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Dr. Denzil L. Douglas, Prime Minister of St. Kitts and Nevis, gave the keynote address at the second annual Caribbean Students’ Conference on Saturday. He is pictured with the Obamas at a reception in New York during his 2009 visit to the U.S.
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Prime Minister of the Federation of Saint Kitts and Nevis Denzil L. Douglas visited MIT to speak about Caribbean countries’ efforts to invigorate their region’s science and technology agenda at the MIT Caribbean Students’ Conference on Saturday. After the interview, he sat down with The Tech to speak about his background in politics and medicine and his economic development achievements in his country.

The Tech: You’ve lived and studied in the Caribbean your whole life. Did you ever think about going elsewhere, or did you always feel the Caribbean was your home?

Prime Minister Denzil L. Douglas: I think opportunities presented themselves in the Caribbean...At one time I did think of going off to London to do some postgrad work. I was interested in dermatology, and there’s a school in London where I had acceptance to do postgraduate work but I didn’t pursue it because that path of my career was interrupted by politics.

TT: How did you decide to start out in medicine and become a doctor?

There are two things really here. I think I always wanted to do medicine...[Before] I went off to university...I had both a science and an arts background, but I wanted to do science if I could not do law. I thought about law at that stage but the opportunities but the opportunity didn’t present itself. But I got a scholarship eventually to do science and that’s how I ended up in science.

DD: I had a Canadian scholarship to go off to university to do science, natural sciences, and return to teach, which I did. I taught for two years in St. Kitts and then realized I needed something more substantial as a profession especially when I knew then I was going to become involved in politics, I needed something substantial and so I chose medicine.

TT: You mentioned an arts background. I’m wondering what that is in particular?

DD: [Before university] I studied English and European history with a concentration in Caribbean history, because of the relationship between the Caribbean and Europe at that time...At the same time I did biology. I had a choice and then as I said the opportunity came from the science end so I did that.

TT: You’ve mentioned an intention to go into politics even while being a doctor. So when did that interest develop and how long have you had it?

DD: My community in St. Kitts, where I was born, was the community that produced our first national hero, who was a cousin of mine and so, in a way, I was politically inclined early on. When I came back to St. Kitts after doing my first degree, naturally I became involved in politics...I became involved in the youth arm of the Labor Party as its leader in 1979. And then I went off to university because at that time actually the labor party had been in office for quite awhile and there were signs that it needed to be supported by the young people.

TT: Would you care to elaborate on that?

DD: [The labor party developed out of the movement] against colonialism and the struggles to provide the mass of the people with proper social support systems [that] were being really denied the mass of the people...The party really had been in office...from the 50s until when my own turn came to be part of the movement back in 1979...[T]he party needed to have the younger people take over the reigns of leadership and so the party had begun to lose its attraction for the younger generation...[In 1979] I had been asked to run for political office and I felt it wasn’t a good time [because] I was able to see that the party was going to be in trouble. And so I went off to university in ‘79, got a career and profession that I love that I can live off of and then in came back in 1984 to St. Kitts.

TT: Do you think your background in medicine has contributed in any way to your politics?

DD: Politics is a people profession. I call it a profession; people call it a game. It’s a people profession because you need to understand people. You need to be able understand both those you are working with and those you are seeking to represent. And I think I had a good opportunity being a medical doctor, running a private practice, to learn to listen to people and to learn to know people’s issues...so I have found my profession in medicine exceptionally helpful in managing the state.

TT: The Prime Minister of Trinidad came to speak here and he has a background in science. Is that common in the Caribbean?

DD: There was a time when Caribbean politics was dominated by lawyers and trade unionists. But in recent times we’ve had some leaders who have had background in science and medicine.

TT: It sounds like one of the more significant things that happened in St. Kitts under your leadership is the closing of the sugar industry in 1995. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about that and the economic development that’s happened since then.

DD: The transformation of the economy in St. Kitts and Nevis has been largely manifested through the closure of the sugar industry, and although I’d say...new global trading arrangements forced that decision on the part of the government and the people, I think it was really the very best thing that could have happened to St. Kitts and Nevis at this time because it created opportunities for new ventures in economic development...We thought that we would go into to services, led by hospitality and tourism, financial services, information and communication technology services, and, recently, we have discovered the importance of higher education services.

More than anything else, it’s the distribution of the land between ordinary people that matters, because in the days when sugar was king the entire mass of the country was owned by about four or five families and the people did not own land. People can now have their own residential homes built...This activity to a large extent is what has kept the economy afloat over the last few months whereas you’ve seen serious downturn in economic activity in several countries, construction industry has kept very active in St. Kitts and Nevis.

TT: What do you think are the particular challenges and advantages of being the smallest country in the western hemisphere?

DD: I think there’s a very peculiar attraction that it brings. It allows the leadership of the country and the people of the country to intimately interact with each other and thus the issues...can be identified and solutions can be found through a consultative type of democratic system which I think is remarkable that can be emulated by the rest of the world... Democracy should flourish when the leaders can hear firsthand what the people are saying, when they can feel the pain of the people...It’s a peculiar situation that we cherish.

TT: There are a lot of students at MIT in all sorts of majors, from biology to economics to computer science, who are interested in development. Do you have any advice for them?

DD: Irrespective of what aspect of development that one’s engaged in, it has to be sustainable development. I think it is not just a buzz word; it has meaning for countries like ours in the Caribbean region. [We must at] all times remember the sensitivity there is between the environment and man; we have to ensure that we are always aware that the way we live today can prevent the good living of those in the future, and so I believe that sustainable development should always be foremost in your mind.