At one point, the optimism bordering on euphoria was palpable.
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, while the gates of The Great North were slammed shut and we were left with none but ourselves, Caribbean Community leaders seemed to have finally grasped the vital necessity of intra-regional travel, trade and tourism to our destiny. Self-reliance became the buzzword and collectively the region breathed fresh air and dared to imagine a future of lower airfares, CARICOM-rate accommodation packages and other enticements to help the people of this Caribbean enjoy the community to which they belong.
Then, as the pandemic met the collective wisdom and coordinated force of CARICOM public health officials – unfettered by naked political impulses – curves were flattened, corners were turned, and again, the region could begin to breathe more freely. For real. COVID-19 proved no match for regional integration gone viral.
Perhaps it was all too good to be true. As governments now turn to a vision of life beyond the pandemic, they immediately begin to look north, even to some countries where the pandemic not only ravaged the society, it was staging a comeback, with additional waves of infection. Illness and death.
When our Tourism Minister and the Prime Minister spoke of reopening the borders, they eyed Canadian and American dollars and British pounds.
Even in the resumption of regular commercial passenger service, no Caribbean airline was to be found in the pantheon. There were cheers for Air Canada and Virgin Atlantic, British Airways and JetBlue and deafening silence on the airline the Government of Barbados actually owns.
The buzzwords and slogans of integration have been quietly shelved as attention turns to welcoming the very tourists to whom the borders were originally closed. And where are Caribbean people in all of this? They have been relegated yet again to a second and third tier of existence – not even a region-wide address by the otherwise ubiquitous chairman of CARICOM in the last days of her term.
Yet again, Caribbean people are an afterthought – if thought of at all – in the much-vaunted drive for economic sovereignty, self-sufficiency, growth and wealth creation.
The little airline that could, and did, since 1956, which has tried valiantly amid incredible obstacles – intransigent governments, obtuse economic planning, politically infected governance and outrageous taxation – rose to new heights, becoming one of the top on-time airlines in all the Americas in its last years. It battled against headwinds of doubt, suspicion, prejudice and disdain by the very people it sought to serve. But who now will care for Caribbean people to whom an airline ticket represents more than a leisure trip?
Suddenly, blood ties, economic interests, business relations, academic connections and sporting and cultural unions account for nought. It is almost as if an island has turned its eyes expectantly towards ships and planes while never bothering to build a road. This, then, is the situation Caribbean people face, as the owner-governments of LIAT put the final nail in the coffin of the little airline that could and did.
Now, mammoth efforts are on to resuscitate industries and businesses. Somehow for some reason, LIAT is not allowed to make the cut. Governments showed compassion and concern for the nationals of third countries and cruise ship crew members but appear now to hold less regard for their own nationals, trapped abroad in the Caribbean or separated from loved ones and associates in neighbouring territories.
We are disappointed, frustrated, and downright ticked off that thousands upon thousands of Caribbean people have been left in the dark following the cavalier announcement of the end of LIAT. The whole point of state ownership of such a vital strategic asset as LIAT is the intrinsic guarantee that it would stay in the air no matter what. Regional air travel is a public good, like education, health and social welfare. The business proposition of moving Caribbean people from island to island is not intrinsically a failure. Yet the region is littered with carcasses of private sector firms that sought profit at LIAT’s demise.
Nevertheless, we are mindful of the extent to which Caribbean governments, not the least of which is host government Antigua and Barbuda, have sought over the years to overload LIAT with more staff than it wanted and less management than needed.
Now, as the contagion that is COVID-19 passes from our shores, presumably without it being reintroduced by the very international travellers whose arrival we now trumpet, LIAT’s steadfast workers and loyal clients have become surplus to requirements while the people of the region are made to diet on a pablum of laissez-faire economic orthodoxy and rhetoric in fancy dress.
The people of the Caribbean deserve better. And fast. But for now, we tender the thanks of those who know enough of the past to be truly grateful for the safe conduct of the region’s most precious cargo for 64 years.