The more things change, the more they remain the same.
Barbadians, whose memories are still in tack, will recall the waning years of the late Owen Arthur administration when he was accused by the Opposition of selling off the island’s “family silver”.
Barbados was navigating a financial downturn and our fragile, open economy was starved for foreign exchange.
Arthur, as political leader, had to make some critical decisions. Some state-owned assets were not performing at their optimum and had become drains on the public purse. Others capable of generating significant and valuable foreign currency were then sold to foreign buyers.
In 2003, the government offered its controlling interest or 57 percent of the shares it owned in the Barbados National Bank (BNB) to the Trinidad-based Republic Bank group. In 2012, Republic Bank would acquire the remaining shares, giving it 100 percent control of the financial institution that many people to this day are convinced was a wrong move.
The sale of BNB brought more than US$80 million into the treasury. During the period, the government also took the opportunity to dispose of most of its interest in some profitable entities.
The Barbados government decided it was time to sell lucrative assets such as its shares in Barbados Light & Power and the Insurance Corporation of Barbados. Over the years, we have also seen the Arawak Cement Plant being sold to foreign interests as well as state interest in Cable & Wireless.
Barbados’ need to tidy up its finances and block the bleed of state finances is upon us again. Among those assets on the chopping block include the troublesome Barbados Agricultural Management Company (BAMC) which manages sugar industry assets for the government.
The sugar industry is a troublesome and complex animal. There is a widely held belief among Barbadians that the sugarcane/sugar industry has already seen its best days and the premium value of the sector has already been extracted by the class of privileged Barbadians who had a long head start on the majority of the population.
Thus, the announcement by head of the Barbados Sustainable Energy Cooperative Society Ltd (CoopEnergy) retired Colonel Trevor Browne that this cooperative was seeking to invest $100 million in the takeover of BAMC in furtherance of its green energy thrust, came as a surprise.
Generally speaking, the thought of average working-class Barbadians investing and holding ownership of the assets of BAMC is intriguing.
Some have even compared it to the opportunity offered by the Government for credit unions to purchase the shares it was prepared to sell in BNB.
However, the BAMC is not BNB; the two entities are fish and fowl.
As much as we welcome the enthusiasm of Colonel Browne and his supporters in CoopEnergy, we must remind them that $100 million is not $100. The credit union movement comprises mostly citizens from the lower economic rung who have put aside their precious savings.
Yes, they deserve to be invested and own a greater stake in the assets of this country, but they also need the greatest level of protection because they have so much more to lose.
The impression should not be given that this $100 million investment has been approved by the more than 200 000 credit union members across the nearly 30 credit unions on the island. We, therefore, urge caution and a tempering of the mad rush to make deals happen.
We are forced to agree with longstanding credit unionist and former president of the Barbados Cooperative & Credit Union League Mr Ashton Turney.
“Investment of money from any source should be undertaken after relevant analysis and particularly cost-benefit analysis. Clearly, Colonel Browne is enthusiastic about moving the energy sector forward and would like to design a model that widens shareholder control to include workers.
“I, however, must reiterate that the money held in trust by the credit unions can only be invested in ventures approved by the members, and even then, the credit union movement must do its due diligence before inviting its members to consider any proposal,” he added.
We support Colonel Browne’s vision; it is the source of his funding for the vision with which we are uncomfortable.