After arriving just 16 days before Hurricane Irma devastated the Virgin Islands in 2017, Governor Gus Jaspert has since been largely focused on the territory’s recovery and the Covid-19 pandemic. He concludes his term later this month.
Bermuda Governor John Rankin will be replacing him, bringing more than 30 years of experience in public service.
Mr. Jaspert’s initial three years came to an end in August, but his appointment was extended so the change in leadership wouldn’t occur amid the unprecedented challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic and unusually active hurricane season.
Last week, Mr. Jaspert spoke with the Beacon about his time serving as governor during a historic hurricane and pandemic, as well as other issues facing the territory.
It’s been a pretty interesting term bookended by the 2017 hurricanes and now the pandemic. Looking back, what do you think are some of the most important moments of progress that we’ve made in the hurricane recovery? And what are some of the priorities that we have to tackle in 2021?
It hasn’t been a quiet time in the territory at all. As I look back, the biggest thing at the beginning was the hurricanes. We should be incredibly proud as a territory of where we’ve got to from that point of complete devastation in 2017. I’ll never forget looking out of the window, walking the streets, seeing everything gone. Absolutely everything.
My role in it was really boosted simply by the most important thing, which was the resilience of the people of the territory when it was so catastrophic. When everything was down, I saw the best of BVI come out and I saw people support each other. They assisted whether they were belonger or non-belonger, or whether they were white or black, whether they were religious or not.
They all just got together and supported each other, and if they had a bit of spare food, they shared it and if they had a house, they shared it.
That was, I think, the strongest and best moment I’ve seen, and it lasted a while. My role in that was minimal. I was riding a crest in a wave of fantastic people in BVI. I think that allowed us to get through the immediate stages of the hurricane, the hurricane itself.
Then in the immediate aftermath when we faced humanitarian issues, we faced real security challenges, I had to bring in a lot of [United Kingdom] support. We had over 350 military personnel. We had hundreds of UK police and prison officers and other overseas territories’ support. We had millions to support us to get over that and then move into long-term recovery.
I’m incredibly proud of our public service as well. We have a strong public service. It’s different to the US system: We are an impartial public service here; it shouldn’t be politicised.
I saw the best of the public service come out after the storms when we had a race to get power back on, to get water back. People just got to work, even though the buildings were completely destroyed, the admin complexes destroyed, etcetera.
Then really when I look back at that time, the other part was the strength of the partnership with the UK.
We saw a huge amount of support from the UK to help us stabilise and get back onto our feet, which was big. About 25 percent of the power was put back on by UK contractors or [UK-funded] contractors. We had support for building houses, rebuilding recreation centres, repairing our police stations, and building that long-term recovery agency.
People can forget how huge of a job it was to get things like electricity and water back online in such a short time span. It is easy to forget that. The other reflection from that time was that it was the whole of the Caribbean hit at once. When we were trying to get electricity poles, you’re competing against the US companies as well. So that was one of the key things behind the scenes that the UK were doing and my team were doing with the government here. Just how do we secure poles? How do we get contractors?
It was actually UK-funded linesmen from Canada, because they’re more used to doing hills, to come down and have electricity back on and get new reservoirs put up in place as well.
I’m sure it wasn’t easy to jump into that role of trying to manage these negotiations when you’re very new.
Indeed. My first or second Cabinet was in the basement of Peebles Hospital, with a foot of water around our feet. We were doing it in an emergency.
And you have to make tough decisions sometimes: the decision to declare a state of emergency, the decision to evacuate Anegada before I’ve even been there. There’s lots of politics; there’s lots of various things that will get picked up all the time.
But I hold this true of my team: that we’re just guided by what we think is the best interest of people [of] the territory.
Looking forward? We enter 2021 at a key point, where in the pandemic we have our borders reopening and we need to make sure that we manage that effectively and we keep our territory safe from the health risks. There’s hope, I believe, and I think it will be a year of hope on the health and the pandemic side.
The UK have agreed to fund vaccine deployment for BVI, which is fantastic news, and there’s the excellent news over the new year that the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine got approval, and so can start being rolled out soon, which will include the BVI as well.
That one’s a lot easier. Essentially the Pfizer one had to be stored at minus 70 degrees. It was very difficult to transport. The Oxford AstraZeneca one can get out through our normal health care systems, which is really positive.
For me, obviously I will be transitioning out of here. But for the territory as a whole, I would say in 2021 there’s a real opportunity to take a big step forward on improving governance. We have so, so, so much to be proud of as a territory. I talked about some of that: our public service, our institutions, our incredible people, our businesses.
For a small island, we have some of the best athletes in the world, we have some of the best musicians, we have some incredible artists, we have businesspeople. We need to make sure that nothing holds people back.
We have [to hold] governance at the highest standard. I have concerns; things have been presented to me. How do we ensure that the territory isn’t held back, and we take action to improve the governance of the territory?
So what can we do to support a new governor coming in and promote transparency in government? What can we see from both the UK and the VI? And does that include any sort of supporting legislation?
Really this is an issue for everyone in the territory. I went public with some of the things that people have been speaking to me about: concerns about intimidation; concerns about contracting; concerns about lack of transparency and accountability. Whether it’s myself, whether it’s the premier, whether it’s any public servant, they’re solely here to serve the people of the territory, and so for people to feel comfortable to talk about how we improve the territory is really important.
It concerns me that there’s reports of people being intimidated or trying to be silenced. We need to ensure that we keep this line of conversation and people feel confident to speak out, including the media. If you’re in a public role, you need to be held to account, full stop.
It doesn’t mean everyone will agree with you; that’s a different issue.
But then we also need to look at our institutions. I’m having ongoing conversations about how we support our institutions here to ensure that they can investigate any areas, and that they are supported to investigate any areas where we are falling short. Allegations passed to me will need to be looked at as well.
There are areas that we need to do to improve the legislation of the territory. I firmly believe that the territory should be as self-determining as it wants to be. That is not just my personal position: It’s also the position of our Constitution. It’s also the position of the UK as well.
Self-determination doesn’t mean the UK just backs off or the governor just goes quiet or the people go quiet. Self-determining actually means that people have the power.
That means we need the legislation to support them with that: procurement laws; ministerial codes, so it’s transparent about how ministers operate and the arrangements they have; a human rights commission, for if people are feeling their human rights are denied; more media freedoms so that the media are never faced with concerns about how they may report on something; legislation to protect against poor governance.
I talked about the Integrity in Public Life Act and I’m pleased that we’re trying to make progress moving on that.
But these are things that have been long, long, long talked about. 2021 really should be the year where we stop talking about them and we take action to deliver.
Is there anything in particular you’d want to focus on with the media freedoms? Anything in the digital sphere? I know that’s been a big area of concern. Or is it a more general promotion of media freedoms?
I think it’s a more general thing that for me is really important, not just about media, but any society — in particular with a small society like in BVI. It’s a small territory, and people know each other. I’ve had concerns passed to me about people speaking out and then being intimidated or targeted after that. I think there are things that the media themselves can do as well to think how they operate and help to promote strong voices. That’s something that I’m keen to do if there’s anything I can do to support it.
Looking at some of these more specific infrastructure issues we’ve talked about with hurricane recovery, like the East End/Long Look sewerage project, what sort of measures can we put in place to make sure that these are done in as timely a fashion as possible?
This is why I talk about and care so much about good governance. Because BVI is a rich territory. At the moment, we’re going through a very difficult period. I know that many people will be hurting and there will be many people suffering economically. But as a general picture, we shouldn’t undersell ourselves. We are a territory that is successful economically and has a well-funded public service; we have well-funded infrastructure.
However, we sometimes fall short. Anyone who drives down the road, it doesn’t take long to realise we fall short. That infrastructure is really important.
When we look at some of these major projects that deliver that infrastructure, and when I go back to the auditor general’s reports, we see that often contracts are being interfered with. There’s been contract splitting; there’s been overpricing; there’s been political interference; there’s been a lack of transparency about how this money has been spent.
I could focus on, “Let’s fix the patch of road outside Government House; that’s got a couple of holes in it.” And it would solve the patch of road outside Government House or outside wherever it is.
But we shouldn’t tolerate potholes. We shouldn’t tolerate power going out. We shouldn’t tolerate problems with sewage, or things being pumped out sometimes in the sea. We are a successful territory that spends a lot on its infrastructure. So if we get the governance part right — if we are spending in an accountable, transparent way always, and we’re doing it through effective project management — it won’t always be perfect, but we can switch it so that actually the vast majority of the time we’re doing these things right.
It’s one of the measures you can put in place to set yourself up for success the majority of the time?
Exactly. That, I think, is the root to how we solve those specific infrastructure issues. Now we had a bit of this, and I applaud both the previous and current executive of the Recovery Development Agency. Part of what the RDA was to do was to say, “We’ve had a catastrophic hit — it was the longest lasting recorded Atlantic hurricane in history: We’ve got to have a world-beating recovery to it.” Because we don’t want to be 10 years down the line still doing recovery. There was lots of noise about the RDA, but for me the key thing was we had private donors, we had the UK as well, and we had our own government. We had lenders, we had investors, often to support our recovery. Hence, we need to meet the world-beating standards of procurement, of accountability, of transparency, and of project management.
They haven’t been given the fullest mandate that they could have at the RDA, but I applaud Mr. Anthony McMaster for his work over the last period, and before that the previous chief executive for his work to take us forward on that journey.
So where do we stand with the RDA at this point? We’re not entirely sure where we stand with the UK loan agreement, and it puts the RDA in a difficult position of having a relatively high overhead but not the funds to be able to pursue some of these larger projects that were intended. So what’s the future of the RDA?
That’s really a question for the premier, who is responsible for the RDA.
From my perspective, the RDA was supposed to do that big recovery, and to do it in a way that sets us up for the long term; that develops local capability; that develops our local people, our local contractors, and invests money into the economy here. So, God forbid, if we ever get hit again, we’ve got the skill set. If we don’t get hit again, we’ve got the skill sets to export in the region.
When this government came into power, they reduced significantly the mandate of the RDA with a smaller set of projects. That’s really a decision for the premier, which you need to talk to him about.
From my perspective, one thing I kept doing was ensure that the UK kept its commitments. When the RDA was set up, the UK had two commitments really: one was the conditions or the framework. The conditions were quite simple. It was that all the spending should be transparent, it should all be accountable, and it should all be run through effective project management. That was basically the conditions, which I know there’s a lot of noise about, but it was just saying that if there’s going to be money spent, we better spend it well.
The second was an offer of support, which the UK did, which was to give about $14 million of money to help cover the operational costs so the money that comes in from donors or from others could go directly to projects. The UK contributed to that through a grant that was just money that was given over to the RDA to help. The UK then has also funded some of the projects, and the RDA have helped in areas I’m constitutionally responsible for — disaster management, the courts — where we’ve had some projects that we’ve helped to transform and improve on recovery.
Do you know the standing of the negotiations over the larger UK loan agreement? Generally people are saying the ball is in the UK’s court as this point, but it seems to have stalled. Do you know if it’s still on the table at all?
Again, it’s really for the premier to say. The UK’s position is as it always was: that the conditions are there. The BVI government haven’t yet taken the steps required to obtain the offer. But there’s ongoing work between officials in the UK and the BVI to help the government make the progress required.
But it isn’t completely dead in the water?
It’s really for the premier to answer how he wants to go forward.
Speaking a bit more generally, what are some of the most notable milestones that you’ve enjoyed celebrating in your term?
I remember us saying, “Let’s get the lights back on” [after Hurricane Irma]. We did it pretty much by Christmas, which sounds like a long time from August, but islands like Puerto Rico were still off six months on.
I’m pleased with the progress we’ve made on the areas that I’ve got responsibility for. Constitutionally, I have a twin-hearted role. I am the head of the BVI government in constitutional terms, when we’re in the Cabinet and in the executive authority of BVI, but I also have a responsibility for the relationship with the UK as well.
On the areas I then have under my BVI hat — disaster management, the safety and security of our people, the public service, and the judicial system — and on those behind the scenes we’ve been making really good progress.
These are things that I credit in particular to my deputy governor, David Archer, and his teams. One thing that after the storm we put in place — which we didn’t know would be so vital but actually helped us through this Covid period — was audio-visual legislation for our courts. That was because at our courts the roofs had blown off.
But now it’s helping us get through the Covid period and being able to keep the criminal justice system running. If you remember after the storms when we didn’t have courts, people think that law and order is broken and suddenly the territory’s in a very difficult position.
Similarly with the police, with support from the UK, we’ve had significant funding to increase the training budgets: so training them in firearms and public order, giving support to enhance our marine capabilities.
We had a British ship in as well. But we’ve also had training and funding for some of the policing boats and repairing the police stations. Credit to our outgoing, in a few months’ time, excellent police commissioner, Michael Matthews, as well.
At disaster management, when you’re literally in the eye of the storm as we were, there was a very clear strategy at the time. At the same time as thinking about dealing with the immediate needs, we also needed to make sure that we rebuilt even stronger; we came back better.
We also set off a public service transformation programme to look at how we improve and digitise the public service.
On my first day of work, I got presented with files that had to be signed 14 times in hardcopy. So we moved to a more electronic basis. Also, [human resources] is looking at succession planning, performance management approaches — some of the nuts and bolts that really improve an organisation — which has meant that as we’ve hit the Covid era, we’ve been in a much stronger position as a public service to be able move staff around to adapt to remote working.
Those things don’t always make headlines in a governor’s term, but it’s important work: The more effectively you can do that daily work, the bigger change you can make in the long term.
Exactly. I always write my handover note on the day I start the job, because it gives you a bit of a guide for what you want to achieve by the time you leave. It’s somewhere in my drawer in my office. Mine simply said to the next governor: “You will have less to do than I had to do.”
Because I see it as the territory should be stronger; the people should be more successful, have more opportunities, be better empowered, more self-learning; the police should be more effective, the public service [more effective].
It hasn’t got there everywhere — I will be honest — particularly where we talked about the good governance areas, and there are areas where there is going to have to be a lot of focus from the new governor to ensure that areas of concern don’t hold back positive progress. He’ll have to make sure our public service stays impartial, that it isn’t politicised, that it can operate to the highest standards.
A big focus in the Joint Ministerial Council meetings was self-determination. Where do you see that discussion heading in the next couple months?
BVI should be as successful and as self-determining as it wants to be. It’s a false debate to get into about how this is about the UK or about the BVI or about the governor or about the premier, or whatever stories are put out at the time.
It’s an interesting subject to be looking at this year, and a pivotal point in history, so the VI has to be looking at what it wants in the long term. It’s good to be discussing that.
The point I would add to that discussion is that self-determination starts with making sure that we’re operating at the strongest level and that all of our people have those opportunities. That’s why I keep on going back to, “Are we operating at the highest governance standards? Are we accountable? Are we transparent? Do people have the rights and the freedoms that we should expect in a modern democracy?”
What generally is the timeline like for the Constitutional Review Committee to come forward with its report and recommendations?
I support a constitutional review. Essentially, it’s in the premier’s hands to say what he wants to look at. There are areas where the UK in any discussion will be looking at: “What does this mean and how do we take the relationship from there?” But it’s a good chance to think about where we want to go as a territory. And how do we want to be as a territory? I think it’s a good discussion to have. It’s in the premier’s hands to put forward any proposals.
It’s definitely been a difficult year, and some friction arose between the premier and UK leadership. What would you like community members to understand about what it’s been like trying to navigate difficult relationships when there’s a lot at stake? What do you want people to understand about those conversations when it does seem tense?
Firstly, don’t always believe what’s put out. I can’t speak for the premier and his approach, or why he says certain things, but I’ve been very clear, and my approach hasn’t changed from the day I stepped off the plane back in 2017. From my perspective, I took this role to serve the community and to work in partnership with the government, with the community, with people, with businesses to serve the people of this territory. That’s an incredible privilege for me.
We have a Constitution at the moment, and it is the choice of the BVI’s to have that Constitution, to have that kinship with the UK, to have a governor and to have that partnership. I believe we should maximise that. I believe it’s delivered some great things. So I don’t get swayed by the noise. I just keep focused on the people of the territory and supporting them going forward.
You touched on the supplies and vaccinations, but are there any other moments that jump to mind as some of the positive moments of the relationship between the VI and the UK?
There has been a huge amount of support from the UK. If you read some of the blogs and stuff, there’s always these sorts of stories about how the UK has certain hidden agendas. There’s nobody I’ve ever met working in any part of government in the UK who wants anything other than to support the people of the territory in the best way possible.
Now, sometimes, that is done through grants; sometimes it’s done through opportunities. We fund scholars, and some of our best and brightest have gone off to studying in the UK. Sometimes it’s through infrastructure: We’ve built reservoirs, houses and things like that.
Other times, it’s saying some of the tougher messages. Although sometimes I get attacked for this. Currently, the premier is trying to silence me on Government Information Services and saying that the governor can’t use GIS to put press releases out, which to be honest is a pretty ludicrous position. The governor is part of the government; it’s a constitutional position.
But sometimes a good friend and a partner will point out areas that you need to improve on and will be a critical friend. There are areas we need to improve. We need to show how we spend public money better; we need to show that people can operate to the highest standards, always; we need to ensure that we learn the lessons from auditor general’s reports; we need to ensure that there’s no areas where people feel targeted or intimidated because they speak their mind.
While they may be seen and played up in certain ways, they are high points in a way because when somebody cares about the territory, I say we can do better. We have brilliant people, and we can do better. Let’s take a look at ourselves and let’s take some action to make sure that we operate at the highest standards.
I wanted to go briefly into a little more detail about security issues. How have security concerns changed from the first year that you were here to now?
Firstly, I want to thank the police for what they do. In my time here, I’ve seen some of the best police work I’ve ever experienced. For the police to get through the hurricanes, to get through the recovery, to deal with Covid as well, it’s nonstop whilst they were recovering themselves and rebuilding everything, from their own homes through to the police stations.
We then had a lot of support from the UK to improve our policing significantly, including funding arrangements and training.
But where we stand at the moment, we should be realistic. Overall crime is actually decreasing, but one of the issues that I have raised is the level of serious and organised crime. To me, the most important responsibility of any government, and I as governor hold this responsibility, is the safety and security of our population. If we lose that, then we lose the rule of law.
We started to get more insight into what the scale is of some of the serious criminality, particularly for trafficking. It’s not a record I would have ever wanted to have on my term: the largest ever land recorded seizure of cocaine — not just in our history, but in the entire British history as well. So this is huge.
That doesn’t happen by chance. I won’t go into the operational details about that, but a huge credit to the police and customs and immigration as well for their work.
But it also highlights — it’s obviously a live case, so I won’t talk about it in detail — but there are definitely areas where we really need to look at making sure there are the highest standards of integrity, no risks of corruption anywhere in our systems.
It goes back to that good governance piece I was talking about as well, because we don’t want, particularly with all the other challenges we’re facing in 2021, to be a territory where serious criminality becomes an issue.
We’re not at that point in terms of it hitting the public domain much, though we’ve had terribly sad murders in recent months. We want to make sure that we get a grip of things firmly and ensure there are no risks going forward.
So now that you’re leaving office, what’s next for you?
I’ll be leaving office at the end of the month, leaving the position to the new governor. But it’s not yet public.
Did it seem like a good move then to not have that transition in the middle of hurricane season?
Yes, definitely. [Laughs.] It’s a good time to start the new year with a new governor. But most importantly, I wouldn’t want to give someone the induction I had.
Is there anything else you’d like community members to know about what it’s been like serving as governor?
It has been an incredibly challenging time for the territory. For me, it’s been an absolute honour and privilege to serve during that time. It has been an incredible challenge on many different fronts. But I will leave office incredibly hopeful about the BVI. I believe people in BVI are some of the best people in the world. We have challenges, and we need to address those challenges. Some of those challenges were nature made, whether that’s Covid or the hurricanes, and those we need to keep focused on. Some are ones that we need to address ourselves.
I will leave office, but never leave the BVI from my heart. As a family, we have enjoyed and made many friends in the BVI, and we’re hugely grateful for all the support we’ve had as a family as part of the community here.
Interview conducted, condensed and edited by Dana Kampa.