By Sir Ronald Sanders
BRIDGETOWN, Barbados, Friday May 24, 2019 – Prime Ministers Gaston Browne of Antigua and Barbuda and Mia Mottley of Barbados are two of the Caribbean’s young and dynamic leaders, both workaholics with clear and determined visions for the betterment of their countries. Each of them is a committed regionalist, notwithstanding insinuations to the contrary in sections of the regional media.
Because of their relative youthfulness, their experience at young ages as ministers of government and parliamentarians, and now the arduous, often lonely, task that they have seized with both hands of heading governments, inevitably their actions will shape the Caribbean region of the future.
Under conditionalities set by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that she could not avoid, Prime Minister Mottley is grappling with rebuilding the diminished Barbados economy that she inherited when her party was elected to govern in 2018. Those are circumstances that Prime Minister Browne knows well. He came into office, at his first election as Prime Minister in 2014, to a legacy of Antigua and Barbuda in the firm grip of the IMF’s austerity measures, a high debt to GDP ratio, a banking crisis, high unemployment and a sense of despair in the society, particularly the business sector. Those conditions, apart from the crisis in the banking sector, are very similar to those with which Prime Minister Mottley is wrestling.
The two Prime Ministers have much in common and experiences from which they can learn in order to jump hurdles successfully.
Prime Minister Mottley’s arrival in the councils of regional decision-making and the institutions of governance was warmly welcomed by Prime Minister Browne. His admiration for her continues, despite differences in their leadership styles. Those differences in style should not be mistaken for divergences from substance. And, no non-existent rivalry should be conjured by any who thrive on portraying difference as division.
Given Antigua and Barbuda’s distinctive political culture, Gaston Browne has adopted a style of open disclosure and comment on all things, big or small. He operates on the basis of being proactive in providing information in order not to be reactive when information is dispensed in his society, not always accurately. Barbadian governance follows a pattern of utilizing institutions, such as Parliament, and more formal structures for disseminating information, although the Barbados media was highly critical of former Prime Minister Freundel Stuart for the infrequency of his public explanations.
Prime Minister Browne’s open disclosure of matters surrounding the regional airline, LIAT, and particularly policy dissimilarity with Prime Minister Mottley, has been characterized as the basis for a feud. There is no such feud.
The policy dissimilarity between the two Prime Ministers over LIAT arises from the urgency of Barbados reducing debt, and the equal urgency in Antigua and Barbuda of maintaining employment. It does not result from any divergence over the vital importance of the airline to tourism in the region and to regional integration
The boundaries set by the Barbados Economic and Recovery Transformation plan, if it is to be strictly followed in all things, give the Barbados government little leeway to incur further debt. Indeed, the strategy is to reduce debt.
So, Ms Mottley has indicated that Barbados cannot, in its present financial situation, support the recapitalization of LIAT as envisaged by a Caribbean Development Bank sponsored report.
By the same token, LIAT employs a relatively large number of people in Antigua (including many non-Antiguans). Their dismissals would have a harmful immediate knock-on effect in the Antigua and Barbuda economy. Thus, Mr Browne favours the recommendations of the report.
In the circumstances, the Government of Antigua and Barbuda has offered to assume responsibility for certain of Barbados’ debt obligations in relation to LIAT in return for a transfer of shares. In turn, the Government of Barbados has agreed to enter negotiations along the lines of the offer in broad terms.
The challenge before the two governments is how, in good faith and genuine cooperation, they can settle arrangements that: reduce Barbados’ debt; does not swell unemployment in Antigua; and fulfils the joint objective of maintaining regional air transportation to continue to serve tourism and the social and business travel of the Caribbean’s people.
There should be no doubt that the elimination of LIAT will affect all the many countries that it now serves, including Guyana whose oil and gas industries will demand increased air transportation.
The region has seen many other airlines come and go since 1974 when the present incarnation of LIAT occurred. The names are now distant memories, but to recall some of them: EC Express, RedJet, Caribbean Star and a brief appearance by American Express.
No private company has hung around to deliver the air transportation that is needed regionally from St Kitts-Nevis in the North to Guyana in the South.
LIAT (1974) Ltd was formed and supported by CARICOM Heads of Governments because they knew the intrinsic truth that an economically integrated and strong Caribbean society could not be built or sustained without regional transportation. Over those 45 years, LIAT has become a West Indian institution, comparable to the University of the West Indies and West Indian cricket in their contribution to strengthening West Indian roots and enhancing West Indian identity.
It is worth noting that the governments of the Bahamas and the Cayman Islands have annual allocations of resources to their airlines, because they fully appreciate the importance of their airlines to tourism and the needs of their people.
Jean Holder, an integrationist who has been a key person in regional tourism, including 15 years as the Chairman of LIAT, makes the following point that all governments would do well to remember: “Governments already subsidize every aspect of land-based tourism on the grounds that it is a critical export industry earning foreign exchange. If hotel rooms are one leg of tourism, then air transportation is the second leg without which it cannot stand.”
LIAT remains vital to the Caribbean generally and to Antigua and Barbuda and Barbados. It is well within the intellectual capacity and creativity of Prime Ministers Browne and Mottley to give teams, representing their two governments, a mandate to ‘negotiate within a framework of co-operation’. Such a mandate would satisfy the imperatives of their economies while maintaining their joint goal of enhanced Caribbean integration.
In the collaboration of these two relatively young, strong and hardworking leaders, the region’s future could be shaped for better.
Sir Ronald Sanders is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the US and the OAS. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and Massey College in the University of Toronto.