Browne and Mottley: Shapers of the Regional Future | Sir Ronald Sanders

Prime Ministers Gaston Browne of Antigua and Barbuda and Mia Mottley of Barbados in New York for the United Nations General Assembly last year.

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.

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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.

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