The Prime Minister was expected to depart at about 6am on a private jet with a delegation including Foreign Affairs Minister Paula Gopee-Scoon. Over the next 36 hours he will visit the Bahamas, Belize, Jamaica, Haiti and Suriname. He is due to return on Tuesday evening, officials at the Prime Minister’s Office said yesterday.
“The heads of those countries will be briefed on the outcome of multi-lateral talks held in Port-of-Spain on (August 14)...which explored issues related to the Single Market and Economy, political integration and regional air transportation,” a release from the Office of the Prime Minister said on Friday.
On August 14, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Grenada, St Lucia and Trinidad and Tobago signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) proposing the establishment of a Caricom Single Economy by 2011 and regional political integration by 2013.
Opposition Leader Basdeo Panday yesterday criticised Manning for his whirlwind trip.
“I think he owns that jet,” Panday said. Manning will first travel about 1,250 miles to the Bahamas, then, from that country, about 930 miles to Belize. From Belize, Manning will travel about another 930 miles to Jamaica where he will overnight after meeting with Jamaica Prime Minister Bruce Golding.
On Tuesday morning he will leave Jamaica, flying roughly 470 miles to Haiti and then head 1,700 miles south to Suriname before travelling 620 miles to Trinidad and Tobago where he will touch-down on Tuesday evening.
The Prime Minister normally flies on a Guardian Holdings (GHL) private jet at a rental cost of about $18,870 per hour, excluding fuel and loading charges. For him to complete his whirlwind trip withing the next 36 hours, he may have to spend 13 hours in the air as he travels from destination to destination.
But frequent private jet flyers who spoke with Newsday yesterday said that an hourly rental would still apply to the jet’s overnight stop, meaning the total cost for this trip could come in at about $680,000. The amount represents almost one tenth of the Prime Minister’s private jet expenditure over the last three years.
“This trip is a waste of taxpayers’ money,” Opposition Chief Whip Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj added yesterday. “The cost of this is phenomenal, that money could be used in a clean up plan to prevent dengue. Mr Manning should not be galavanting on this issue while his government neglects flooding, dengue and crime.”
Information Minister Neil Parsanlal, who has defended Government’s expenditure of money in its bid to foster regional relations, was not in a position to comment yesterday. Speaking from his Lopinot Bon Air constituency office he said he was in the process of assisting victims of flooding in the area and was not able to comment.
Up to yesterday evening, details of the whirlwind trip were still being finalised, with the Permanent Secretary of the Prime Minister, Sandra Marchak, still in meetings with Manning, taking instructions to cover the period of his absence.
Jamaica’s foreign affairs Ministry yesterday welcomed news that Manning is to visit that country, but so abrupt has been the trip that even some Jamaican government officials were caught by surprise by the news.
“I had no idea about this,” minister in the ministry of state Dr Ronald Robinson told Newsday yesterday. But he quickly added, “we are really looking forward to hearing what the Prime Minister (Manning) has to say.”
Robinson re-iterated Jamaica remains open to talks over a proposed political union.
“It depends on the form the union takes. It could be compatible with what exists in Caricom,” he said, referring to fears expressed by Jamaica last week over whether the political union might spell the end for the long-established regional union.
Robinson’s views on a proposed political union echoed that of the Guyana President Bharrat Jagdeo who was has been in talks over the issue with Manning, according to a report in the Stabroek News.
According to the report, Manning has called Jagdeo several times on the matter. At his presidential office, Jagdeo last Thursday said Manning told him that technical work on the proposed structure of the political union was being done by former St Lucia Prime Minister Professor Vaughn Lewis. But the Guyana President would not commit to the proposed political union.