The Barbados Government appeared today set to walk away from its role as lead shareholder in the cash-strapped airline, LIAT, even as the Prime Minister remains tight-lipped on negotiations over its future.
Briefly breaking silence on a steady stream of reports from Antigua that her administration was negotiating the sale of its shares to the government in St John’s, where the airline is based, the Prime Minister would only say that the airline is still willing to support the struggling carrier, but not in its current format.
In a cryptic response to journalists’ questions, the Prime Minister said: “Barbados is committed to LIAT and regional air travel [but] we may not be committed to LIAT 1974 and that’s the fundamental difference.
“There’s more than one way to do that which we have to do, but at the appropriate time with respect to the details of any discussions, I’m not going to disrespect the process and the people with whom we do business. There’s a right way to do things and I will follow that right way.”
Mottley’s comments today are the first indication that the Barbados Government may have been wavering for weeks over its decades-long policy of unswerving commitment to the airline’s viability, which had been backed by repeated calls by successive administrations to ffellow Eastern Caribbean governments to either subsidise the carrier or join as shareholders.
Even as Mottley refused to comment on speculation about the future of Barbados’ ownership, declaring she has no intention of negotiating in public, her Antiguan counterpart, Gaston Browne, has claimed that Barbados has agreed to sell all but ten per cent of its shares in LIAT. This followed a formal bid for shares made a month ago, on which the Mottley administration neither confirmed nor denied.
Browne reported on Sunday that Antigua and Barbuda had received communication
from Mottley that Barbados was willing to shrink its majority 49 per cent stake to a mere ten per cent.
If the sale goes through, it would result in Antigua and Barbuda becoming the majority shareholder in LIAT with 73 per cent of shares.
Today, Mottley gave her assurance that Barbados was still willing to support LIAT, but hinted that it would not continue to do so under its current ownership arrangements.
When questioned by journalists as to if Barbados had indeed sold its shares to Antigua and Barbuda, the Prime Minister said she would not speak on the issue publicly at this time.
She had also given a similar response when she spoke at the Barbados Employers’ Confederation annual general meeting last week.
Mottley said when the time was right she would use the floor of Parliament to speak to the people of Barbados.
“I do not shout across the Caribbean Sea and if that is an article of faith for me last week it is still an article of faith for me today.
“I give you the assurance and the people of Barbados that when the Cabinet has reviewed and is in a position to be able to do so, that I will speak in the place to which we have become accustomed to speaking, which is the Parliament of Barbados, that I will speak to the people of Barbados, but I am not in the habit of sharing correspondence that I have written to anyone, far less colleagues of heads, in the press before they have seen it and I don’t think there is anything which would cause me to alter those basic precepts of behaviour that I consider dear.”
Up until this point, there has been no publicly expressed indication that Barbados was rethinking its ownership of the 63-year-old airline, co-owned with Antigua and Barbuda, St Vincent and The Grenadines and Dominica.
In mid-March, the chairman of shareholders, Vincentian leader Dr Ralph Gonsalves, made an urgent appeal for a cash injection of $10 million (US$5 million) to keep the airline in the skies, while promoting a minimum revenue guarantee, beyond which LIAT would drop flights on unprofitable routes.
Grenada’s Prime Minister Dr Keith Mitchell then indicated it would make a $2 million (US$1 million) cash contribution and would pay additional funds based on load factors into St George’s.
Tourism Minister Kerrie Symmonds said that as a major shareholder in LIAT, Barbados remained interested in keeping it flying but it “won’t be the lone ATM machine” for the airline.