Caribbean air, maritime transport challenges under scrutiny

Peter Richards

PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad, Wednesday May 15, 2013 – Caribbean Community (CARICOM) ministers of transport will meet in St. Vincent and the Grenadines later this month and are likely to make recommendations that will go before regional leaders at their annual summit in Trinidad and Tobago in July on the vexing question of air and maritime transportation in the Caribbean.

CARICOM Secretary General Irwin La Rocque told the Caribbean Media Corporation (CMC) that last week, a task force of air transportation officials met to discuss a review of the CARICOM Air Multilateral Services agreement.

“The one that we have in place existed prior to current Treaty of Chaguaramas (that governs the regional integration movement) and (are) inconsistent in some aspects,” he said.

La Rocque said that the transport ministers meeting schedule for May 27-29, will most likely be attended also by executive of airlines servicing the Caribbean.

“We intend to invite the three major regional airlines to sit down with us at the table and to see how trhere can be greater cooperation in air transportation issues. I am referring to Caribbean Airlines, LIAT, Suriname Airways and there may be others at well”.

The four shareholder governments of LIAT – Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica and St. Vincent and the Grenadines – have been critical of the decision by the Trinidad and Tobago government to provide a fuel subsidy to the state-owned Caribbean Airlines (CAL).

St. Vincent and the Grenadines Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves, who chairs the LIAT shareholder governments, said the subsidy, which according to figures released in the Trinidad and Tobago parliament on Tuesday, was estimated at US$40 million last year, is a violation of the CARICOM treaty and Common Air Services Agreement among member countries, resulting in substantial losses to LIAT.

Gonsalves said the LIAT shareholder governments have agreed to provide a summary of a legal opinion to Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Kamla Persad Bissessar regarding the “unfair” subsidy as he insisted that the Antigua-based airline does not want a fight with Port of Spain on the issue.

Gonsalves told reporters as a result of the legal opinion given to LIAT, the shareholder governments had various options including taking the matter to arbitration, going before the tribunal of the Trinidad-based Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) as well as citing “rules of impermissible subsidies” under the articles of the CARICOM treaty.

He said the governments were also open to going before the CARICOM Anti Competition.

La Rocque told CMC “I think we have to keep on trying to see how we can address that issue. That will be done in St. Vincent and the Grenadines under the chairmanship of the lead head responsible for Transportation (Prime Minister Gonsalves).

La Rocque said he would not comment on whether or not the subsidy to CAL is a violation of the CARICOM treaty, telling CMC “it is a problem, it is an issue in the sense that it may be giving a competitive edge but I don’t know that is a matter that is going to throw cold water on anything (such as the formation of a single Caribbean airline).

“I think the desire to solve the transportation issue is a real one and it’s there and I think the way to approach it is to have discussions on these matters, but I don’t think that is going to be the major issue to be discussed.

“I think that we have to try and find a solution to the transportation problems that are plaguing us in the Community, not only in terms of inter regional travel, but sometimes through the region. Our tourism depends on it, our trade and services…depend on transportation so we have to find solutions to our issues.

La Rocque predicted it would not be an “easy solve” noting “we have been talking about transportation and trying to find solutions for quite a while. It is probably one of the most difficult topics facing us in terms of our integration agenda,” he told CMC.

Gonsalves told reporters Tuesday that he had raised the subsidy issue at the last CARICOM Inter-sessional summit adding “I want to have another conversation on that matter…”. (CMC) Click here to receive free news bulletins via email from Caribbean360. (View sample)