Caribbean leaders meet amid concerns over regional transportation, COVID

Caribbean leaders meet amid concerns over regional transportation, COVID

Saturday, July 04, 2020

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GEORGETOWN, Guyana (CMC)— Caribbean Community (Caricom) leaders were meeting virtually on Friday, overshadowed by the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) on their socio-economic future and the plight of the regional transportation with the decision to liquidate the financially strapped regional airline, LIAT.

The meeting allowed for the outgoing chair, Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley, to hand over the stewardship of the 15-member regional integration grouping for the next six months to St Vincent and the Grenadines Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves.

The summit was originally due to have taken place in Kingstown but due to the pandemic, it was held virtually. The leaders have scheduled another meeting later for September, where they will be expected to be physically present.

Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne was notably absent from the virtual meeting, having earlier expressed his disappointment at the decision of the shareholder governments of the regional airline to have it liquidated. Apart from Antigua and Barbuda, the other major shareholder governments are Barbados, Dominica and St Vincent and the Grenadines.

The airline owes its staff an estimated EC$94 million in severance and holiday payment, which it is unable to pay, but Browne has said that his Administration is prepared to invest an estimated EC$20 million towards the recapitalisation of a “new LIAT”.

In his address, Gonsalves, who apart from having lead responsibility for transportation within the Quasi Caricom Cabinet, is also the chair of the shareholder governments of the airline, said he had already held talks with representatives of several airlines wishing to do business in the region.

Gonsalves said the situation of regional transportation is in the hands of the leaders “to solve”, adding “as chair of the transportation portfolio…I have already been in touch with several airlines, the principal ones being CAL (Caribbean Airlines), Inter-Caribbean, One Caribbean and SVG Air.

“I believe that we are going to be able to provide, in a very short time, a sufficiency of regional transport for the subregion to serve ourselves safely, reliably, sustainably and reasonably priced,” Gonsalves said, adding “I want to give that assurance to the people of the Caribbean Community.”

Mottley, whose country, Barbados, controlled the largest share in LIAT, said the decision to liquidate the airline was a difficult one, noting “but the reality is that LIAT has been for us a critical part of our history, it has allowed Caribbean people to move, but there is also a time when those instruments that served us well in the past may not be the right instruments for us going forward”.

She told the summit that the board of directors because of the “heavy debt” of the airline “had been carrying, not now, but for many, many years, have indicated to us that it is no longer possible to trade as LIAT (1974) Limited and in truth and in fact, the company is effectively insolvent and that it needs liquidation.

“They would have done so conscious of the fact that unless you liquidate an insolvent company, directors will be guilty of fraudulent trading and to that extent as shareholder governments we have had to respond simply because to do otherwise would mean providing a level of funding that we simply do not have at this time in the affairs of our community...”

Mottley told the summit that “our commitment remains to safe, reliable, affordable travel within the Eastern Caribbean” adding that a report prepared by the Caricom Secretariat had shown that as many as 38 airlines flying within Caricom, nine of which “come from outside”.

“I am happy to report as chair of the community and as prime minister of Barbados…that since announcements were being made earlier this week about LIAT's demise, six airlines have come forward offering to fill the space”.

She said they were SVG Air and One Caribbean out of St Vincent and the Grenadines, the Trinidad-based CAL, the Turks and Caicos-based Inter-Caribbean, the US-based Silver, “which we have asked to meet with us over the course of the next few days” and the French-based Air Antilles.

“We are satisfied that these six airlines can more than fill the immediate gap particularly given the reduced travel within COVID. Having said that, I hope that we will be able to work with them and other private sector players who have also expressed an interest to being able to seeing how they can work either on their own or with some of the existing players in order to be able to fill the gap.”

Mottley said that regional governments will now have to use the funds 'to be able to deal with health expenditure, to be able to deal with water, to be able to deal with other forms of transport, to be able to deal with the fact that our tourism sector as well as our vulnerable populations are all requiring us to hold their hands because they have come to zero revenue”.

She said unemployment in the region “for the most part in some instances it has doubled in other instances it has trebled and therefore we come to this moment , not because there is pleasure in coming to this moment, we come to this moment as a matter of practical reality that governments must focus on keeping their citizens alive, governments must focus on keeping their economies going and if that focus can allow others to come on board and to be able to help us carry their weight, well my people in Barbados would tell you that I live by the mantra that many hands make light work”.

Gonsalves said that the region was entering a new phase of its development given the impact that the CVOVID pandemic has had on all member states.

“The inequalities and harsh encumbrances in the global political economy, the threat of climate change to our region and the explosion of pandemics have made it pellucid as never before that our Caribbean Community is central to our people's salvation on this our earthly city,” Gonsalves said,

He told his regional colleagues, and representatives of various regional institutions, such as The University of the West Indies ( The UWI) that in the early days of COVID-19, the Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley had indicated that “Caricom is the antidote for COVID-19”.

He said the heroic contribution of the Trinidad-based Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA), the Implementation Agency for Crime and Security (IMPACS), the Regional Security System (RSS), the Barbados-based Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA) to name a few ”is a sufficient testimony in this regard.

“Accordingly I reiterate our profound gratitude to the regional public servants of CARICOM, the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) and at all allied regional institutions,” he added.

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