Prime Minister of Dominica, Roosevelt Skerritt is possibly one of the most controversial politicians who are yet to catch the attention of the international media, mostly because of his meager role in the international politics, diplomacy or economic affairs. People of Dominica are not that much aware of many of the angles of Mr. Skerritt, because of the absence of vibrant media as well as lack of investigative journalists in that small country.
According to the following leaked cable, which was sent on December 7, 2009, Roosevelt Skerritt not only considers the Venezuelan socialist dictators as his mentors but his leadership is likely to bring increasing internal opposition — within his own party and from opposition parties — as well as diminishing international stature for Dominica.
Rise of Roosevelt Skerritt?
According to a leaked cable (C-AL9091941), Prime Minister Skerritt is from the small town of Vielle Casse in the far north of Dominica. He was educated at New Mexico State University and the University of Mississippi. Upon returning to Dominica, he was a lecturer at the Dominica State College and ran for Parliament in the 2000 elections. Skerritt was selected as Minister for Education, Sports and Youth Affairs. Upon the death of PM Pierre Charles, Skerritt was surprisingly selected as PM in early 2004, making him the world’s youngest head of government. In elections in 2005, Skerritt was able to run as the incumbent, and his Labor party won 12 of 21 constituencies.
Roosevelt Skerritt of Dominica was the youngest head of government in the world when he took office in 2004 at 31 years of age. His youth has been highlighted as a reason for his naive in international circles, but also as an indicator of well-honed political instincts that have allowed him to rise so quickly on the local scene. In international settings, he can appear overwhelmed by his more experienced counterparts, but at home, his charisma has paid dividends. In the course of his tenure he has sidelined competitors, centralized power, and built up a modest cult of personality among the population. Skerritt has moved quickly to woo foreign patrons who funnel resources directly through his office, and was the first among Eastern Caribbean leaders to embrace ALBA. Skerritt has also shown an ability to take political risks, as reflected in his calling snap elections December 18th, approximately 10 months before they are due.
He is from the small town of Vielle Casse in the far north of Dominica. He was educated at New Mexico State University and the University of Mississippi. Upon returning to Dominica, he was a lecturer at the Dominica State College and ran for Parliament in the 2000 elections. Skerritt was selected as Minister for Education, Sports and Youth Affairs. Upon the death of PM Pierre Charles, Skerritt was surprisingly selected as PM in early 2004, making him the world’s youngest head of government. In elections in 2005, Skerritt was able to run as the incumbent, and his Labor party won 12 of 21 constituencies.
Skerritt appears to look to the Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines Ralph Gonsalves, a leftist populist and one of the region’s more savvy politicians, for mentoring. While initially somewhat indecisive, Skerrit has over time marginalized his core group of advisors by centralizing power and limiting the role of his cabinet. Skerritt has methodically added portfolios to the Prime Minister’s office, the latest being the critical National Security Ministry, which controls the police and coast guard. Most recently, Dominica’s capable and ambitious Minister of Foreign Affairs, Vince Henderson, — who is younger than Skerritt and once seen as a future leader — has had a public falling out with his PM and has decided not to run for re-election. Minister of Trade, Industry, Consumer and Diaspora Affairs Collin McIntyre is thought to be Skerrit’s closest colleague on his cabinet. Ron Peters, a Skerrit confidante currently advising the State College, has unique access, as does Skerrit’s lawyer, Tony Astaphan.
Roosevelt Skeritt is a disciple of Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro
Skerritt likes to keep power close to his chest and refuses to delegate any major decision or opportunity to interact with the populace. He often travels to Hong Kong or Venezuela for guidance on major decisions, but will typically travel without technical advisors. Skerritt’s latest creation, the so-called Red Clinic, is a rather blatant electioneering tool straight out of the Chavez populist handbook. The Clinic, run every Wednesday out of the PM’s office, is a mechanism by which constituents line up at the PM’s door to plead for direct assistance, and the PM personally gives cash handouts to these individuals. Skerritt describes the program as a poverty alleviation scheme and pledged in his November 3 National Day address to broaden access to other groups such as laborers and small shopkeepers. Opposition figures and the NGO community, on the other hand, view it as a crass but effective device to create a cult of personality and boost support for the ruling party among the lower classes. The test of this hypothesis will come in snap elections December 18th.
Making major decisions without consulting his cabinet severely limits the ability of others in the party to shape policy. Due to the power in the hand of the PM, critics censor themselves for fear of angering the leader, believes Edison James, a former Prime Minister. This approach has in many cases led to economic and social policies being created in fits and starts, often at the whim of financial contributors such as China or Venezuela, as opposed to emerging from a solid strategy on how to develop Dominica in a way that addresses that country’s long-term needs. That is why Skerritt might on one day tout the development of geothermal power to replace oil imports, and the next day praise the investment from Venezuela of an oil storage facility. Or why Skerritt might push for an oil refinery, not realizing that it will contradict the country’s tourism promotion slogan of “Nature Isle”, and have negative ramifications for the long-term image of the country and its ability to attract additional investment in sustainable tourism or alternative energy.
Detractors across many strata of society complain that Skerritt has accumulated suspiciously significant personal assets in his short time in office. When elected, he publicly claimed to have almost no assets of value. Yet on his public salary of under $2,000 USD per month, opponents point out that he has acquired multiple properties worth over $200,000 USD. When asked to explain how he could afford these properties, Skerritt has steadfastly refused to answer, leaving it to lawyer/confidante Tony Astaphan to explain away the assets. Astaphen maintains they were gifts, despite paperwork showing that cash was paid). Other rumors circulated that Skerritt receives money from Venezuela and China, and that Skerritt may be personally involved in the sale of Dominican diplomatic and tourist passports. There have also been a number of recent scandals involving the government, including the purchase of garbage bins and fertilizer at highly inflated prices from the U.S. resident brother of Minister McIntyre. Dominica has established a commission for Integrity in Public Office to investigate public officials with assets greater than their public salaries would support. The commission refused to investigate the two claims brought against Skerritt on the grounds that those indiscretions occurred before the commission was created, albeit after the law establishing the commission had passed through Parliament.
Is Roosevelt Skerritt anti-American?
Skerritt, despite being educated in the U.S. on a USAID scholarship, has not shown serious interest in maintaining a close relationship with the U.S. While Skerritt rarely publicly disparages the U.S., the relationship is clearly not a priority. In his 2008 National Day address, Skerritt neglected to mention the U.S. as a strategic partner, despite ongoing programs in health, education, security cooperation, and an active Peace Corps program. China and Venezuela, conversely, received repeated praise. For the 2009 version, the U.S. and the European Union were virtual afterthoughts on a long list of countries providing assistance to Dominica. Perhaps the most telling indicator was Skerrit’s repeated snubbing of the U.S. Ambassador on three occasions when he had committed to meet in connection with major U.S. assistance projects and on her farewell call to Dominica in January 2008. On the plus side, Skerrit’s ambivalence has not (yet) graduated to the opposition, and the USG maintains a whole host of active programs with ministries and civil society in the country.
Venezuelan dictators are Skerritt’s mentors:
Skerrit has chosen Chavez as his chief financier and PM Gonsalves as his political mentor. He has also used Venezuelan assistance to finance pet projects and election campaigns. He has shown himself willing to do Chavez’ bidding in exchange for this largesse: Antigua’s opposition leader Lester Bird told the Charge he received a call from Skerrit recently from Hong Kong in which Skerrit asked him why he was so publicly critical of the Antiguan government’s ties with Chavez. “Don’t you know,” he asked, “that this will just lead Chavez to give the governing party more money to be sure you don’t get elected.” He urged Bird to tone down his criticism of Chavez in hopes that Bird, too, might receive some Venezuelan largesse. Due to Dominica’s small size (70,000), even limited funds from abroad can tip elections and minimize domestic concerns. Skerrit may not be savvy enough to manage the Venezuela relationship and might end up losing assets such as the country’s control of disputed and oil-rich Bird Island to the Venezuelans or mortgaging the country’s economic future to bad financial deals with Chavez. Skerrit is clearly not at the head of the class among Eastern Caribbean Prime Ministers – lacking self-assurance, looking to outside figures for guidance and funding, and keeping other cabinet members at bay from insecurity. If he continues on his current path, his leadership is likely to bring increasing internal opposition — within his own party and from opposition parties — as well as diminishing international stature for Dominica.