This interview is one of three conducted with party leaders ahead of the 2023 general elections. To read the others, click here.
It was a baptism of fire.
Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley assumed the leadership of the Virgin Islands Party three days after the arrest last April of his predecessor Andrew Fahie and two days after the release of a damning Commission of Inquiry report.
He has served as premier since then, presiding over the hastily formed National Unity Government and one of the most tumultuous periods in recent VI history.
Now he has a new challenge: leading a full slate of 13 candidates — only one of whom has served more than one term in office — into a general election.
In an interview with the Beacon, he distanced himself and his colleagues from Mr. Fahie and said the challenges of the previous year have made the party stronger and wiser. He also touted the VIP government’s handling of hurricane recovery projects, the Covid-19 pandemic, COI reforms and more.
The following interview with Dr. Wheatley was conducted, condensed and edited by Dana Kampa.
What are three main accomplishments that come to mind with your party’s record over the past four that you think should make voters choose the Virgin Islands Party again?
Number one is the recovery efforts, and we could point to a number of different projects under the recovery. One of the main projects was the Elmore Stoutt High School. But we have several other projects for the recovery. You could look at the administration buildings which were repaired; the reservoirs; the recreational facilities; the road infrastructure. You can look at countless areas in which we helped the Virgin Islands to recover.
The second area I’d have to say is reform. We have seriously engaged in reform in weak areas, even before the [Commission of Inquiry] report was released. We looked at legislation like whistleblower legislation, contractor general legislation, and a number of other pieces of legislation that can add to the suite of legislation [and] policies that we’ve done with the framework for the implementation of the COI recommendations and other reforms.
The final part, I would say, is our financial stewardship. There is an organisation in Trinidad called CariCRIS that evaluated the strength of our economy. I believe it’s a double-A rating, the second highest rated, which is something that we’re proud of.
Considering some of the questions after the political turmoil we’ve been through, considering what happened with the pandemic, considering the inflationary pressures we’ve had, I think we’ve been good financial stewards. We have continued to defend our main pillars of financial services and tourism. Both are doing well right now, withstanding the pressures and showing great resilience.
If I can also point out a fourth one, our management of the pandemic was particularly strong and kept our people safe for the most part. Of course, we lost some lives, but I would say overall we managed the pandemic better than most countries in the world.
What are two areas that, in hindsight, you wish the party had addressed differently?
Obviously, we had a number of areas that caused persons great concern. The most topical one right now was our legislators’ [increased] retirement [benefits]. That definitely was a mistake. I wish I didn’t support it.
I also wish I didn’t support the contracts for Claude Skelton-Cline and a number of other areas here or there.
But it’s important to say that those experiences were instructive for me, and going through those experiences have made me into a stronger and better leader. We’ll just have to learn from those mistakes.
Do you agree with the reform measures that have been included in the Commission of Inquiry framework? Are there any reforms that you disagree with that were included? And if you’re elected again to lead the government, would you continue progress toward completing all of those reforms as quickly as possible?
Yes, we have committed to implementing all of the recommendations. It’s important that some of the recommendations are open-ended. [The reform framework] speaks about “consideration.” We consider doing these things. So I think we need to make a good, genuine effort to consider what we must consider in consultation with the people of the Virgin Islands. Once we have considered and consulted, then we will make our way forward. The recommendations are not difficult to agree to, because a lot of them call for reviews; a lot of them call for investigations. For some of these reviews and investigations, it will be for the democratically elected government to consider the outcomes, the conclusions and the recommendations of those reports, and in a very democratic way discuss them with the people of the Virgin Islands and determine a way forward.
Were you surprised by the COI findings? If so, by what in particular?
Well, even as a member of Cabinet and the House of Assembly, there would be certain things that I wouldn’t know. So I wouldn’t say “surprising.” I would say the report was revelatory. But I would also say that there is more investigation that can be done as it pertains to many of the areas of the report. A more in-depth look needs to be had at what led to some of the weaknesses in government. But certainly the information was useful in our efforts to reform.
So do you believe the COI had any value for the territory?
Yes, a tremendous amount of value. I think every society has to have a process by which it looks at itself. It is important for us to reform the Commission of Inquiry Act, which was one of the recommendations. That report has already come to Cabinet. So it’s important that whole process is looked at to make it work as well as it can. Even in its present form, it had value. But once we reform the commission of inquiry process, it will have even greater value.
Many of the COI’s most serious findings were already detailed in reports from the auditor general, internal auditor, media, and other watchdogs over the past 15 years. Why were these findings surprising, and why weren’t they carried forward earlier?
There have been certain areas of concern. Some of the work of the auditor general obviously was not surprising. It was repeated in the COI. It was referenced by [COI Commissioer] Sir Gary Hickinbottom.
There is only so much information the media has at its disposal, which would mean that we would need a Freedom of Information Act to help the media and other institutions. This is the type of thing that we have to do moving forward — see the areas even outside of commission of inquiries, which need to be strengthened to provide the checks and balances that the society needs. What you said is important, in terms of these various institutions, which really help democracy. Part of our goal is to develop more of them. That’s why we have the whistleblower legislation and are looking at how we can strengthen the complaints commissioner and have a constitutional review. We’re looking at some of these areas, and the Commission of Inquiry and reform is important in that process.
Since the whistleblower legislation passed, has it been utilised?
No. We have to set up the office.
Speaking of the Freedom of Information Act, do you have a timeline for when you would hope to carry it forward?
We’ve started. One of the things that we have to do before we can come with freedom of information is have the proper data protections, which we did during the last House of Assembly. That paves the way for freedom of information. I believe they already have a draft. So we will place that high on the agenda in the next house of Assembly, God willing.
“They” being the Attorney General’s Chambers?
I think one was produced by the Law Reform Commission. That’s something I have to confirm.
Are you satisfied with the progress on the COI reforms so far? Briefly, what would you want to do differently moving forward?
First of all, I would want to have better communication with the public, because people wanted more information. They wanted to be informed every step of the way, and we could have done a better job.
Also, we want to emphasise more strongly that consultation be factored into these deadlines. I don’t think that consultation was sufficiently factored into the tight deadlines that we had. The people of the Virgin Islands deserve to have a voice in the process.
One of the reforms was making the Register of Interests public. That was done, but with onerous restrictions on viewing it. Copies can’t be made, there is a high fee, and supervision is required. The governor has asked that the government reconsider these restrictions, and make the register fully public. Would you support lifting these restrictions? If not, which ones do you support?
We have to do these things in consultation with the public. The first commitment was to make the legislators’ interests public, which we have done.
We have to return to the question of public servants. I guarantee public servants will have a very strong voice as it pertains to who has access and how they have access and ensuring that there are limitations and boundaries on that.
I think that’s something that we have to discuss with the people. But just to say, I favour transparency. But I also favour respect for privacy and respect for people’s data protection rights. We have to find a way to strike a balance between transparency, privacy and data protection.
Would you push for the territory to pursue independence, maintain the current arrangement, or take some other way forward. What specifically would you do in the next four years to further that goal?
This is also something that we have to consult with the people of the Virgin Islands about. We have the option of proceeding in our attempts toward our goal of self-determination, but it must be through the people making their expressed view.
What I will certainly push for is an education campaign to educate persons about our colonial status and what the United Nations expects.
The United Nations has declared this a decade for the eradication of colonialism. They keep setting deadlines for the eradication of colonialism, and they’ll continue to set deadlines until colonialism is completely eradicated.
But we have to make steps towards fulfilling our obligations under the United Nations to end the reality of non-self-governing territories. We have options to pursue not just independence: We can have a free association and integration. The choice is really for us.
Would you be looking to hold a referendum on this issue?
I believe after an education campaign, a referendum should be the goal.
Especially in light of the ongoing constitutional review, how do you think the VI should go about defining belongership and residency? And how long do you think somebody should live in the territory to receive belongership?
That’s another one that needs public consultation. We have a review presently taking place, being led by Kedrick Malone, which is considering some of those points. What I think is important is that we come up with something that helps to solve the overall needs of the country; that considers our economy, considers our infrastructure, considers our social needs, considers our culture, and considers our cohesion. All of those things must be taken into account, and we’ll make a decision that’s in the best interests of not just present but future generations. Do you believe the territory is shifting toward large-scale tourism with plans to bring in more cruise ships, provide direct mainland USA flights, and potentially expand the Beef Island airport runway?
Do you believe this is the right direction for the sector? Is the territory’s infrastructure prepared to handle increased demand? It’s important to note that we are not a mass tourism destination because, of course, we have limited space. Our infrastructure can only accommodate a certain number of visitors.
It’s important to note that the direct flights are not just about increasing visitors, even though we would like more visitors to fill beds in hotels and Airbnbs and villas. But it’s also about getting into the Virgin Islands more quickly and maximising the time you have in the BVI; making it easy for our travellers. Because it is very difficult to get to the BVI, and sometimes frustrating and expensive. We would like to try our best to reduce the costs to travel here. But as we develop, it will be important for us to build the infrastructure necessary for an increasing amount of visitors. We have a limit in terms of how many persons we can have at any one time. But we also have a traditional slow season. If we can get more people here during the slow seasons, that will help as well. That has to do with diversifying your tourism product.
How would you work to mitigate the rising cost of living for residents?
One strategy is the consumer protection through the Trade Commission. It will give us the power to be able to regulate prices on a basket of goods.
In 2012, Cabinet adopted a Climate Change Adaptation Policy. It included wide-ranging promises like implementing wetlands protection, passing environmental legislation, updating the building code, and passing Physical Planning regulations, to name a few. More than 10 years later, the great majority of those goals have not been met. Why? Do you agree with the goals laid out in the policy? What do you think should happen now with the policy?
Those persons who were there between 2012 and 2019 would have to give account as to why they haven’t accomplished more. But I can say, during this administration, we’ve accomplished some of those things. Following the hurricanes, the building code was revised. The environmental legislation has been completed and is ready to come to Cabinet for approval and for passage in the next House of Assembly. That environmental legislation will be extremely important.
As it pertains to climate change, we have recently participated in COP27, and we’ve made some real commitment towards climate change adaptation and mitigation against the harmful effects of climate change. One significant thing to mention is that we are mapping over environmental assets with the help of the National Oceanographic Center. We also are getting assistance from other agencies to be able to map our environmental assets, and that is an important process in being able to participate in the carbon markets, where we can actually get funding for environmental projects.
We had the solar project on Anegada, and we placed solar on a number of public buildings. Moving forward, we want to have a programme that will help us put solar panels on private residences. We would like to source funding and have persons pay it back through their electricity bill. In terms of our physical planning regulations, I’d have to get an update on that.
As we know, multiple governments have refused to access the £300 million loan guarantee from the United Kingdom to facilitate hurricane recovery projects, and many of those projects have been delayed, including school repairs, the Halls of Justice, the West End ferry terminal, the National Emergency Operations Centre, derelict boat removal, the Ralph T. O’Neal Administration Complex, and others. Was it a mistake to refuse the loan guarantee?
I would say it’s important for us to be able to access loans at a low interest rate. But it’s also important for us to not borrow more than we can afford to pay back. We have our fiscal guidelines that we have to operate within. We have ratios, and the one of most significance to how much borrowing we have is the 10 percent debt servicing ratio. We have been able to keep within that. We have to borrow in a manageable way to make sure that we stay within our debt ratios. But borrow we must.
We have money for the West End ferry terminal. The administration complex is ongoing — work is being done on that all the time. On the Halls of Justice, we have already committed to borrowing. It’s important for us to complete projects like that, because we have a number of persons renting. If you own your own property, it’ll help you to save money.
Could you remind me of the source for borrowing on that?
We are going to a private bank. Originally, we had some portion of money from the Caribbean Development Bank. What we’ve done is we’ve transferred money from that project to provide more funding for the West End ferry terminal. The terminal has the resources of about $16 million or $17 million to be able to get that project done. You can expect to see that project moving forward shortly.
The Halls of Justice is an important project that we need to complete and we’re gonna have to borrow to fix our infrastructure. One thing we’re going to do is have an infrastructural development plan that will demonstrate somewhat of a phased approach to development.
Being as specific as possible, how would you fix the issues with roads, and how would you fund that process?
It will be a phased approach. As I said before, we will have a national infrastructural development plan that will outline the approach.
The roads will have to be well designed, well engineered, well constructed with drainage, with consultation with the various utility companies and the telecoms companies to ensure that they coordinate whatever utilities need to be buried. Sidewalks. Landscaping, It’s going to be funded partially through loans, partially through the Development Fund, which is mostly funded through our recurrent surplus. It will have to be phased because we won’t be able to do everything at the same time. We’ll have to focus on the areas which need the most attention for safety purposes and tourism.
East End/Long Look still doesn’t have a sewerage system after decades of promises. What main challenges have held up progress, and what would you do to overcome them?
Those persons who were there before will have to account for why they weren’t able to deliver that project after 20-plus years. During this administration, we made significant progress. From Paraquita Bay to Long Swamp, we were able to complete the laying of the main pipe that would go from the pumping station to the treatment plant.
We’ve been able to complete most of the gravity lines which go from houses in the community down to the pumping station. Now we have tendered for the pumping station.
We’ve also tendered for the sewage treatment plant to be repaired. Those contracts should be signed within weeks.
When the pumping station is completed, and the sewage treatment plant is completed and the gravity lines which are already hooked up to the homes are connected to the pumping station, then, at least in the Seventh District, we’ll be ready to bring the system online.
The Eighth District has had many gravity lines installed from houses, and the main pipe between Parham Town and Long Swamp is ready to go. The wet wells and manholes are ready to go. So we will be seeing work take place in the Eighth District. There is a light at the end of the tunnel.
The incinerator in Pockwood Pond appears to still be offline, resulting in frequent fires in the landfill behind it. What needs to be done to bring it back online? How would you finance it, and on what timeline?
The former minister of health and social development had looked at having some mobile incinerators while we were getting the main incinerator fixed. The present minister didn’t agree with that, and he didn’t go through with it. There has to be a comprehensive strategy. The current minister has a plan, but of course we’re in an election season right now. If we were to be successful, we will evaluate the current minister’s plan to see whether it’s feasible, and if it is we will proceed.
The former minister had a waste management strategy, which was in my view effective. He had a strong emphasis on recycling. He had a strong emphasis on sorting our waste. He even had house-to-house waste collection that he was able to do during the Covid-19 pandemic.
We are committed to bringing the incinerator back online to ensure that we deal with the problem of bulk waste in our communities, to ensure that we have a greater commitment to recycling; that we even have a greater commitment to composting the organic waste that doesn’t have to go down to Pockwood Pond.
The House of Assembly passed a solid waste strategy in 2014, but most of the policy’s goals were not met. They were rehashed in a new strategy circulated in draft last year, but much remains to be done. 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? How would you fund these steps, given that the 2014 strategy estimated their cost at around $20 million?
Yes. We have to fund the waste management strategy, because it’s an environmental hazard. It’s unsightly, and it’s unsustainable. The strategy that I’m interested in is one that involves recycling, reducing, reusing, reducing the waste stream going to Pockwood Pond. We have to have some incineration. We’ve also explored the concept of waste energy.
Do you believe the government should assume responsibility for the costs and labour of running the recycling programme in the territory?
Green VI has a partnership with the government. We can, if need be, return to that memorandum of understanding.
Do you support the planned extension of the Beef Island airport runway?
Is there a timeline you’d like to see that done by? I would like to see that done early. Before the year’s end, I’d like to see us have a request for proposals. We are not going to the full 8,000 feet: probably just over 6,000 feet to facilitate flights from the eastern seaboard of the United States.
Slow internet speeds are another common issue. What would you do to help speed up internet territory-wide?
We have to have a conversation with our telecoms. We know they have some limitations and it’s expensive with the BVI’s hilly terrain. But we would like to see better performance. We will certainly have a conversation to see whether they can provide us with the type of service that we require. If they’re not able to, we’ll have to explore whether there are other telecom providers who can provide it for us. But we’re not satisfied with the reliability of the internet, speed of the Internet. We also want to see if we can provide more internet in public spaces.
Do you support campaign finance reform resulting in a law that requires transparency about who is funding political parties? Why hasn’t it been passed yet? If you support it, what would you do to push it through?
That was considered as part of the electoral reforms, and it was agreed to. Those changes have to be made a year before elections, so that’s why it hasn’t been passed. It came to the House of Assembly too late. I support campaign finance reform.
Did you have a timeline for passing that and the freedom of information legislation?
We should do that as early as possible in the fifth House of Assembly.
You’ve proposed holding a public referendum on same-sex marriage. If elected, would you still push for the referendum and by when?
Yes. That too would be very quickly after the elections, but with a proper education campaign.
Are there any other referendums you’d like to see held within the next four years?
Yes. I think we have to take a look at the issues which might be considered controversial. Subject to the UN conventions that we’ve signed on to, I think we should take a look at marijuana.
I think that the attitude towards marijuana is evolving internationally. I think what a referendum might serve to do this is provide information to UN bodies about how populations around the world feel about the use of marijuana. We’re moving forward with medicinal cannabis. But in terms of recreational use, including a certain level of decriminalisation, persons should express a clear view on that.
As noted by teachers and the current education minister, students throughout the territory are dealing with serious challenges, particularly with extreme bullying. What action would you take to better support and protect them?
We had an anti-bullying campaign we started that is good to continue. But we also have to strengthen the partnership between education and social development.
Education, Youth Affairs and Sports Minister Sharie de Castro has said her ministry conducted a widespread review of schools’ needs in the territory. When will we hear more details about what the review revealed and how to government plans to address those issues? How will you support her endeavours?
It may be an internal plan. This is something that started when I was in education: assessments of the properties. What we’re working toward is having a proper maintenance schedule where the majority of work is being done on breaks. We’ve provided the funding to make that a reality. As it pertains to the plan being public, I’ll have to consult with the Ministry of Education.
Considering threats to the sustainability of tourism and the financial services, there have been calls to diversify the economy for years. Do you agree that diversification is necessary? If so, what areas do you consider most important to support?
We have to diversify our financial services sector. We have largely been an incorporation centre, but we want to be able to offer more services to our clients. The way we do that is by making the BVI a better place to do business. This means we, as we have done, provide easier access. We also have to look at reforms to our labour and immigration and trade licence regimes to make doing business easier.
We also have to diversify our tourism product.
Industry members in the fishing sector have long complained of overly complicated, expensive permitting systems that leave them at a disadvantage compared to neighbouring countries. What action would you take to address this?
We have already done something, which is passing the Food Security and Sustainability Act. And the licensing regime is more streamlined. We want to better utilise technology so that persons can get their licences much more quickly.
The National Health Insurance system is not financially self-supporting. What would you do to fix it?
The National Health Insurance system needs an overhaul. A study was done but has not been acted upon. I think the study has some recommendations that will assist the NHI improvement, particularly as it pertains to persons who are not paying into the system but get benefits. We’re grateful to partner with our private health institutions where our public health institutions are deficient. But we have to improve on those deficiencies quickly.
Why should voters support the VIP after then-leader Andrew Fahie was arrested for alleged drug offences less than a year ago?
[Mr. Fahie] is not on the ballot. The VIP is the longest active party in the Virgin Islands. The Virgin Islands Party’s goals, principles, track record speaks for itself. It’s the party of the people. It’s bigger than any one member. Parties all over the world, if they have one member who got in some type of trouble, [it] doesn’t mean that the party doesn’t continue. We have persons in our party who have a clean record. In fact, I think that the media has been a little light on other members of parties who have charges before the court as we speak. So we don’t have anybody in our party who has been charged before the court for any form of corruption. We are people of integrity.
In the last administration, everybody outside of the party leader was new, and whatever mistakes were made we’ve learned from, and we’ve become better and stronger leaders as a result.
To your knowledge, has Mr. Fahie had any communications with any of the current candidates at this point?
I don’t know about any communication.
As many other candidates have already noted, the territory has been through a lot in recent years. Briefly, what do you believe makes your party the best to lead the VI forward?
We have a full slate of 13 candidates who are qualified, experienced, and have the right values. They are compassionate, solution-driven problem solvers. We have a solid track record in our areas of responsibility. We have plans which will clearly move us forward. We also have a well balanced group. We have the most women on our team out of any party. We have persons who are young. We have persons who are in their 40s and 50s.
Really, we can take the Virgin Islands for the next 20 years. There are persons in other parties that have already been there for 20 years: They’ve had an opportunity to do what they needed to do for the Virgin Islands.
But they left a lot undone, and they have to account for that. We are, for the most part, fresh faces, and we have members who have gotten a valuable four years’ experience. We are prepared to take the country forward, and we believe we’re the best choice because of our character, our competence, and our compassion.
What else haven’t we covered that you believe is important for voters to know before heading to the polls?
Voters should know that we have done our best to maintain democracy in the Virgin Islands. We faced a tough four years — perhaps the toughest in our modern history. But we are poised now, after weathering those storms, to take the Virgin Islands to another level.