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Antigua vs Sandals and justice in Caricom

Franklin Johnston

Friday, November 10, 2017

The impasse between Sandals and Prime Minister Gaston Browne of Antigua was a blip last year. It is now a running sore. Browne uses State power against investor Gordon “Butch” Stewart. A Jamaican is entitled to our protection, so back off bully!

Sandal Resorts International (SRI) was sliced bread to Antigua in 1991 and got concessions. Browne took office, ended them, and “claims that the (SRI) decision to close the hotel for three months from September 2017 is an act of hostility in response to not being granted concessions.” (Loop Caribbean News) Seriously?

That development partners of decades can face-off like this means Caricom is flawed and island politics a wild card to investors. We read: “Browne has since chastised the Antigua and Barbuda Workers Union for making life easy for Sandals and has called on Antiguan tourism workers to form their own union. Browne went further saying that the entire management team of Sandals Grande Antigua should be local, regardless of experience and expertise.” (Loop op cit)

Forty years of integration and decades of Antigua with SRI and this is it? We now know Browne recently gave tax-free status to a non-Caricom firm. So is tax his true goal or does he want the Sandals hotel?

In Caricom, politics trump principle, and the petulance of leaders makes business risky. Why? Browne, with 95,000 citizens, has one vote — as does our prime minister, Andrew Holness, with 2.9 million of us. Eastern Caribbean islands are close by travel, trade and marriage. We are far and can't outvote them; yet we do heavy lifting in Irma relief and are a big market to them. But history means disrespect is just below the surface. What triggered open abuse?

That Browne threatens the largest investor, employer, taxpayer in Antigua may relate to a 2016 Act which virtually cedes development of the twin-island state to a Chinese Group (YIDA) tax-free, no time limit; not like Stewart's. YIDA is to develop Hard Rock Hotel and Casino and celebrate as “Antigua and Barbuda Special Economic Zone is under the legal system of the Commonwealth, and is under triple legal protection of Act, Regulations and Licence” (YIDA Group News, January 30, 2016). The zone covers 9,800 acres, includes small islands; they will do education, offshore banking, factories, entertainment, you name it. And, “The Zone shall be free of all taxes levied in Antigua and Barbuda,” and “families of four will be processes (sic) at USD50,000 for the entire family for the first 500 family applications and transfer taxes and stamp duties shall be waived.” (YIDA News op cit.) Is this a country within a country?

So who is right? A nation must protect its interests; so must a business. Antigua needs all its taxes and works with all who create jobs and wealth. But in this life we get what we negotiate, and Stewart did so well — Would Antigua benefit if he did not? Browne ended concessions and/or wants a stake in SRI by a bogey he calls “entrepreneurial socialism”. Is his chastisement to “nickel and dime” SRI to lose patience, money, and sell cheap? Recall how the Nazis got Jews to “freely” sell their priceless art? Is the mustachioed man Furher or Charlie Chaplin? Villain or comedian? Sir, cut the crap, be civil, give-and-take, as given Caricom politics this will go to Privy Council, not Carbbean Court of Justice. Selah.

Why is this so emotional? We are used to a civil servant pursuing taxpayers; but a prime minister? Peeps say Browne's aspect on live media was not statesmanlike; his remarks were redacted by the host, and on the Sandals donation to Barbuda relief he was ungracious and petty. Sir, we catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Finally, West Indian culture is known for racial tone, eg Garvey, Malcolm X, Stokely, Michael X; little spoken of but noticed. We shout “racist” at whites and bellow “Chinie nyam dog” in one breath. Of Taino, Asian, Mestizo, African or European roots, the core Caribbean embrace the past, speak French, Spanish proudly and celebrate conjoined culture. West Indians live in black majority, black- ruled islands, and may have a distinct psychopathy: arrogant to non-English speakers — as if English honours; sensitive to slights; passive aggressive to minorities as we blacks are owed something by all other ethnicities. So friends, is racism a factor in this dispute?

What is Caricom's dispute resolution mechanism? The silence of Cabinet and the private sector is deafening! Yet Stewart gets solidarity from the global fraternity. The current playbook is distrust of the Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME) and its organs. It allows a small-island prime minister to hound an investor. Who defends him? We have nothing against small, but even games are in leagues to equalise advantage, disadvantage and separate boys from men. The logistics/market size equation does not add up for us, but we are a large market to them. The equation favours a single market with say, Nigeria; as 100 per cent of Antigua's market can't grow us, but five per cent of Nigeria's might. Does Browne wish Stewart, our investors, to go elsewhere? Caricom, what a crock!

Browne and Stewart may be victims of good intentions to their constituents and stakeholders, but as development is not a zero-sum game both can win. We know Federation, Caricom, CSME over-promised and underperformed, so Browne may less care for members and favour aliens.

Sir, you are boss in Antigua, so sort it, as Sandals was value for decades and is doing well. We love old Caricom's warmth and jointure in negotiations, etc, but like Antigua/YIDA we will not chain our economy to it but chase big Caribbean markets in our backyard and then on to Africa. Will Caricom catch up? Stay conscious!

 

Franklin Johnston, D Phil (Oxon), is a strategist and project manager. Send comments to the Observer or franklinjohnstontoo@gmail.com.