Prime Minister Freundel Stuart today refused to be dragged into public discussion over the vexed issue of regional air transportation.
However, he told reporters covering the 38th CARICOM Heads of Government Summit in Grenada that the matter was due to be thrashed out by regional leaders behind closed doors, following concerns raised by host Prime Minister Dr Keith Mitchell at last night’s opening about the level of political involvement in the affairs of regional carrier LIAT.
“That is a discussion that we are going to have in caucus . . . I prefer not to comment on it at this stage,” said Stuart in a brief comment on the matter after Mitchell took issue with a decision made a few months ago, to cancel what he said was one of LIAT’s “most lucrative routes to and from Grenada, without any consultation with the citizens or leadership of Grenada”.
In fact the Grenadian leader suggested that the decision was “all based on politics”, while reiterating what he said was his “long held belief that political presence on the board of airlines, such as LIAT, is not helpful to its proper management and efficiency”.
His public outburst did not go down very well with either his Vincentian or Antiguan counterpart.
In fact, St Vincent’s prime minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves accused the Grenadian leader of engaging in “sophistry”, while joining with Antigua and Barbuda’s prime minister Gaston Browne in calling for more investment in LIAT.
“It is one thing to sit on the sidelines and criticize it [LIAT]. It is another to put your money where your mouth is,” Gonsalves insisted.
And while pointing out that LIAT was currently struggling to pay its debts, Browne warned that no amount of “political grandstanding” would do by those who did not contribute to its operations and viability.
“The rationale is simple; you contribute and then you can make your demands. There are no free lunches,” he said in response to Mitchell.
However, the matter did not come up during the first business session of the 38th summit, although Stuart said it was likely to be a focal point in Wednesday afternoon’s caucus.
In the meantime, Stuart reported that “cordial”, but “energetic” talks were held on the CARICOM Single Market and Economy, after Barbados, which has lead responsibility within CARICOM’s quasi cabinet for CSME implementation, delivered a status report on the initiative.
Despite recent setbacks, Stuart also reported that CARICOM was still on course for finalizing arrangements for its own single economic space by 2019.
“There is still general commitment to the CSME. It is recognized that the respective countries have differing capacities and therefore timelines are not being met with the kind of fidelity that one would expect, but the commitment is there and therefore there was a general acceptance of things we can do in the short term, in the medium term and the longer term.
“The longer term of course not going beyond the year 2019, but generally speaking we had very good discussions on that,” Stuart said.
Today’s meeting also received a presentation on the CARICOM Commission on the Economy by Senator Darcy Boyce, who is Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office.
Stuart revealed that within the context of Boyce’s report recommendations were made on regional transportation but all he would say at this stage was that “those talks went very well”.
Other matters before CARICOM leaders this week include regional security; the effects of trans-national organized crime; and the movement of firearms throughout the Caribbean, which Stuart said, were “of growing concern to governments across the region”.
“We have to treat security seriously. For us, it is a developmental issue and not just an issue related to the discipline of people, nor an issue related to punishment and sanctions . . . . It has implications for our development,” he said.
He also gave the assurance that Barbados would be making its voice heard at the conference, since both issues were “of great concern to the country”.
“We want to come out of this conference with some clear indicators as to the way forward in these two areas,” he added.