St. Vincent and the Grenadines: A Young Ambassador Makes Her Mark
A cluster of 32 islands in the Caribbean, St. Vincent and the Grenadines is one of the smallest nations in the world but has one of the longest names. Just twice the size of Washington, DC, SVG, as it is sometimes called in abbreviation, is home to some 118, 500 people.
One of seven members of the Organization of East Caribbean States (OECS), SVG is represented by an attractive and dynamic lawyer, La Celia A. Prince. Previously the second ranking diplomat at the embassy on New Mexico Avenue, she was promoted to ambassador by the Government of Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves in April 2008.
In a recent interview, the ambassador told DiplomaticTraffic.com about her work in Washington and the priorities for her mission.
Ambassador Prince sees one of her primary roles here as promoting investment in her country. This is the main goal of the SVG government’s strategy to diversify the economy and move away from a narrowly focused dependence on tourism and the export of bananas. SVG already has a financial services sector, which it wants to expand, and it also wants to develop its ICT, agro-processing and light manufacturing sectors as well.
A major obstacle to economic development has been the lack of an international airport. The ambassador noted that to get to SVG now, travelers have to fly via St. Lucia, Barbados or Trinidad and Tobago. And since getting to those destinations from the United States can mean changing planes at hubs in Miami or Puerto Rico, a trip from most US cities takes a whole day and requires two layovers.
She said that an international airport is under construction, and will be operational in 2011. This should have a huge impact on flows of tourists and businesspeople. To get the airport built, SVG is receiving assistance from a wide range of countries, including Austria, Cuba, Malaysia, Mexico, Taiwan, Trinidad & Tobago and Venezuela.
“We have to think strategically,” the ambassador said in describing how SVG plans to take advantage of the airport.
For tourists, who already number some 200,000 a year, SVG is offering a range of destinations, from the traditional sand, sun and sea of the Caribbean, to ecotourism and health/wellness tourism. “We are a complete package,” she said. “We have destinations that are second to none.”
Investors, on the other hand, could take advantage of the inexpensive but skilled and highly-trained labor force, tax concessions, repatriation of capital, a stable economy as well as a stable, democratic political environment.
The ambassador pointed out that in many respects her country is fertile territory for investors, offering many areas in which new investors can be the first in a sector or industry.
A core strategy is to add value to agricultural products. “We want to start adding value to what we produce, in order to target a higher-end market,” she said.
For example, the Taiwanese, who have an Agricultural Mission in SVG, have developed a range of innovative agriculture-based products, and are “making wonderful things,” the ambassador said. These include a fudge made from sweet potatoes and pepper sauces. SVG grows Arrowroot, from which starch can be made, and grows coconut palms for coconut oil.
For many years bananas were the main export, but when preferential agreements with the European Union expired, SVG lost its competitive edge and the industry has suffered since. “We learned never to put all your eggs in one basket,” the ambassador said, “and this is why the diversification of the economy is of the utmost importance.”
In this regard, she is concerned about a bill in the Senate, S.681 the Stop Tax Haven Abuse Act, sponsored by senators Obama, Levin and Coleman, that targets Americans with companies and/or bank accounts in states that offer tax incentives in an effort to clamp down on tax evasion. The law, if passed, would impose restrictions on US financial transactions with 32 countries that are perceived to be offering Americans unregulated financial services.
Ambassador Prince said there is no good basis for SVG to be included on this list. It has since the late 90s regulated its financial services sector in a manner which adheres to the strictest compliance codes of the OECD (Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development) and FATF (Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering) and is currently not on any watch-lists of any international regulatory bodies.
She has met with legislators on the Hill to make representations that S.681 would impose harmful restrictions on SVG’s financial services sector, and work against the desirable objective of the United States assisting the economic development of the Caribbean.
There are several issues that are of particular interest to the ambassador. One of them is boosting the educational opportunities for SVG citizens. There is no university in the country, and higher education students have long benefitted from scholarships to study in other countries. One of the most successful such programs has been provided by Cuba, which has trained so many doctors and nurses from SVG that the small nation is able to consider offering some of these professionals to other countries in need, especially in Africa.
Prime Minister Gonsalves is making education a top priority, and building a number of schools. As far as tertiary level education is concerned, the ambassador is seeking out scholarship opportunities for as many SVG students as possible to study in America.
One unique connection SVG has with part of its Diaspora community is through the Garifuna culture, which got its start on St. Vincent in the 1700s when a population of indigenous Caribs and African slaves inter-married, giving birth to the Garifuna peoples. When exiled from St. Vincent and the Grenadines in 1795 by the French colonialists, they first moved to Roatan Island, now part of Honduras, but later some of these ‘Black Caribs’ moved on to several other Central American countries.
In 2009, to mark the 30th anniversary of the nation’s independence, SVG will host a Homecoming celebration for all Vincentians living in the Diaspora. One element of this Homecoming will be a Garifuna reunion for Garifuna descendants, who regard St. Vincent and the Grenadines as their spiritual homeland. The ambassador said that it is hoped the occasion will bring about a rebirth of SVG as the center of Garifuna culture, something of value to the country and of interest to tourists.
SVG is also developing energy alternatives, including wind, solar and geothermal. A major volcano last erupted in 1979, the year of SVG independence from Britain, and it is hoped that, rather like Iceland, SVG can tap into the earth’s heat to produce energy for commercial and residential uses, as well as for export.
Ambassador Prince said that she is one of a group of young citizens whose talent and potential the prime minister and his government have tapped in an effort to keep young people front and center of the nation’s development, as well as to ensure that this talent is not lost through migration to other countries. Among other youthful appointees are the deputy speaker of parliament, three senators and the country’s Ambassador to the United Nations. “If you don’t use them you lose them,” she said simply of SVG’s up and coming professionals.
The ambassador studied law in Barbados, Trinidad and Cambridge, England, and as a lawyer is interested in international trade negotiations. Shy to reveal her age, but admitting that she is indeed the youngest Ambassador currently accredited in Washington, she has found that her youth is no impediment to her being able to effectively represent her country and that she has been very well received and regarded so far.
Biography of H.E. La Celia A. Prince
Ambassador La Celia Prince was born in Kingstown, St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
In 1999 she obtained an LLB (with honours) from the University of the West Indies in Barbados and then went on to gain her Legal Education Certificate from the Sir Hugh Wooding Law School in Trinidad, qualifying as a lawyer in 2001. In that year, she was enrolled at the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court (St. Vincent and the Grenadines) as well as the Supreme Court of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. Ambassador Prince first practiced as a Barrister-at-Law and Solicitor in St. Vincent and the Grenadines before going off to do Masters studies in Law at Cambridge University.
Her experience in the international sphere includes a diverse exposure. In 2003, through a technical cooperation agreement between the Caribbean Regional Negotiating Machinery (CRNM) and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), Ambassdor Prince took up a Fellowship in multilateral trade negotiations. She was assigned to the CARICOM delegation at the Secretariat of the Free Trade Area of the Americas in Puebla Mexico, followed by a brief stint at the World Trade Organisation in Geneva, Switzerland.
At the end of this assignment she worked at the Secretariat of the African Caribbean and Pacific Group of States (ACP) in Brussels, Belgium on matters pertaining to multilateral trade and development, and in particular the negotiations of the Economic Partnership Agreements between ACP countries and the European Union. Her final assignment in Belgium was as a consultant with the Caribbean Regional Negotiating Machinery where she focused exclusively on CARICOM-EU trade and development partnership.
Arriving in Washington DC in September 2005 she has served as Minister Counsellor at the Embassy of St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Alternate Representative to the Organisation of American States (OAS), working on bilateral agreements between St. Vincent and the Grenadines and partners in Latin America, as well as actively participating as a delegate of the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Government in various multilateral trade fora.
Ambassador Prince also speaks French and Spanish.