I am aware that Dr Ralph Gonsalves has written in praise of Robert Milton Cato. I don’t have the benefit of a copy of Dr Gonsalves’s argument for hero status to be bestowed on Mr Cato. I am not making a case for or against this proposition here. I only wish to share my views on his accomplishments as premier and prime minister and to present another dimension of his stewardship.
Last week, I spoke about Mr Cato’s perceived aloofness as he remained longer in office, running the “most powerful government in the world”. Allow me to comment on some of the things that he has done.
Campden Park Industrial Estate & Manufacturing
Perhaps, arguably the greatest transformative period since given the opportunity for self-rule, took place between 1974 – 1984. Some may assert that this could not be so given the way that the Cato administration responded to the Teachers strike and march in 1975, the attempt to pass the notorious dread bills, as well as the ill-conceived 3 per cent gross turnover tax. Also, Cato’s inability to keep several of his ministers in check will go down as an X on his report card
What changes took place under Milton Cato? We saw the transformation of the Campden Park crown lands, from guava trees and cocoa testing fields, to the creation of an industrial estate that began to make a significant contribution towards the country’s gross domestic product. In fact, by 1983, manufacturing had grown to the extent that it was contributing as much as 14 per cent of the GDP. Today, it is significantly less. By itself, nothing is wrong with its decline if there were a concerted and purposive intention to shift focus to, say, tourism and other services.
Under Cato, Vincentians were able to get private sector jobs which hitherto were found only on the floors of haberdashery, food and hardware stores in Kingstown, primarily. We saw the establishment of ECGC, Container Corporation, Wilson Racquets, Smocking, Patrice Garments, East Caribbean Metals, and others. Before the Labour Party lost power in 1984, negotiations had been completed for the setting up of the St Vincent Brewery.
By 1985, Campden Park had become a veritable hive of industrial activity. In addition, we saw the establishment of the Diamond Dairy which produced milk and juice products, Buhler’s Yachts at Calliaqua involved in boatbuilding.
Cato had given the Development Corporation a mandate to pursue direct foreign investment for the express purpose of creating jobs for Vincentians. By 1984, more than 1,000 Vincentians were working directly or indirectly with an enterprise at Campden Park.
Measured success was attained. The limitation came in the non-competitive energy costs when compared with producing in places such as Trinidad.
While one can argue that the greatest drive in low- income housing has taken place under the Gonsalves administration, the legacy of the Cato government remains in concrete for all to see. Perhaps more than any other, Milton Cato led the drive to set up housing schemes which transformed communities in a major way. I think immediately of those at Campden Park, Sharpes Dale, Arnos Vale and at Fair Hall. The Housing and Land Development Corporation was a very busy hive of activity for the entire period of Cato’s administration. They gave first time homeowners a start in terms of having a roof over their heads that they could call their own.
While the focus was perhaps more on the lower middle class rather than on the very poor, the programme fulfilled a very important purpose.
Secondary School Education
Without a doubt, Milton Cato led a drive to expand the educational opportunities for the youth of this country. His Labour Party government played a key role in the entire secondary school expansion programme which saw the establishment of schools in Petit Bordel, Troumaca, Barrouallie, Adelphi, North Union and at Union Island. The initial Junior Secondary School system could be regarded as a stepping stone to the universal access provision that is in place today.
The Cato Administration gambled on the re-establishment of the sugar industry. While one could appreciate the commitment to expanding our agricultural base, the return of sugar should not have been included in the country’s long-term strategic plan. In any event, it was abruptly shut down by the James Mitchell government after less than 10 years of its existence.
No significant work was done with regard to airport development but credit must be given for introducing night landing at the Arnos Vale airport circa 1979.
The focus on hydroelectricity came at a time when oil prices had risen sky-high and there was a need to look for a back-up to fossil fuel. The Cato administration started the work on the Cumberland hydro-station, in addition to commissioning the Cane Hall Power station.
Cato also tried his hand in improving air service to neighbouring islands by investing in a 19-seater plane. This venture, as far as I am aware, had little or no success. Although the government sought to improve sea transportation to and through the Grenadines, one can comfortably argue that Cato’s development focus on the country, did not extend south beyond the Calliaqua point.
Without the benefit of comprehensive information on the workings of the Government between 1974 – 1984, and despite the likelihood that there will be quite a few persons who have issues with Milton Cato’s leadership style and his tenure in office, I say that the Father of our Independence made a significant contribution towards the transformation of St Vincent and the Grenadines.