St. Barths Online

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Jul 29, 2002

The French West Indian sense of time

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Taking time, living at a leisurely pace, these could be the mottoes that govern life in the French West Indies. The island's tourists are pleased to find the lazy Caribbean pace that still presides here, to revel in the relaxing, soothing, safe atmosphere. Tourists like our West Indian pace, as long as the foie gras and grilled lobster don't take too much time getting to their tables. Happily, when it comes to service, St. Barth fares well. There are other domains, however, where the Antillean pace can turn into a series of meaningless mananas, and waiting periods that can stretch into years. Re-examining some of the principal dossiers that have been treated in this column over the past year, it becomes evident that the time lines set down for the completion of many municipal projects have become completely fictitious.
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Take the deviation of the airport road, a project originally conceived for reasons of public safety. For over a decade, the departmental authorities shelved the project. Last year, the project was suddenly resurrected. Construction work began last September, and advanced at a furious clip until February. That's when things came to a screeching halt. Officials promised that the road would be built in time for the approaching season. Miracles can happen, but don't bank on this one. Two critical problems-faulty engineering and a rather sizable lack of funds-have kept any work from continuing on the half-blasted road. Some people feel that it would be better to abandon the project altogether and take the losses which result now than to pursue a dead-end that will only compound the damage.
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Immediately to the left (when leaving the airport) lies the former Gustavia access road. It collapsed in the landslides caused by a particularly nasty hurricane nearly three years ago. Its repairs are still pending. In all, this involves re-paving 220 meters of road, not such a daunting task. Before the first stone could be moved, there were a slew of experts, counter-experts, surveyors, government people who all had to come to the site and make sure that all of the administrative and bureaucratic formalities that go with working on a departmental road were duly respected. The construction site is progressing, but no one dares to give a completion date anymore, especially given that the repairs on the Gustavia road are dependent on the airport road project.
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Last year, at about this same time, a local newspaper hailed the major victory that had just been won in health care. The journalist went on to report that by the following year (2002), Gustavia's hospital would be doted with a small functioning surgical unit. The project entailed opening a surgical unit composed of two operating blocks in order to perform certain types of pre-scheduled, outpatient surgery once a week. What the journalist didn't mention is that what the island had been striving to achieve was the re-opening of the maternity ward. Since the publication of that news, delivered with such pomp and circumstance, the hospital has been waiting for a green light from the regional authorities to begin the construction work, approval that was finally delivered on May 28, 2002. Now the next phase can get underway: opening up the bidding process to architects and builders and establishing the financial dossier. With any luck, the recently-announced start-up date of 2004 may actually be met. Then again, two factors dampen any rampant enthusiasm. When the administration gave its approval to the dossier, it did so for a 3-year period only. After that time, the project must be re-submitted for approval. Moreover, Marie-Francoise Leduc, the hospital's nursing director, has been transferred and will leave St. Barthélemy at the end of September. It is she who has been at the helm of the hospital dossier for the past 4 years. But she is not alone. There is a string of municipal leaders who for the past 25 years have made efforts to improve the island's hospital facilities and the services it is legally able to offer. They know what an uphill battle it is to make changes in that domain, a process that can try even the most patient of souls.
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Nevertheless, it can be argued, that patience is rewarded in the end. It is only fitting to talk about the much-debated issue of the evolution of the island's status now that the dossier is heading into the final home stretch. After his recent meeting in Paris with the minister of French overseas departments, the mayor returned to St. Barth to assure constituents that the newly elected federal government, led by Chirac, saw things eye-to-eye with the local municipal government. Magras even hinted that the new status could go into effect as early as next year. Maybe, it's the long-awaited finality to a complex political process, where the required doses of perseverance and patience were offered to the sacrificial fire. After all, the statute has been on the negotiating table for more than 40 years.

Yves Bourel

Yves Bourel


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