Making Sandals a campaign issue a poor political strategy

An Antiguan’s view on the Gaston Browne debacle


Monday, November 20, 2017

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Prime Minister Gaston Browne has attracted no new investor to Antigua and Barbuda in his entire term of office so far, despite lots and lots of promises, this at a time when new projects are popping up all over the Caribbean, Mexico, Latin and Central America.

With tourism accounting for 75 per cent of the island's Gross Domestic Product, this is an unforgivable failure on the part of his Government. The most recent announcement was that Stephen Hunter and the Sunwing group was going to run Jolly Beach, but the truth is if you dress your grandmother in the latest swimwear, it's still your grandmother, and Royalton has had their own unsavory issues with construction sites and employees recently.

So what does the prime minister do? With a general election seemingly looming, he seeks to deflect attention away from his failure to open up new revenue streams and to build any new capacity. This is one reason why he persists with these nonsensical attacks on Sandals and its Chairman Gordon 'Butch' Stewart.

It is clear to even the blind that Mr Browne wants to use the Sandals impasse as a campaign issue. I can bet my bottom dollar that when the election bells rings, and everybody expects it to be soon because things are getting worse, PM Browne and his team will try to drag Sandals through the political mud.

But even if he does that, how does it change the price of Blue Mountain coffee? The fact is that Sandals is the main resort attraction in Antigua, in spite of what Rob Barrett and a few other hoteliers may think. The fact is that Sandals attracts the most foreign exchange and the fact is that more people get jobs there than at any other resort or private business.

However, having failed to attract new investors, and having failed to open up new revenue streams, the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda has chosen to implement a retrograde economic strategy that boils down to killing the goose that lays the golden egg. He has decided to squeeze all he can out of Sandals, which is the real reason behind this elimination of concessions.

There are a few things that have not been made clear in this debacle, and they should.

These concessions had a life span, they were not there ad infinitum, which means our Government could have waited and decided not to extend the concessions if they felt that way. So why did they act so hastily you have to ask.

Secondly, the concessions were not given to Sandals out of the blue. The concessions were negotiated between Sandals and an Antigua Labour Party government led by Sir Lester Bird in 2000, and were given in return for Sandals building 100 new rooms.

As we have heard consistently since this impasse started, the resort built not 100, but 180 rooms and other facilities, which the Government cannot refute. A deal was struck with Sandals and they delivered their end of the bargain. By ending the concessions prematurely Gaston Browne has made it look like the people of Antigua and Barbuda do not live up to their promises. I wonder if people understand this point?

This therefore is why the company has been crying defamation and slander, because the prime minister has been insinuating that they did something illegal and wrong, when all they did was operate under the terms of a concession they had earned by deepening their investment at Dickenson Bay.

Let's break it down even further. Let's say you enter into an agreement with your landlord where you will renovate your bedroom with your own money, and in return he will let you pay 10% less rent for 12 months. So you go ahead and fix up that bedroom, keeping your end of the bargain. But then after only six months your landlord says you have to pay the full rent again, is that fair? Well, that's exactly what Prime Minister Browne has done with Sandals, I hope my fellow Antiguans understand now.

You know what the funny thing is? Despite knowing that it was not fair, Sandals swallowed their pride and for the benefit of moving ahead in peace, gave up what they were entitled to. But for love of Antiguans, the hotel could easily have moved to another Caribbean island where it probably would do better.

So when Prime Minister Browne continues to insinuate that they were doing something underhanded, one can appreciate the pain and anger that it causes to the company. What is even sadder is that this is a Caribbean company. It demonstrates the same backward mentality we have been accused of having in the region where you pull down your own, but lift up the foreign interests.

Because what PM Browne takes from Sandals with his right hand, he gives to Yida with his left; compounding an unfair decision with an unfair action. What's worse is that the Yida concessions have no time limit, but extend forever and ever amen.

The prime minister's inability to attract investment is leaving Antigua teetering on the edge, and he must understand that the 'growth in the tourism sector' he is boasting about are figures that ironically, reflect the work being done to market Antigua and Barbuda, by the same hotel community he is so quick to malign.

PM Browne is someone who gets easily intoxicated by his own arrogance, and therefore I expect him to continue to utter statements the company has deemed defamatory, even more so during the upcoming election campaign. Watch out for it, you'll see it's true.




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