Not so sweet in Cabinet these days
It was interesting to hear all the talk this past week about sugar and its proposed multimillion-dollar revitalization plan, especially since it would have seemed obvious the majority, including the noted Barbadian economist Professor Hilbourne Watson, had already written off the industry as dead.
But then again, we can always count on Dr David Estwick –– for as long as he remains Minister of Agriculture at least –– to keep hope alive.
Dr Estwick has made it pellucidly clear over the past week that sugar will not die under his watch. The first occasion was in an exclusive interview with Barbados TODAY’S Emmanuel Joseph, published on Friday, November 7, in which he made the startling revelation that all the major backers, including the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank and the Japanese, had all pulled out of the Government’s proposed US$250 million Sugar Restructuring Programme over concerns about the island’s investment ranking, following its downgrade by Moody’s in June.
The good news, which Dr Estwick also disclosed at the time, was that another agency, the United States-based National Standard Finance, had jumped on board and offered to put up the necessary loan financing.
But the bad news was that both Dr Estwick and the financiers had been left in the lurch and were quickly running out of patience, as Cabinet appeared to be dragging its feet on the matter.
Not hiding his frustration over the situation, Dr Estwick would speak out publicly again about his concerns. This time, at a St Lucy constituency branch meeting of the ruling Democratic Labour Party, where he also lashed out at critics of the Government’s plan for the revitalization of the sugar industry, saying it was nonsense to suggest that the island should abandon sugar altogether and grow other produce.
“It is rubbish to believe that Barbados can turn all of its plantation land into vegetables and root crops,” the minister said, further arguing that “if you take ten or 15 plantations in Barbados and they grow root crops and vegetables alone the market will be flooded with every single product. There would be massive gluts in Barbados and the farmers would not make one cent”.
However, with the agriculture industry as a whole currently haemorrhaging, there are those like Professor Watson who simply do not share Dr Estwick’s point of view. In fact, many don’t see a long-term future for sugar at all.
Delivering the Patrick Emmanuel Memorial Lecture last Thursday night on the topic The Caribbean At The Crossroads In The Crisis Of Capitalism, Watson warned that there was scarcely any Caribbean country today producing sugar for the world market at less than 25 to 33 cents per pound –– and the world market price hovers around 11 to 13 cents.
“Why would anybody want to buy sugar at 29, or 23 or 30 cents, if it is sold on the world market at 13?” he asked, adding that reverting to a lower cost of production now was impossible.
Ironically, around the same time the goodly professor was delivering those remarks, Cabinet was locked in a marathon session that ended around 9 p.m., and which we understand had been dominated by the same issue.
It begs the question: where does Prime Minister Freundel Stuart stand on this and what would Dr Estwick do if he doesn’t get his way?
Asked by reporters last Friday to provide a deadline for the proposed multipurpose sugar factory at Andrews to be up and running, Stuart said: “I don’t want to do that because, quite frankly, we are going through some challenges. We have been going through some challenges for the last six years and we do not know when these challenges are going to effectively come to an end. And, therefore, we have to concentrate on wrestling present challenges to the ground before we can be too ambitious about fixing deadlines for that transition from a sugar industry to a sugar cane industry.”
Based on that answer, it would seem the jury is still out on sugar’s future.
As for Dr Estwick, will this be simply another UAE episode or will this be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back? Only time will tell.