After long-time Virgin Islands Party leader Ralph O’Neal retired in 2015, Third District Representative Julian Fraser took the reins.
The result was a resounding 11-2 loss to the National Democratic Party in the 2015 election.
Now it’s Andrew Fahie’s turn. In 2016, Mr. Fahie, who has held the First District seat since 1999, wrested away the VIP’s chairmanship, and he is now leading the party into this month’s election without Mr. Fraser, who left to start his own party.
The VIP is the oldest existing political party in the VI and has won more general elections (six) than any other contender. The VIP held power continuously from 1986 until 2003, winning four consecutive elections, the territory’s longest streak.
The VIP most recently held power from 2007 to 2011, holding 11 seats out of 13. However, it was toppled by the NDP in 2011 and has been in the opposition since.
This election cycle, the VIP is the only party with a full slate of 13 candidates, including nine in districts and four at large. Mr. Fahie, however, is the only candidate with experience as a legislator.
The following interview was conducted, condensed and edited by Claire Shefchik.
Quickly, what are the top three accomplishments of your own record, either as member of a previous Cabinet or as member of the opposition, that you feel should make voters choose you?
As First District Representative, my biggest accomplishment is the investment in human capital of the district. As the opposition, what we did is push for accountability, transparency and good governance, and to make the people more aware of how the taxpayers’ dollars are being spent. In the past, the Virgin Islands Party has always been the party that helps everyone across the board to improve quality of life.
What were the VIP’s three biggest mistakes in recent years or the last time it was in office?
Failure to listen to the people; failure to address false information against us that ended up being people’s truth; and failure of not moving forward into the future.
You have experience in elected office, but there are many inexperienced candidates running with you. Why should voters take a chance on them?
Unelected doesn’t mean that you’re ineffective. So we have the most persons who have been in senior positions in the public service, from permanent secretary to deputy permanent secretary to assistant secretary, director of culture. You name it, we have it on our slate. We also have businesspersons on our slate. We have quite a number of educators on our slate. We have quite a number of go-getters on our slate. So we have a very good a balance in terms of experience in government and business.
In light of the threats to tourism and the financial services there have been calls to diversify the economy for years. What are the three most important things you would do to accomplish this?
The main thing that you have to do is stop the wastage and the pilferage of the resources that we have. I don’t think we have a money problem: I think what we have is an accountability problem, because we roughly make about $300 million a year and with $300-plus million times eight years, we have roughly $2.5 billion that we made in the last eight years in this administration term. The question is what do you see for it. The first thing to do is to put in measures to ensure accountability, transparency and good governance. That’s one way to help the economy.
The second thing is to make sure that we invest in our tourism product: make sure that there is an event at least once a month which will help the economy in many ways.
Another area: Start to look at the entrepreneurship part of it, in terms of agricultural and fishing. How do we modernise that to help our economy, and help our local businessmen to make it better for the territory? Because a country that cannot feed itself is a country on life support. So those are some of the key areas that we want to look at, as well as going into other areas of the financial services industry.
Which of the following measures do you support: A public register of interests for legislators and senior public officers? Freedom-of-information legislation? An ethics law? A whistle-blower law? Campaign finance reform resulting in a law that requires transparency about who is funding political parties?
The record would show that in the opposition I have been the one championing these for the past six years. So that’s why they are so high on the agenda. We want to make sure that all statutory bodies’ decision and resolutions are made public, because we need to bring more accountability to what these statutory bodies have been doing.
Most of these measures have been promised for years, including for several years when your party was in power and you sat on Cabinet. Why haven’t they been passed yet?
Just like you’re working in the paper, you’re not the head, so you can only recommend and champion the cause. Now being that I’m the head of the Virgin Islands Party, the buck stops at me, so I have to make sure that I practise what I preach.
How quickly can voters expect to see them pass if you become premier?
For safety I would say starting to pass within the first six months of office. Because the first thing that we have to do is get the clear picture of the what the true financial state of the territory is.
What grade would you give the government on its hurricane recovery efforts to date?
F. Obviously this government was paralysed. If it had not been for the private businesses or entities to step in to help, then the territory would not even be half of where it is. The leadership through the crisis was missing. We had cement that was donated to the people that didn’t get out to them; it actually got wet and was hard on the festival grounds. Materials were destroyed because [they weren’t] dispersed in a timely manner. Many persons who needed help still didn’t get help and still have not gotten help. They picked some isolated cases to make it sound good, but even when the floods came before the hurricanes, the UK ship came in to help and they refused the help, although they’re saying otherwise. So when it comes to handling crises overall, I give the government an F.
What specific steps would you take to remedy those mistakes?
First of all, we have to lead. We have to make decisions. Most of what is needed to help recover was around us: There were people willing to donate; people willing to come in and get involved with the repairs. For example, even the high school that’s there being cleaned up now: There were persons who volunteered every weekend to clean it up, and those who volunteered to finish cleaning the entire high school, but after a while [government] refused that help and turned around and paid a contract to clean something that people were willing to continue community efforts to clean, which would have allowed that to have been clean from not too long after Hurricane Irma. Which would have allowed the L-shaped building to already have been fixed. Which would have allowed the secondary school to have already been in an environment where they can go to school all day. Which would have reduced some of the negative social behaviour because of the hostile environment our students are in. So the main thing here is to lead. Leadership would have changed all those things. Good leadership.
We still don’t seem to have much money secured for the recovery effort — and a lot is tied up in the Caribbean Development Bank loan — which seems to be part of the reason why various projects haven’t moved for ward quickly or at all. Do you understand why not? What would you to do to ensure that money is available?
Poor financial stewardship. The books were not audited. No audited financial statements by government for the past seven years. These are some of the Achilles’ heels [that explain] why we can’t get the $65 million and why we can’t get the rest of the monies for the recovery, along with poor planning. The record will show that when they went for the $65 million, the government told the people that they were ready for that money, and I stood up in the House of Assembly and I said the CDB has some requirements that need to be fulfilled that I do not see how you’re fulfilling them, and you’re not ready for this money. It was a sham, trying to get that money when they did it without having the necessary paperwork. Now it has come home to roost, so we have paid out more than $300,000 in interest for that $65 million loan because they’re not ready. But they’ve drawn down $15 million already that isn’t used to do anything other than pay consultants.
In the future, where is the money going to come from? What would you do if elected to secure funding?
Before we go any further, we have to find out what we have. It sounds simple, but it’s very needed. We have to put measures in place that would allow persons who want to invest to help us; feel free to invest without the money not finishing and the project not finishing. It’s the lack of trust in the government that has us recovering far slower than we should be. No one blames what Irma did on the government, but they have to be held accountable for their actions — or in this case, and most cases, their inactions.
The House of Assembly passed a solid waste strategy in 2014 that promised a facility where trash can be sorted for recycling and a study on waste to energy strategies, among many other steps. Most of the policy’s goals have not been met. Can you explain why these measures were not carried out yet as promised? If you are elected, can the public expect this policy to be revisited?
I felt that when they were passing that policy they were passing it just to have it on the books but they did not make sure that the prerequisite that needs to be in place to have it passed was done. They need to have some funding for some of those areas. Having legislation or regulation is one thing, but if you’re passing them without necessary funding to make sure these stipulations, regulations and the legislations are met, then you’re kind of putting the cart in front of the horse. So we have to go back at the laws that were passed and put something in place to make it effective.
The policy does point out that the steps outlined in it would cost some $20 million. Where would you find the money?
We have to look, because again I said they passed something without a clue where they’re going to get the money from. But while they’re not funding that, they fund so many things other than that that could have gone toward that.
In 2003, [a United States federal court reportedly granted a request for judicial assistance regarding a criminal investigation] of you on suspicion of money laundering. While nothing was ever proven, some voters may still be concerned about this. Do you want to explain how you got caught up in the investigation? Do you acknowledge any mistakes or wrongdoing that led to the investigation?
First of all, the US government never investigated me. That is the biggest fraud ever, and I know for sure it was an NDP-driven matter. There’s a term called the [mutual legal assistance treaty] that you can always send to find out if persons have money abroad. Those are confidential documents, because you are dealing with allegations and in some cases accusations, so very rarely are they ever made public unless they find something. They can’t afford to damage people’s character. It happens right here in this territory almost every week: Probably I would say roughly about 25 to 50 are sent out [per week] and people do not know. This, coming into the elections of 2003, was a project I did not have anything to do with, and the aim was to destroy me politically. They [the NDP] are the ones who went and made it public. Every election they bring it up. So I cannot answer for something that I stated from day one in the media that if you do no evil, you fear no evil. So the US was responding to what the BVI government had asked.
You were in the opposition when the government signed a deal with BVI Air ways that ultimately saw taxpayers paying more than $7 million. Whose fault was it and where was the failure? If your party is elected, what do you plan to do to get to the bottom of it?
First, I don’t think anyone should elect any one of the five ministers of the NDP government till they deliver back our money for those planes. Here they are continuing to try to find out about a 15-year-old investigation they started with me. They knew that they didn’t have anything, but they created aspersions on my character. But now they have been in office for the past eight years and have $7.2 million of the treasury’s money. We have no plane, no money, no flights: Therefore we should have no NDP member that was involved.
We have to go and look into that matter to get back that money. $7.2 million could go far right now for the people of the Virgin Islands, and if we can’t get back the money somebody needs to be held accountable. It is appalling to me. It is a mystery to me, the kind of lack of accountability and transparency that I’ve seen in the last eight years, and there has been no serious investigation and no one being held accountable for the many, many wastes of public funds. That’s amazing to me.
What would your party do to prepare for the threats to the financial services industry? Do you agree with Premier Dr. Orlando Smith that the territory should comply with public registers only when it becomes an international standard?
The premier and I never agreed on that way forward. My position was always to ask for more time. When you ask for more time, then you have a chance to negotiate. You have a chance to also have certain decisions rescinded; you have a chance to do many things. So when I went with the premier to the UK to champion this cause it was always to ask for more time. Saying that you’re not going to do this until the others do this, to me that’s a far stretch for a country that doesn’t have an army looking for a war with the UK. We should ask for more time and do negotiations and work with the industry to come up with new areas, because there are new areas in financial services that will bring success, but somehow this government doesn’t intend to move in those directions.
What financial services areas would you like to see the territory get more into?
I won’t say that one yet because it’s a sensitive area and I don’t want any country to get hold of it before. But I would say in England it was brought up to the premier.
Do you support the planned extension of the Beef Island airport runway? If so, do you think it needs to be done right away, and if not then what is your timeframe on it?
I’m sensitive to the needs of the people in the tourism industry. They want to get the heads in the beds, as we say. But I’m also sensitive to the needs of the people. There are a lot of persons here who still have not recovered. Hotels have not recovered. It’s hard to find a hotel room even for the smallest of functions. So we have to find how we’re going to help our people recover before we decide that we’re going to put a project out that the true cost is $400 or $420 or $450 million. It’s not what they’re telling the people.
In the Recovery and Development Agency document, they actually put in $200 million or $250 million as the BVI’s contribution toward a public-private partnership without telling the people this. That means that the people, through the government, have already committed to this project with a loan. So how do you justify spending $250 million in that project at this time that’s roughly going to take three to four years, and the people are still suffering?
Eventually we must look about the runway expansion. But before I can commit right now I cannot ignore the needs of our businesspeople, our economy. And even if you do agree to the airport project, it’s a three to five-year project, so you have to come up with interim measures of getting people into the Virgin Islands. You must look at the ferry system. You must look at late-night ferry services. You must look at also sitting down with the local airline and saying, “How can we help your business so that you can help us to get connecting flights from the major hubs into here?” Look at other airlines: The efficiency of getting into the Virgin Islands is the problem. It cannot only be solved by the runway extension project because that will take some time. It’s again a cause for negotiation and proper leadership, so that’s how we’re going to address it.
Would you consider a public-private partnership for the runway extension?
For sure. We would consider those things.
Does that include the Chinese Communications Construction Company?
I can’t tell you who, because you see, once you put it out there you have to let the persons who are bidding and the people evaluating to help us decide. What I pray not is that they have already signed, and given the history of this government I will go out on a limb and say I, Andrew A. Fahie, think this government has already committed this country in some shape or form with some company to do that expansion project and have not told the people of the Virgin Islands. But I pray not.
If lots more planes do come, isn’t that a fundamental shift toward mass tourism? In general, do you support moving away from the VI’s traditional model of smaller scale tourism? Do you think the VI can handle mass tourism?
The BVI can handle anything once they plan. If mass tourism is what you want, because in our plans for tourism we have sports tourism, we have sportfishing, we have many other things that we have planned that we want to invest in the tourism product. So that is also going to help add to it. We also have certain conferences. There is a plethora of things that we want to do with tourism but we also know that the country goes as far as you have your people ready to go, so we have to make sure that we train our people, get them ready for the business opportunities, so that they can be developed and that the new mass tourism and the new economies don’t catch them off guard and we play catch up like what we did with financial services.
Do you believe that climate change is a major threat to the territory?
Definitely. Climate change is a major threat everywhere.
In 2012, Cabinet adopted a Climate Change Adaptation Policy. It included wide-ranging promises like a national development plan, wetlands protection, environmental legislation, an updated building code, and Physical Planning regulations, to name a few. Nearly seven years later, the great majority of those goals have not been met. What do you think should happen now?
We have to break down those plans into three phases: the low-lying fruits that we could do right away and those in the interim and those in the long term. Again, given the financial constraints that we may face, you have to look to determine what you can do. When you read that document there are lots of extensive initiatives to be done, so when you look at the [policy] that was passed in 2012 and you look at the waste management [policy] that was passed in 2014, and you look at other legislation, with the monies that are needed to do each of them, you could well be over $100 to $200 million. So now you have to look and see how to plan your way forward, be- cause some of those things, if not at all, have to be done in order for us to be a sustain- able territory, especially after disasters.
How do you envision the territory’s relationship with the UK moving forward?
Communication is always key, whether it be locally, regionally, internationally, family-wise, friends-wise. Communication is key, and respect for each other is key.
Do you support a constitutional review?
The last one was 2007, so we are now 12 years later. I think that every 10 years you should look at a constitutional review. It’s very important. We have many areas in the constitution that need reviewing, in terms of how the public service commission functions; in terms of certain things with the structure of how elections are, whether they have fixed dates. It cannot be coming from the government alone; it cannot become a political document. You have to go around the territory and the harness the ideas of people and make a position as a territory.
Do you believe the territory should ultimately become an independent country?
My view is that one of these days the BVI is going to end up independent, so what we should always do is make sure that we continue to mature ourselves so that when that times comes — probably long after I leave politics — that we would have conducted ourselves in a manner that would allow us to handle it. That’s why it’s important for a constitutional review in a timely period [and for] us to restore accountability, transparency and good governance; why it’s so important to ensure that elected officials are held accountable for the power which they have by other means than just by the governor or certain bodies that already exist, so that whoever is elected will think twice from becoming dictatorial in their behaviour.
Do you believe education has gotten short-changed, especially after the hurricane? If so, what specifically would you do to change that?
There have been some good things happening in education over the past few years. What has brought a distaste to my mouth is that the public relations of it make it seem like nothing good has happened to education from 2011 to present. That is a slap in all educators’ faces. I have seen an emphasis on education placed on persons who are at the higher grade levels, close to voting age, and a lot of the foundation work in education has been neglected. They [should] focus on the reading fundamentals so that our young people can get to those upper levels without needing as much assistance. One of the areas the Virgin Islands Party wants to get involved in is making sure each grade level is accredited. That will ensure that each and every grade level is accountable. That’s one of the main areas we want to do, and take the politics out of education.
There also tend to be politics involved in H. Lavity Stoutt Community College. What are your plans for the college?
The college is to the point now that we have to remove the political interference. There’s too much of it. And force the college now to fend for itself. They have to go and see about seeking some funding. Let it run as a college and move to the level of a university, and also offer online courses. Expand its borders without political interference.
What would you do to improve health care in the territory?
First of all, we have to make sure that we have better benefits for our health care workers. Second, we have to bring accountability to our health care system. From [National Health Insurance] across the board, there’s a lot of abuse going on. Some regulations have to be there. We have to open medical tourism. We have to allow for the BVI to [enter] certain niche areas that the whole world will come here. We have to ensure we continue to train our people in the health industry, and to be there to put the right people in the right places. That is going to take some stern leadership and some out-of-the-box thinking. We have facilities, but because of the lack of leadership it’s not being fully utilised to maximise what we can maximise.
East End/Long Look still doesn’t have a sewerage system after decades of promises, stretching back to when you were a minister. What were the previous challenges, and what would you do to overcome them and ensure that the project gets done? How soon?
This year will make 20 years since I was elected, but 12 of the 20 years I was in the opposition. The first time I got elected I spent four years in government and only one and a half of those as a minister. That was 1999 to 2003, and 2007 to 2011. The lack of continuity created some issues in many areas and sewerage was one. In 1999 to 2003 a contract was signed, then a new government came on in 2007 and another contract was signed. And in 2007 to 2011 we tried to deal with both of them. Then there were legal issues, and from 2011 to now they haven’t been sorted out.
Politics is the reason the people of the Virgin Islands don’t have a proper sewerage plant and don’t have running water. Good leadership would have stopped all of that. Had we worked at that time with the local company that was hired years ago to do the sewerage and the local companies that were here to do the water, and cut the politics out, this would have already been solved. Biwater would not be in the picture. Global Water would not be in the picture. Even the solution company that came out of nowhere with a no-bid contract would not be in the picture. Politics has caused these things not to be solved, and we have to cut the politics out.
How would you make sure that [your party] would not get political as before?
Because of leadership. I have no intention to stay the leader forever and I realise that you have a certain time on the stage to perform and I want to make sure that when I leave the stage, that even if you didn’t like everything I did, even if you didn’t like me, the respect would be there and the acknowledgement that the major issues were tackled.
Roads are another issue for the territory. What specifically is your overall plan for modernising the territory’s road network?
You had $16 million from the Social Security money that was used coming out of the last election — that I was totally against — and that is finished, and we have more potholes now than ever before. We just need a comprehensive plan. Even now with elections we see roads being paved. The thickness of the asphalt is not to the standard to last long. It’s an election fix and [when] the slightest heavy rains come those will create quick potholes out of those same paved roads. We continue going down the same road, looking for votes, looking to impress. We are wasting a lot of money. We have to get a comprehensive plan and get it engineered properly and get it done.
Slow Internet speeds are another common issue. What would you do to help speed up Internet?
If you do not get your Internet service up to par, you cannot play ball in the modern economy, so some very harsh decisions are going to have to be made and we intend to make them. It’s going to be similar to what we’re going to do with agriculture and seafood. We’re going to pass legislation and regulations and amend some to create targets. If these targets are not met, then someone has to answer more readily than what’s happening now. We have to interfere to get better for the people, because our aim is to have a digital economy. Poor Internet service is holding back our economy. The government must get involved. I don’t want to say what the strong way is yet, but we have the details.
Would you change the current government’s policy of not awarding residency until at least 20 years, and belongership after that? If so, how soon do you believe they should be eligible?
The 10 years for a work permit exemption was carried up to 20 by the current administration. They’re campaigning, telling the people of the Caribbean that they love them, but they have not shown the love. To have someone in your country 20 years or more, you can’t tell them to leave. Most indigenous persons get angry when they hear this, but the problem I tell them that I have with this isn’t that you’re bringing people in. They’re already here. They have children, grandchildren, and they’re already here, so you have to decide whether you’re going to give them the status or whether you’re going to create the anger that is continuing to develop in the country. They’re holding that anger for generations. We can as a government sit down with those same persons and say, all right, when we allow everyone who are law-abiding and help us, what do you see as a timeframe that would be comfortable? Should we bring it to 10 years? Should it be 15?
In spite of recent fee increases for work permits and promises to do better, work permits still often take months to process. What would you do to speed it up? Do you support the government’s recent step to expedite work permits for people who earn $100,000 and over?
That [measure] was done merely because the government is broke and they are looking for revenue. It was just sugarcoating the whole thing. You should not have to leave your work for a whole day to get work permits renewed or approved. You should be able to sit at your office with digitalisation and apply for these things and get them in a certain time. Government can say, if you want to fast track through the system, you can pay an extra fee. You can track your applications and don’t need to be going into Labour to look for the chief labour officer or the minister. That allows for accountability, efficiency and even more revenue.
Rents were already high before Irma, and they have spiked after. Do you have any specific plans to tackle the high cost of living?
The cost of living has a multi-prong approach. This government won’t touch them because a lot of them will be conflicts of interest for them. First of all we have to go out and negotiate better prices to get the shipping to the BVI. Just to get [goods] from the USVI here is sometimes $3,000 or $5,000 more. We have to [make] sure our ports’ turnaround time is quicker, so we have to look at 24-hour port facilities, how we would run on the shift system with public servants so we don’t have to be paying overtime and will be able now to work on reducing prices. We want to create more incentives for businesses, while at the same time pass the consumer protection legislation to protect people while making sure that the savings that you are passing on through businesses passes onto the customers. Businesses are struggling right now and the government is saying that they are in a partnership with the businesses, but making them pay for everything up front doesn’t seem like a good partnership to me. So some of the government fees by the ports, especially new businesses, have to pay upfront. [Under the VIP] the minimum fees you [will] pay upfront, but we’ll give you a timeframe to sell your product and then come back and pay the fees after.
We want to make the Virgin Islands a more business-friendly environment where the entity of government facilitates the economy rather than trying to run it, because government runs nothing well. That calls for looking over the construction industry because a lot of persons are [raising] the price, because they know there’s nothing to monitor them to bring it down. The average price to build a home goes up. The landlord has to pay for that, and pay for the room, so the only person who feels the heat is the common man now when he comes for the rent. There are a lot of areas in the cost of living to help our people, but that’s going to take, again, leadership and a government that’s dedicated.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I think we have to expand on our opportunities, restore hope in the Virgin Islands. We’ve got a lot of persons who are losing hope — hope in government, hope in general. This election is about restoring hope.
We want to make sure that our young people have access to lands with our land bank initiative. We want to make sure that the government can find other ways to make revenue through tourism other than increasing every tax known to man and every tax on businesses. Tourism, which is part of our economic plan, will help address those areas. We want to make sure, like I said, to restore accountability, transparency and good governance to stop the wastage — $2.5 billion after eight years and nothing meaningful to show. It’s quite a feat.
We want to make sure that we have something to show for the people that we can say the cost of living went down. We can say we restored good governance. So the election is not only about saying fancy things but making sure that what we say is achievable and that the quality of life of the people of the Virgin Islands improves. That’s what we’re about.