In a Front Page exclusive in its April 29 edition, Barbados TODAY broke the news of an embarrassing incident at the Grantley Adams International Airport (GAIA), taking place two weeks earlier, in which St Vincent and the Grenadines’ Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves was subjected to a security check like any ordinary passenger.
Dr Gonsalves was passing through Barbados, having arrived on a LIAT flight from Guyana, to catch a connecting flight home. As he was not accompanied by either a protocol or police special branch officer, which is standard procedure for visiting heads of government and other dignitaries, the usual courtesies were not extended.
As a result, Dr Gonsalves found himself having to undergo security screening, as with regular passengers. An alarm was reportedly triggered during the initial screening, prompting a request for him to undergo a second screening and to take off his shoes.
At this point, Dr Gonsalves reportedly protested, and additional security officers were summoned to the scene.
This unfortunate incident, resulting from an obvious lapse on the part of Barbados authorities, has generated a fair amount of discussion on social media since Barbados TODAY broke the story. Based on some of the comments, the episode has only served to reinforce the perception of Barbados as a country that is unwelcoming to regional visitors.
Pictures of the actual incident, presumably taken with a cellphone, were also posted online showing Dr Gonsalves, standing next to the screening station as other passengers at Gate 9 looked on.
Dr Gonsalves is one of the most high-profile and easily recognizable of CARICOM leaders. Clearly, however, the security officer who interfaced with him in this instance did not know who he was. Otherwise, her response most likely would have been different.
She should not be condemned, therefore, for doing her job, as she was trained to, even though her action resulted in embarrassment. The buck must stop higher up. Dr Gonsalves reportedly received an apology from the management of GAIA before he departed the same evening. And an official investigation has also been launched.
According to the information provided by the source of our story, Dr Gonsalves’ flight from Guyana was delayed and he arrived in Barbados later than originally planned. What needs to be explained, if this information was known to the relevant authorities, is why the usual courtesies were not in place when he arrived. Existing arrangements clearly merit a review to determine how this lapse occurred, so that the necessary corrective action can be taken to avoid a similar occurrence in the future.
As airport security officers interface with people from all walks of life, it is important, as this incident has highlighted, that their training should include exposure to relevant information that would allow them to recognize at least regional dignitaries like prime ministers, cabinet ministers and senior CARICOM officials when they are passing through the airport.
Had the officer who screened Dr Gonsalves been the beneficiary of such training, she would have been in a position to instantly recognize who he was and, instead of subjecting him to a regular security check, could have alerted the relevant authorities that he was unaccompanied by a protocol or police special branch officer, so that they could have immediately come and extended the usual courtesies.
The lapse raises a serious issue related to Dr Gonsalves’ own security. While such incidents have never occurred here and is highly unlikely, suppose someone in the terminal, recognizing who he was, had decided to show aggression to the Vincentian leader on realizing a window of opportunity, due to the fact that he was unaccompanied. Barbados would have suffered major embarrassment.
The security of our leaders is an issue which cannot be taken for granted, given the craziness that is happening in the world today and to which the Caribbean is vulnerable. At least, Barbados was lucky on this occasion.
Since the incident is public knowledge, we hope at least a summary of the findings of the official probe will be made known to all. It is also our hope, coming out of this investigation, that better protocol and security arrangements for visiting dignitaries will be put in place, so there will not be a repeat of the same lapse, leaving Barbados facing the fallout from another embarrassment of this kind.