilities, including private enterprises and explore the use of new technologies.

Regarding the Ebola virus for which there is no cure, some Caribbean countries took the unprecedented step of imposing a travel ban on nationals from three West African countries, namely –Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea.

Browne, defending the position, said “even if we end up with a single case of Ebola, it has serious consequences for our tourism product. Most of our countries are dependent on tourism and I can assure you that if any of our respective countries has a single case of Ebola then you can see potentially maybe a 30 to 50 per cent drop in tourism. That means immense hardship for our people.”

The Ebola virus may have been at the center of the decision by Suriname to back out of hosting the 100th session of the African Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Council of Ministers in November.

Paramaribo announced the cancellation of the November 3-4 event even though it said it was making all necessary preparations for the summit, including putting in place measures to prevent possible transmission of the deadly Ebola virus by visitors from West Africa.

As a result, the summit was held in Brussels in December and Guyana’s Ambassador to Belgium and the European, Dr. P.I. Gomes was elected as the new ACP Secretary General, replacing Alhaji Muhammad Mumuni.

Gomes will take office in March 2015 and Guyana’s Foreign Affairs Minister Carolyn Rodrigues-Birkett said “the ACP is at a critical juncture and experience and wise leadership coupled with patience are critical if we are to overcome the challenges.

“Ambassador Gomes possesses these attributes,” she said, adding “go now and serve the African, Caribbean and Pacific group with distinction as you have served your own country, Guyana”.

Gomes was not the only Caribbean person seeking a vote in 2014.

In Antigua and Barbuda, after 10 years in the political wilderness, Gaston Browne led the Antigua and Barbuda Labour Party (ABLP) to victory in the general election in June.

“It is evident that the people have spoken and they have spoken resoundly” Brown said reminding the nation that “the work has just begun (and) the reality is that this country is in dire straits and would require the efforts of the entire nation”.

Browne said he was determined to implement policies and measures that would make Antigua and Barbuda an economic powerhouse in the Caribbean.

“We have actually set an impressive vision for this country,” he said urging the nation that they should buy into the concept and not take the vision lightly.

By yearend, Baldwin Spencer, who led the United Progressive Party (UPP) administration was signaling his intention to quit politics. The UPP lost by a 14-3 margin to the ABLP in the June 12 general election.

“If we’d won the elections, I’d already indicated that I would not have completed the full term. I would have, at some point, demitted office to allow for the necessary transition to take place and for new leadership to emerge. The fact that we’re now in opposition doesn’t take away from that position…I’m even more strengthened in my view that that is what should happen,” he said.

In neighbouring Montserrat, the People’s Democratic Movement (PDM) led by Donaldson Romeo denied Premier Reuben T. Meade another five year term in office.

Romeo called for a united Montserrat as the new government promised to face the task of rebuilding the island battered by a volcano.

“There is nothing in that manifesto that we cannot do. I expect us to do even more,” he said, while Meade congratulated Romeo on a “well fought battle” during the September 11 poll.

Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit made it three in a row, when he led his Dominica Labour Party (DLP) to a 15-6 victory in the December 8 general election.

The victory was marginally smaller than the 18-3 majority he had enjoyed in the last Parliament and while the main opposition United Workers Party (UWP) claimed the polls had been stolen, Skerrit said he embraced the victory with “humility and introspection.

“We now have a smaller working majority in Parliament but we nevertheless have an overwhelming mandate to carry forward and implement the policies set forth in our manifesto.

“I would want to believe that in the debates in Parliament, support will be given where support is deserving, and constructive criticism will be levelled when merited”,” Skerrit saying reiterating the message he had been using on the campaign that “there is one Dominica”.

After months of speculation, voters in Guyana will know early in 2015 when they will go to the polls to elect a government after yet another year of political gamesmanship highlighted by a motion of no confidence filed against the Donald Ramotar administration by the minority opposition Alliance for Change (AFC) and supported by the main opposition grouping, A Partnership for National Unity (APNU).

President Ramotar prorogued the National Assembly in November after accusing the opposition parties that control a one seat majority in the 65-seat legislature, of putting their narrow political agendas ahead of Guyana.

By yearend, he was informing the nation that he would probably announce the election date in his New Years address or before Mashramani, an annual festival that celebrates Guyana becoming a Republic in 1970. It is usually held on February 23.

The St. Kitts-Nevis government, for yet another year, was able to deny the opposition legislators an opportunity to debate a motion of no confidence filed against Prime Minister Dr. Denzil Douglas in 2012.

But the opposition believes that the courts will hear arguments in 2015 as to why motion has not been tabled in the Parliament.

At a case management in October, the trial judge, Justice Marlene Carter set the dates January 19-20 for the matter to proceed.

In the French-speaking Caribbean country of Haiti, President Michel Martelly is ending 2014 hoping that his nominee for the post of prime minister will be accepted. But opposition legislators have already laid down conditions for accepting Evans Paul as the new prime minister to replace Laurent Lamothe who resigned in December.

Late November, Martelly announced the establishment of an 11-member Presidential Commission to help him deal with Haiti’s worsening political crisis as opposition demonstrators took to the streets to force him out of office.

Martelly met with several social and political groups in a bid to pave the way for the holding of the long-delayed election to renew two thirds of the 30-member Senate, the entire Lower Chamber and hundreds of local government bodies.

Out of the 30 senate members, only 20 remain in office, and amendments to an existing electoral law are required to facilitate the vote.

But six opposition legislators have consistently refused to attend the meetings of the Senate preventing the body from getting the required 16-member quorum needed to hold a session.

Political observers note that by January 12, next year, the Haitian parliament will become dysfunctional with only 10 senators left, while 16 is required to hold a session. The observers note that failure to elect the new Senators could result in President Martelly ruling by decree.

In April, the ruling MegaCombination coalition government in Suriname has booted out one of its members after accusing it of playing “blackmail politics”.

Leader of Pertjajah Luhur (PL) party, Paul Somohardjo, confirmed that his organization, which had six seats, was no longer a member of the coalition, leaving President Desi Bouterse with just a slender one seat majority in the 51-member National Assembly.

Bouterse’s National Democratic Party (NDP) holds 23 seats and former rebellion leader Ronny Brunswijk’s A-Combination (ABOP) has three seats, giving the coalition a slender majority in the Parliament. In 2012 the Niew Suriname party left the coalition.

The coalition People’s Partnership government in Trinidad and Tobago is preparing to face the electorate in 2015 and amid allegations by opposition parties of its intention to ensure victory by any means necessary, it successfully piloted the controversial amendment to the Constitution even as hundreds of citizens protested outside the parliament building.

The legislation allows for a two consecutive term for the prime minister, the right to recall legislators and perhaps the most contentious, the need for a run-off vote in the event that a candidate fails to acquire the 50 per cent of the votes cast in a general election.

The government said the legislation was influenced by the recommendations coming out of the 21 public consultations held by the Constitution Reform Commission (CRF) chaired by the Legal Affairs Minister Prakash Ramadhar.

Prime Minister Kamla Persad Bissessar, who sent two of her ministers packing this year, said she was prepared to face “political suicide” in getting the legislation approved, and dismissed critics of the bill as that “one lone voice crying like a wolf in the wilderness”.

“I’m prepared to face political harakiri – suicide – because I trust the people of Trinidad and Tobago,” she said.

Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley, meanwhile, called on nationals to “rise up” to protect democracy in Trinidad and Tobago claiming that the amendment to the Constitution was a recipe for disaster.

He said the bill was also designed o keep a government in power, even if it lost the general election.

“I would like to invite every citizen to rise up and join us with vigilance and conviction in protecting, again, our democracy,” he said in a television broadcast.
The Courts here also ruled as premature, moves by the minority Independent Liberal Party (IPL) headed by former national security minister Austin “Jack” Warner, for a judicial review of the legislation. The IPL has since said it would take the matter to the London-based Privy Council.

Voters in St. Vincent and the Grenadines are also likely to go to the polls ahead of the March 13, 2015 constitutional deadline, with the ruling Unity Labour Party (ULP) already announcing that Camillo Gonsalves, the son of Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves will contest the next general election.

Gonsalves, who is the foreign affairs minister in his father’s administration, will contest the East St. George constituency with his likely challenger being the former regional cricketer, accountant and attorney, Linton Lewis of the main Opposition New Democratic Party’s (NDP).

“I am overwhelmed …and I want to, with profound gratitude and humility and respect and love, say that I accept your nomination to be the next representative of the Unity Labour Party in East St. George,” he told supporters. The seat has been won by the ULP in the last three general elections.

Politics aside, the Caribbean continued to struggle economically with the Washington-based International Monetary Fund (IMF) indicating that economic activity in the Caribbean is expected to stay in low gear in 2014. It said growth remains tepid in most of the Caribbean and while the recovery in the United States and other advanced economies is expected to bolster export growth, lower world commodity prices and rising global funding costs are likely to weigh on activity across the region.

The IMF in its Regional Economic Outlook for the Western Hemisphere” is projecting regional growth of 2.5 per cent in 2014.

The Chile-based Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) also indicated that that Caribbean economies will grow to two per cent “which implies a recovery from the 1.2 per cent registered in 2013”.

Despite the gloomy economic forecast, the Barbados government, which instituted an austerity programme resulting in several thousand public servants being axed, said it would remain firmly committed to the strategy for growth and development on which it has embarked.

In fact, Bridgetown insists that “the strategy has already begun to show positive results”.

Prime Minister Freundel Stuart responding to the latest downgrade of the island’s long-term sovereign rating by the US-based rating agency, Standard & Poor’s, in December, said that the strategy is one “based on Barbados’ established competitive strengths in tourism, international business and finance, and food and beverages, and on the island’s potential for green energy.

“It is a strategy led by investment and outstanding entrepreneurship by the private sector, supported by government incentives and world class financial regulation and legal safeguards. The strategy is anchored on our fixed exchange rate to the US dollar, which is protected by an adequate cushion of foreign exchange reserves,” Prime Minister Stuart said.

For its part, the Grenada government which signed a three-year US$21.7 million Extended Credit Facility (ECF) programme with the IMF, called on trade unions to accept a three-year wage freeze.

“I want to appeal to all the Grenadian people to work with us, this is a national issue, this is not a political issue, we are about nation building, we have this long term plan to see Grenada out of this fiscal situation it is in, and at the end Grenada will benefit,” said the island’s Minister of Economic Development, Planning and Trade, Oliver Joseph.

In St. Lucia, Prime Minister Dr. Kenny Anthony enjoyed a bit more breathing space after the Trade Union Federation (TUF) accepted a three year wage freeze as his administration deals with a fiscal deficit of EC$76 million (One EC dollar =US$0.37 cents).

“The Federation conveyed to government its understanding of the current economic situation facing the country, and was ready to assist by making certain sacrifices towards alleviation of the situation,” the TUF President, Julian Monrose noted. But the Civil Service Association (CSA), which represents the majority of public servants here, said it would not be party to the accord.

Despite its economic challenges, Antigua and Barbuda made it clear that the 36-month Stand By Agreement (SBA) with the IMF in 2010 for an original amount of US$121.9 million failed to improve the economic situation and is partly to blame for stagnating the economy.

Prime Minister Browne said then that his administration would not be seeking to enter into a new agreement with the IMF and would be seeking a loan from Venezuela to repay the Fund.

While St. John’s was being critical of the Washington-based financial institution, the Portia Simpson-Miller administration in Jamaica continued its relationship with the IMF that said the island’s Extended Fund Facility (EFF), was on track and all programme targets were being met.

“The economic outlook is improving, activity is estimated to have expanded by about 1.8 per cent year on year during April – June 2014,” said Jan Kees Martijn, who headed an IMF mission to Jamaica in November.

But the IMF also advised the Jamaica government to enact another wage restraint programme in order to meet the country’s planned 2015/16 budgetary targets.

“A key component to achieving the fiscal targets will be securing a new multi-year wage agreement, and the Government of Jamaica is now actively engaged with employee representatives to reach an agreement that facilitates achievement of the targeted wage bill of nine per cent of GDP,” said a statement published on the IMF website on December 23 by Serge Dupont, IMF executive director for Jamaica, and Trevor Lessard, alternate executive director.

For its part, St. Kitts-Nevis became the first Caribbean country to repay, ahead of schedule, US$17.1 million in obligations to the IMF.

Acting Financial Secretary, Mrs. Hilary Haze said the money in question “was granted as part of the Stand-By Arrangement (SBA) support by the IMF for a specific reason and that reason is to support the banking sector in the event that something was to go wrong as a result of the restructuring, as a result of going through the programme”.

In July, the IMF said the payment made on June 24, was about one fourth of the US$73.1 million that the twin-island Federation borrowed from the IMF under its SBA.

The drastic decline in global oil prices, while welcomed by Caribbean oil importing countries, meant however, financial problems for Port of Spain, with the Finance Minister Larry Howai indicating that Cabinet would soon decide on measures to deal with a declining revenue stream brought about by the rapid decline in the price for oil on global market.

Trinidad and Tobago’s 2015 national budget is based on a reference price of US$80 per barrel of oil and a gas price of US$2.75 cents per mnbtu. But in recent months, oil prices had dropped from a high of US$102.90 cents a barrel to below US$55 a barrel.

As the Caribbean continued to deal with the impact of the global economic crisis, several foreign owned banks, such as CIBC First Caribbean International, Scotia Bank and Royal Bank of Canada announced the closure of several branches in the region, resulting in several layoffs.

In July, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe became the first Japanese head of government to visit the Caribbean and announced a US$15 million programme to help regional countries cope with the impact of climate change.

The “Project for Japan-Caribbean Climate Change Partnership” will help Guyana, Grenada, Jamaica, Suriname, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, St. Lucia, Dominica and Belize build the capacity to cope with climate change.

The economic situation in the Caribbean was not being helped by the illegal migration of people and in the case of the Bahamas, Nassau strongly defended its immigration policy that critics claim is “unconstitutional” and dehumanising.

The policy came into effect on November 1 and calls on foreigners to show evidence that they have permission to live or work in the country.

Foreign Affairs and Immigration Minister Fred Mitchell said that he wanted to debunk the allegations made against the new policy, noting that the reputation of The Bahamas was being tarnished.

“Nothing is more important to us than that in the international arena, whether in the hemisphere or in the sub region or around the world. Reputation is everything. The respect which we have around the world depends upon our reputation,” he told the Organisation of American States (OAS).

But by yearend, the government was forced to defend allegations that it was herding illegal migrations in a cage like “cattle”.

President of the Grand Bahamas Human Rights Association (GBHRA), Fred Smith, said in light of the recently-surfaced image showing suspected illegal immigrants penned in a mobile enclosure more suited to the transportation of livestock than human beings, the GBHRA was demanding that Mitchell gave “a satisfactory explanation of the behavior of public servants under his charge”.

But the Bahamas was not the only Caribbean country complaining about illegal immigrants. Trinidad and Tobago’s National Security Minister Gary Griffith said that the oil rich twin island republic was now the home for an estimated 110,012 illegal immigrants.

He went as far as inviting Jamaican officials to Port of Spain for talks after saying there were an estimated 19,000 illegal Jamaicans residing there and “these people are dependent on State resources such as education and health care, may be employed and are not subject to taxes, which amounts to a loss of revenue of over $1 billion (One TT dollar =US$0.16 cents) per annum”.

In December, the government spent TT$2.6 million in charting an aircraft to fly home 12 illegal Ghana nationals.

Attorney General Anand Ramlogan said that it was “mischievous, malicious and very dangerous” for allegations to be made that the Indo-dominated government was also engaged in racial profiling in the deportation of illegal immigrants.

Dino Bouterse, the son of Suriname’s President Desi Bouterse is before a United States court on drug related charges, terrorism and weapons trafficking allegations following his arrest in Panama in August.

Manhattan District Attorney Preet Bharara said that Bouterse was planning to support the Hezbollah, the Shi’a Islamic militant group and political party based in Lebanon, in launching attacks on the United States.

If found guilty of the terrorism charge, the President’s son could face 15 years in prison, in addition to the mandatory minimum term of 40 years in jail if he is convicted on the weapons and illegal drugs charges.

President Bouterse was also facing his own legal battles in 2014 as he made another effort to have dismissed the conviction and jail sentence imposed on him in absentia by a court in the Netherlands.

His attorney, Inez Weski, said that his client has filed an appeal against the 11-year jail term handed out by the court here in 1999.

She said that Patrick van L., the Belgian who had given incriminating statements against Bouterse has since recanted his story and for years has tried to clean the President’s slate.

Former president Jean Bertrand Aristide has been prohibited from leaving Haiti as law enforcement authorities probe allegations of corruption, misappropriation of public funds and drug trafficking during his 2001-4 presidency, immigration officials have confirmed.

Aristide and several of his former colleagues have been accused of embezzling hundreds of millions of dollars from the State treasury through his Aristide for Democracy Foundation and other organizations.

The Jamaican Dance Hall artiste, Vybz Kartel was jailed for life after he was found guilty on March 13 for the murder of Clive ‘Lizard’ Williams.

Kartel, whose real name is Adjidja Palmer, was charged along with Shawn Campbell, Kahira Jones and Andre St John. He will serve 35 years in jail before he becomes eligible for parole, while Campbell and Jones will serve 25 years, and St John 30.

Police say Williams was killed over the disappearance of two missing firearms. His body has not been found.

In 2014, the region bade farewell to several prominent people such as former Trinidad President ANR Robinson, former Haitian president Leslie Manigat, Caribbean academic, Professor Norman Girvan, Jamaica’s fourth head of state, Sir Howard Cooke, the assassinated Trinidad and Tobago attorney Dana Seetahal, Jamaica’s Agriculture Minister Roger Clarke and the Barbadian religious minister Dr. Holmes Williams.

In addition, former Bermuda premier, Sir David Gibbons, former St. Lucia Education ministers Louis Bertrand George and Hunter J. Francois, the former member of the Regional Judicial and Legal Services Commission Dr Joseph Archibald QC, former St. Lucia High Court judge, Suzie d’Auvergne, former president of the OECS Bar Association, Hilford Deterville and veteran Grenadian journalist Leslie Pierre, all passed away in 2014.

The music world also bade farewell to William Clarke, the leader singer of the world renowned Jamaican reggae group, Third World.

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