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Antigua's Browne goes to the polls with bribery cloud over his head

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

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ST JOHN'S, Antigua — Antiguan Prime Minister Gaston Browne has called general elections for March 21, 2018, a year before they are constitutionally due, saying he wants to protect projects that are in the pipeline for 2019.

But observers here insist Browne's Antigua and Barbuda Labour Party (ABLP) is rapidly losing popularity among voters, having nothing to show after almost four years in office — during which he famously antagonised investors in the country.

Critics here also say that Browne is increasingly nervous over rising calls for him to show evidence that he has been exonerated of allegations that he received three million euros from disgraced Brazilian construction giant, Odebrecht, which is enmeshed in an international bribery scandal.

The ABLP won 14 of the 17 seats up for grabs in the 2014 elections in which it defeated the then ruling United Progressive Party (UPP) led by Baldwin Spencer, who indicated last week that he would be retiring from electoral politics.

The ABLP will face the fast-rising UPP, led by Senator Harold Lovell, who has been hammering home his message that Browne has not achieved anything for Antigua and Barbuda in four years, except to antagonise investors in the country.

Browne managed to frighten off investors in the hotel industry, threatening last year to introduce “entrepreneurial socialism”, under which he says he wants his and other Caribbean governments to acquire ownership in hotels in their territories on grounds that they are operating “like a plantation industry”.

With tourism accounting for 75 per cent of the island's gross domestic product (GDP) of $1.5 billion, local opposition and tourism sources here charged that “what Browne is advocating is the complete obliteration of the country's economy”.

“Other Caribbean governments are instead seeking to attract foreign investment on the basis of realistic returns in a drastically competitive investment climate and an unusually stubborn global economic environment,” said long-time investment consultant Brendon Phillip.

“After Browne's scorched earth policy has succeeded in driving out investors, he is clearly prepared to preside over a hungry, jobless population, empty hotel rooms, deserted skies, and a government that cannot pay its bills, as long as he can call himself prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda.

“He shows little respect even for the legal process of his own country. Those who are watching this debacle with disbelief agree on one thing: Browne has no concern about the adverse impact his behaviour is having on Antigua's economic well-being,” the consultant added.

Political analyst Anthony DaCosta said: “It is very clear that he has called the elections, before his government's fading popularity plunges even further.

“Browne is running a failed Government. One would have to feel sorry for the people of Antigua, as there is little or no new investment, something he is trying to distract from by issuing loud but empty threats to investors and his country's media.

Some local media personalities here have suggested that investors are also waiting on the prime minister to clear the air after accusations that he had received three million euros from Brazilian construction firm, Odebrecht, which has been alleged to bribe numerous heads of government in Latin America to cover up or facilitate money laundering activities.

Browne strenuously denied the allegations, later saying that he had been exonerated after a private arrangement with the newspaper, El Pais, which he had sued for defamation for carrying the original story quoting a former Odebrecht lawyer.

He has so far failed to provide proof of his exoneration, despite numerous calls from Antiguan media outlets, which he has instead attacked for being “unpatriotic”.


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