Columns

King Gaston Browne and his kingdom of Antigua

By Anthony DaSilva

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

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I have waited for a while before wading into the turbulent waters of the Gaston Browne-Sandals Antigua debacle. However, I'd like to add my two cents worth as I think Sandals is a Caribbean icon that belongs to all of us.

The 21st century has seen some strange and incredible developments: the fall of the Berlin Wall; the end of the Cold War; the rise of China as an economic power; the end of South African apartheid; the coronation of Nelson Mandela; the ISIS reign of terror and the 9/11 bombing of the US World Trade Center; and the election of Barack Obama, the first black president of the US, among other unforetold events.

Yet, with all the signs and wonders of the times, this century has not seen the likes of a Gaston Browne, the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda who is so willing to see his country come to nought, if only he can ride roughshod over his tiny, hapless kingdom.

Browne is the first prime minister who seems to enjoy going on television, holding up his expensive watch for all to see, with his Adolf Hitler-like moustache twitching, to lambaste people in his country who have worked so hard to build Antigua and over whom he can't get to exercise control.

He behaves in an outlandish manner, without provocation, using the power of his office to inflict pain and vengeance when he can't have his way. A good example to study is Sandals Antigua, which is too big and whose influence in the island's economy is too overarching to be controlled.

Look at how he unilaterally cancelled a legally binding agreement signed by the previous Government with Sandals and declares it to have been illegal without recourse through the courts, like the Caribbean Court of Justice set up for such purposes.

The Lester Bird Administration signed the concession pact with Sandals to protect Antiguans in exchange for substantial investments that brought in more visitors, more foreign exchange, and employed significantly more people.

The succeeding Government made changes to the country's tax system but, recognising the importance of the agreement with Sandals, made provisions to ensure the resort did not suffer any loss. None of this matters to the pompous Gaston Browne.

But it is not difficult to work out his little playbook, which is clearly not about protecting the interest of the people of Antigua. Sandals has done a lot more and a lot longer (25 years) for Antigua than Gaston Browne.

He has, however, decided that, in the absence of any major investment or vote-getting achievements, he will use Sandals as a political campaign tool, setting up a David and Goliath scenario on which he hopes to fool enough people.

He is certainly hoping to take the people's mind off the terrible allegations which have been made against him that he received three million euros from Brazilian construction giant, Odebrecht, which is under investigation for bribing several leaders to carry out or cover up money-laundering activities on its behalf.

Browne has vociferously denied the allegations and sued the Spanish newspaper El Pais for defamation for carrying the original allegation, quoting the lawyer of the Brazilian firm.

He says he has since been vindicated.

It does appear, however, that Browne, seeing that Sandals is the biggest operation in Antigua, has decided to use his office to beat up on the resort, believing that makes him a big man in the eyes of his electorate.

Interestingly, while holding the handle, Sandals has been relatively passive and co-operative in its reaction to Browne's unprovoked actions which have stripped the hotel of its competitive edge. If Browne were the businessman he claims to be, he would certainly have more respect for the importance of competitiveness in business.

It seems he could not care less for the fate of Antiguans, whose well-being depends on a vibrant and profitable Sandals Antigua which he smears in such a tyrannical devil may care manner and doing his best to make a wrong into a right.

Browne, in his desperation, leaked confidential documents to the media and foolishly admitted it when he accused a Radio Antigua interviewer of being unpatriotic because he had sent journalists the document to publish and they refused.

He wildly repeats a fictitious sum of EC$101 million which he and his team had to invent to justify the wrongs they have committed against Sandals and the Antiguan people. The document turned out to be useless, which is probably why the media ignored it, but it sounded good politically.

Laughably, the document turned out to be nothing more than an indemnity provided by the Government to Sandals. But it showed that Browne would stoop to any levels to push his, or his ally's agenda.

A legal document cannot be declared illegal on the mere opinion of a prime minister, let alone one who is untrained in law. The best queen's counsel in the United Kingdom are taken aback that a democratically elected government could be playing such an indecent game.

Browne should know that Sandals Antigua has quarter-century of service under its belt. Investors may come and go, as he callously declares, but Sandals is Caribbean and is going nowhere.

It's in it for the long distance run for the benefit of Antigua and Antiguans who work for the resort. It will be here long after Browne and his cronies and, interestingly, it will be there for Browne's own sustainability.

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