Antigua and Barbuda will not be represented at Friday’s special conference of Caribbean Community (CARICOM) leaders where Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley is to hand over the chairmanship of the 15-member regional grouping to her St Vincent and the Grenadines counterpart, Dr Ralph Gonsalves.
The Guyana-based CARICOM Secretariat earlier this week announced that the regional leaders will host their 20th Special Meeting via video conference beginning at 10 a.m.
The Caribbean Media Corporation (CMC) has been reliably informed that the Gaston Browne administration will not be represented at the meeting where regional leaders are expected to also address a number of procedural matters.
CMC understands that Antigua and Barbuda’s position is linked to the efforts to liquidate the financially strapped regional airline LIAT, which is headquartered in St John’s. The shareholder governments are Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica and St Vincent and the Grenadines.
“There are some regional leaders who see our regional institution, carrier, LIAT, as a ‘predator’ and they are determined to keep their knees on its neck to prevent its regeneration,” Prime Minister Brown wrote on his Facebook page.
“Their espoused values about regional integration, are in congruent with their insular actions,” he said, adding that “it is with a heavy heart that I add, if this insularity hidden in intellectual subterfuge is allowed to continue unabated, the CARICOM and OECS (Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States) integration institutions shall wither and die”.
Browne later told CMC that “there is a conspiracy by a few regional leaders to stymie the resurgence of LIAT as a new entity to provide air connectivity for the Caribbean people and to move tourists within our region”.
He was possibly making reference to an advertisement by the St Vincent-based One Caribbean Ltd. of travel to some Caribbean destinations on flights operated by OCL Barbados Ltd.
The flights, which are due to begin on July 12, will serve Grenada, St Lucia, Dominica, St Vincent, Barbados, Guyana and Tortola, and the carrier is promising commuters fares as low as US$99 plus taxes.
The Antigua and Barbuda government said Cabinet on Wednesday “held a fulsome discussion on the future of LIAT 1974 Ltd” and it is “developing a plan for a new LIAT, which includes an invitation to private entities to invest in that new carrier”.
“In keeping with the requirements set out by the shareholder governments, that plan is to be developed in the shortest possible time and to be ready in a few days. The Antigua and Barbuda government is committed to investing an amount of US$15,000,000 to US$20,000,000 towards the new LIAT,” according to a statement issued following the Cabinet meeting.
It said the conditions of the loan secured prior to the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis require that the borrowed resources be invested in LIAT.
“A decision was taken to have the Registrar of Companies in Antigua and Barbuda, acting under the Companies Act, to reserve the LIAT 2020 Ltd. new company name. Antigua and Barbuda stands opposed to the liquidation of LIAT 1974 Ltd. without a plan to create the necessary connectivity which regional integration requires,” the statement said.
It said that staff members of LIAT, numbering more than 800 throughout the region, including over 500 in Antigua, are very worried about their future.
The statement said Cabinet was informed that the cost and distribution of severance among the shareholders will be assessed.
Browne told CMC the liabilities should be settled based on shareholding.
“They have argued a legal point that shareholder governments have no legal liability and that a compassionate severance should be paid, based on collective agreements. This will leave Antigua with EC$62 million (US$23 million) of the EC$83 million (US$30.7 million) liability,” he said.