It’s rare to see the leader of any country break down in tears on camera—unless the country they lead is facing seemingly insurmountable challenges. This has been the case for the Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Ralph Gonsalves, who is now grappling with a volcano eruption in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and a related economic crisis.
The La Soufriere volcano erupted for the first time in over 40 years on April 9, followed by a series of strong explosions since then. Scientists say the patterns of these eruptions are similar to those of the 1902 eruption which killed some 1,600 residents on the island.
The ongoing eruptions have displaced about 20 percent of the island’s population from the island’s northern region of the red zone, about 6,000 of whom are considered most vulnerable. During a press conference days after the first explosion, Prime Minister Gonsalves broke down in tears, while thanking neighboring Caribbean islands for accommodating St. Vincentian nationals.
Many of the thousands of residents who were not able to leave the island have had to temporarily seek accommodation in local shelters. Officials on the island say they are worried that the disruption will cause a second catastrophe, a spike in COVID-19 cases.
Up until now, St. Vincent has managed to keep the positive cases of COVID-19 fairly low, with 1,819 cases (1,677 recoveries) as of April 20. But if the island sees another spike, it will only sink the country’s economy further. Just two days before the volcano erupted, Gonsalves had cautioned St. Vincentians that if the economic situation continues, the government may be unable to pay salaries and benefits like pensions.
Gonsalves, who is in his fifth term as Prime Minister, said the government has tried to “hold it together,” but now “a real pressure is on.”
Ralph Gonsalves, known affectionately as “Comrade Ralph,” was born in Colonarie, St. Vincent to Alban Gonsalves, a farmer and small-business man, and Theresa Francis, a small-business woman.
He attended Colonarie Roman Catholic School, and later the St. Vincent Grammar School. He then enrolled at the University of the West Indies, where he completed a bachelor’s degree in economics. He later returned there to earn a master’s degree in government, which he completed in 1971.
In 1974, he completed a doctorate in government at the University of Manchester. Gonsalves was called to the bar at Gray’s Inn in London in 1981.
Following the end of his academic career in England, he returned to the island to practice law. Before becoming prime minister, Gonsalves practiced law extensively and successfully before the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court in a wide range of matters, but particularly in the fields of constitutional law, criminal law, administrative law, matrimonial law, real property law, the law of tort, generally, and the law of contract.
In 1994, he became the deputy political leader of the Unity Labor Party (ULP). The ULP was a merger of the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Labor Party and the Movement for National Unity (MNU).
After the resignation of Vincent Beache, Gonsalves became the leader of the party in 1998 and led the party to victory in the general election held in 2001.
He has remained prime minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines since then, winning the elections again in 2005, 2010, 2015 and 2020. Now in his fifth term and 20th year in office, Gonsalves has been the longest continuously serving head of government since the island became independent in 1979.
Gonsalves has also been the member of parliament (MP) for the North Central Windward constituency since 1994.
In July 2020, Gonsalves was elected chairman of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) succeeding Mia Amor Mottley. His six-month term ended on January 1, 2021, and he was succeeded by Prime Minister Keith Rowley of Trinidad and Tobago.
Ralph Gonsalves has been married twice. He has two sons, Camillo and Adam, from his first marriage. He is currently married to Eloise Harris and they share one son, Storm, and two daughters, Isis and Soleil.
In 2015, Camillo was elected as a member of Parliament and currently serves in his father’s Cabinet as minister of finance, economic planning and information technology.