The prime minister of Cape Verde, the highest ranking official from that country ever to visit Norwich, pledged Sunday to give $10,000 to help rebuild the local headquarters of the city’s Cape Verdean Santiago Society.

The prime minister of Cape Verde, the highest ranking official from that country ever to visit Norwich, pledged Sunday to give $10,000 to help rebuild the local headquarters of the city’s Cape Verdean Santiago Society.

“Right now the most important thing for Cape Verde is to be united,” said Prime Minister José Maria Neves, speaking through a translator in front of more than 100 students, parents and community leaders gathered at Slater Auditorium at Norwich Free Academy.

The society headquarters, which had been a center of Cape Verdean gatherings since 1939, was destroyed by fire in 2006.

“This is monumental,” Acting Society Historian Lisa Rose-Rodriguez said of the prime minister’s contribution. “To see that we need financial help, to validate us as an immigrant group that is still connected, is extremely important for us. It gives global publicity to a local tragedy.” The society has about 90 members.

Neves arrived Sunday morning with a delegation of about 15 dignitaries at St. Anthony’s Chapel on the grounds of St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church on Central Avenue. He drove by the site of the former headquarters of the Santiago Society on Talman Street, had lunch with Mayor Ben Lathrop and City Council members, then spoke to the community at Norwich Free Academy.

Norwich is home to approximately 1,800 Cape Verdeans, making it one of the largest populations of Cape Verdeans in the state. Bridgeport and Waterbury also have large Cape Verdean populations.

“We’re communities of communities,” said Mark Cohan, head of Norwich Free Academy.

Cape Verde, a group of volcanic islands off the western coast of Africa, is about the size of Rhode Island. It has a population of about 500,000 living in the country, and 500,000 living abroad. Cape Verde was a colony of Portugal and achieved its independence in 1975.

Neves said the country has made great strides since that time, building schools and airports, educating a formerly illiterate population and modernizing services such as roads, water treatment facilities and telecommunications. He said the country also is working to strengthen its private sector and encourage leadership and investment.
“We want to continue to count on the strength, the energy, of Cape Verdeans that are scattered throughout the world,” Neves said.

Victor Manuel Barbosa Borges, minister of foreign affairs, told Cape Verdeans gathered Sunday education is critical to their success.

“As you say in English, ‘No pain, no gain,’” he said. He said it’s a trap for Cape Verdeans to believe all they can give is money, when what they really need to give are education, ideas and dreams.

“Success is the fate of hard-working people,” he said.

Neves arrived in the United States Friday and is scheduled to stay until Oct. 1. He is here to attend the annual U.N. World Summit, a trip designed to strengthen the relationship between the countries. Two years ago, the Cape Verde ambassador to the United States, Jose Brito, visited Norwich.

Belmiro “Junie” Rodrigues, president of Norwich’s Cape Verdean Santiago Society, said he was honored to be part of the events.

“This is a very proud moment in my life,” he said.

Fatima Veiga, Cape Verde ambassador to the United States, said she wants to work with local Cape Verdeans and do all she can to help them.

“You are the true ambassadors of Cape Verde,” she said.

Neves’ visit to Norwich was his only stop in Connecticut; he also planned stops in Providence, Boston, New Bedford and Brockton, both in Massachusetts, where large numbers of Cape Verdeans are living.

Reach Deborah Straszheim of the Norwich (Conn.) Bulletin at 425-4221 or dstraszheim@norwichbulletin.com.