2016 – A year of highs and lows for the Caribbean

by Peter Richards

BRIDGETOWN, Barbados – Caribbean tourism remained on a high in 2016, but with threats such as Brexit and correspondent banking lurking dangerously close to its doorstep, the performance of the region’s economies remained at a worrying low.

Politically, it was also a mixed year for the region in which several incumbent Governments were shown the door.

In St Lucia’s case, new prime minister Allan Chastanet suggested that it was a ballooning debt, coupled with an onerous Value Added Tax (VAT) system, an inability to reduce high unemployment, and the implementation of a 66 per cent increase in the cost of pipe water that led to the demise of the Kenny Anthony-led St Lucia Labour Party (SLP) administration.

Anthony was himself forced to relinquish leadership of the SLP following its humiliating defeat at the polls.

St Lucia’s Allen Chastanet

“I want to say a big thank you to the people of St Lucia . . . let them know we are not going to let them down,” said Chastanet, after his United Workers Party (UWP) secured a resounding victory in the June 5 general election, claiming 11 of the 17 seats in parliament.

Jamaica also booted its first female prime minister 71-year-old Portia Simpson Miller out of office, opting instead to bring back Andrew Holness and his Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) five years after their rejection at the polls.

The JLP captured 33 of the 63 seats at stake in the February 25 poll, which led to immediate criticism of Simpson Miller’s leadership of the PNP and her announcement in December that she would not be seeking re-election as party leader when the PNP holds its elections in September 2017.

Portia Simpson Miller.

“I will leave you as party leader, but I will always be with you,” she told the PNP National Executive Council, while explaining that she had delayed her departure until after the Local Government elections in November, which the party also lost.

“I never wanted a new leader of this movement to commence their term with an election loss, which we expected in the local government elections. I wanted to give that person a clean slate on which to build. I have given over 40 years of selfless and dedicated service to this great party and country. I have been through some tough battles for this party. I have witnessed many Comrades fall,” she said.

In the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI), former premier Dr. Rufus Ewing also resigned as leader of the Progressive National Party (PNP) following the December 15 election, which ushered in the territory’s first female premier.

Attorney Sharlene Cartwright-Robinson led the opposition People’s Democratic Movement (PDM) to its first election victory in 13 years.

“The people of the Turks and Caicos Islands have spoken and have indicated their wish for a change in governance. The outcome of this election is a clear indication that democracy is alive in our islands. I wish to express my gratitude to all of the candidates from all parties who nobly put themselves forward for service to this country,’ said Ewing, in accepting full responsibility for his party’s election loss.

In Dominica, the status quo remains intact following the by-election in Soufriere on June 7.

The seat had become vacant after Works and Ports Minister Ian Pinard was forced to resign in April amid allegations of “serious inappropriate behaviour” made against him.

Accountant Denise Charles stepped in to fill his place and easily romped home to victory, as the ruling Dominica Labour Party (DLP) maintained its six-seat majority in the parliament.

Trinidad’s Opposition United National Congress (UNC), under the leadership of Kamla Persad Bissessar, was unsuccessful in challenging the results of the September 2015 general election.

While acknowledging that the Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC) had breached the country’s election laws, the High Court said there was insufficient evidence for it to declare the polls null and void.

In a 54-page ruling delivered before a packed court room, Justice Mira Dean Armorer said: “I have in these petitions strove to hold the balance to protect the will of the majority, while ensuring that the patent mistakes of the Electoral and Boundaries Commission (EBC) not reduce the election of 2015 to a mere sham.”

The UNC had originally challenged the results in the San Fernando West, La Horquetta/Talparo, Toco/Sangre Grande, Tunapuna, St Joseph and Moruga/Tableland constituencies, which they lost and considered marginal. However, the High Court dismissed the petition in the La Horquetta/Talparo, on the grounds that it had been filed late.

The People’s National Movement (PNM) won 23 of the 41 seats that were at stake, while the UNC-led coalition, known as the People’s Partnership, copped 18, down from 29 seats in 2010.

Persad Bissessar hailed the High Court ruling as proof that the EBC had acted “illegally”, while contending that the results coming out of such a breach of the law should be set aside.

“I want to register very clearly that this judgment today is a victory for the people of Trinidad and Tobago,” she said, while hinting that the ruling could have an impact on the upcoming Local Government poll.

The Court of Appeal later upheld the ruling of the High Court.

Politically, 2016 was also a memorable year for Guyana and Barbados, which both celebrated 50 years of independence from Britain.

Prime Minister Freundel Stuart was able to fend off all attempts by the main opposition Barbados Labour Party (BLP) to unseat his ruling Democratic Labour Party (DLP), which enjoys a slender two-seat majority in the Parliament.

In May, the Mia Mottley-led BLP brought a motion of no confidence against the Stuart government, claiming that it was not only incompetent, but rules by stealth.

However, when the final vote was Government received the backing of the former BLP Member of Parliament for Christ Church West Dr Maria Agard, who was very critical during the debate of both government and opposition legislators.

Agard, who was expelled from the BLP last year, questioned the rationale for the motion, arguing that the grounds were no different from the accusations made against the then BLP government by the DLP when it was in opposition.

Guyana’s stalemate with Venezuela also continued with the United Nations indicating that it could be at least another year before any settlement of their longstanding border dispute.

However, President David Granger still had much to smile about following the discovery of oil in a second well offshore Guyana in late June.

 David Granger

The US-based Exxon Mobil Corporation said drilling results from the Liza-2 well, the second exploration well in the Stabroek block, confirmed a world-class discovery with a recoverable resource of between US$800 million and 1.4 billion oil-equivalent barrels.

“We are excited by the results of a production test of the Liza-2 well, which confirms the presence of high-quality oil from the same high-porosity sandstone reservoirs that we saw in the Liza-1 well completed in 2015,” said Exxon president Steve Greenlee.

In October, the American oil giant said it had discovered more oil offshore Guyana.

ExxonMobil’s partner, Hess Corporation, said the Liza 3 well was drilled to a depth of 18,100 feet in 6000 feet of water on a location about 2.7 miles from the Liza 1 discovery.

“Based on the positive results of the Liza-3 well, we now expect Liza to be at the upper end of the previously announced estimated recoverable resources . . .,” said the CEO of Hess, John Hess.

Liza-3 well is in the Stabroek block, about 193km offshore Guyana.

However, with global oil prices currently at a low, having slumped from US$100 per barrel to as low as US$40 over the past year, 2016 could not be counted among the best years for oil-producing Trinidad and Tobago.

On the contrary, the country has been reeling from a dramatic downturn in revenue that has led to the displacement of thousands of workers, resulting in a spike in the unemployment rate.

T&T Prime Minister
Dr Keith Rowley

With the situation as it is, Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley has warned of a possible increase in taxes and other austere measures, as his administration seeks to steer the twin island republic away from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

“As difficult as the circumstances appear and sound, if we make the best decisions available to us then there are ways out of all of these situation and that is what the government is aiming to do,” he said back in September.

“We are in a period which require very sane and sober decision making and the government has a responsibility to ensure that our decision making and our execution [are] underpinned by an understanding that we are in a situation where if we do not make these decisions sometimes, painful as they might be, the situation could be far worse than it is right now,” he added.

Britain’s decision in June to exit the 43-year-old European Union also created jitters within the region.

“After all, we have had a long and deep relationship with the United Kingdom, and Britain remains one of our most important trading partners,” acknowledged the Chairman of the 15-nation Caribbean Community, Dominica’s Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit.

However, Chastanet saw it as an opportunity for the region to “put the survival of our integration into focus”, so too did the Vice Chancellor of the University of the West Indies (UWI) Sir Hilary Beckles.

“It’s a moment for CARICOM to come closer together rather than drift apart.

“The region should not be seen as mirroring this mentality of cultural and political insularity, but should reaffirm the importance of regionalism within the global context for the future,” Sir Hilary said.

Brexit was also on the minds of economists at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as they reviewed their growth forecast for the Caribbean and Latin America for the next two years.

“Brexit has thrown a spanner in the works,” said Maurice Obstfeld, IMF chief economist and economic counsellor.

The Washington-based financial institution would therefore reduce its initially projection of 0.4 per cent economic growth for the region in 2016 and 1.6 per cent in 2017 to 0.1 per cent growth for both years.

Apart from Brexit, the region was also confronted with money laundering and terrorism financing issues this year, as well as the emerging threat posed by correspondent banking and de-risking.

Correspondent banks, which are mainly large, international banks domiciled in the United States of America, Europe and Canada, provide Caribbean states with vital access to the international financial system, by offering services to smaller, domestic banks and financial institutions to complete international payments and settlements.

However, many banks, which provide correspondent banking services have been seeking to manage their risks by severing ties with institutions in the region.

The issue was a major talking point at last July’s CARICOM summit.

Prime Minister Gaston Browne speaking to reporters at the recent CARICOM Heads of Government Meeting in Georgetown, Guyana.

However, Antigua and Barbuda’s Prime Minister Gaston Browne, who has been leading the region’s response to the problem, was forced to acknowledge that the matter was unlikely to be solved “any time soon”.

Meanwhile, Belize is hoping to conclude negotiations on restructuring the so-called “Super Bond 3.0” ahead of the next interest payment in February 2017.

Prime Minister Dean Barrow, whose government is faced with major economic challenges, said it intends to begin discussions with holders of Belize’s US Dollar Bonds, which are due to mature by 2038.

On the upside, the Caribbean tourism sector, one of the main pillars of employment and economic growth in the region, performed impressively in 2016, despite its challenges.

Secretary General of the Caribbean Tourism Organisation (CTO) Hugh Riley said while there has been an increase in tourist arrivals when compared to 2015, fueled by strong performances in Europe – mainly the United Kingdom and Germany – and from the United States, the Canadian market was a concern.

“Traditionally a robust achiever, even during the tough global economic meltdown, Canada delivered declining numbers this year, sparked by the weakening of the Canadian dollar. We are moving to reverse that slide, combining our efforts with those of our CTO member-countries and our industry partners,” Riley noted.

He said that in the first quarter of next year, the CTO has plans to hire a business development representative to substantially enhance the Caribbean’s engagement in Canada.

2016 was also the year Fidel Castro left this world, so too Patrick Manning, Sir Dwight Venner and Tony Cozier.

Castro, the 90-year-old revolutionary leader, passed away on November 25, eight years after he officially stepped down as leader of the Caribbean’s only Communist country.

Castro was hailed for his efforts to improve relations between Havana and the rest of the region, with the CARICOM Chairman specially praising the late Cuban leader for “his generosity to the world and the impact which Cuba made on the freedom of many countries.

“He is going to be missed for his wisdom, his knowledge, but I know that the Cuban revolution will continue with the strength and determination [and] to continue to provide sound leadership to the people of the Republic of Cuba,” Skerrit added.

Castro was buried in early December in a simple round stone about 15 feet high with an emerald-coloured plaque bearing his name.

The tomb stands at the side of a memorial to the rebel soldiers killed in an attack which Castro led on the Santiago Moncada barracks on July 26, 1953, and in front of the mausoleum of Cuban national hero Jose Marti.

Also departing this world in 2016 was former Trinidad and Tobago prime minister Patrick Mervyn Augustus Manning. He died on July 2, less than 24 hours after he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. He was 69.

The late Patrick Manning

Manning, who up until September 2015 was the longest-serving legislator in the twin-island republic, was the country’s fourth and sixth prime minister.

He was also a “true champion of CARICOM”, as his long-time friend, St Vincent and the Grenadines Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves, reminded during last July’s CARICOM summit in Guyana, where other regional leaders also hailed his contribution to regional integration movement.

Gonsalves, who had visited Manning in hospital just prior to his death, was particularly glowing in his tribute, describing the late Trinidadian leader as “one of the titans of regional integration movement.

“ . . . Patrick was a famous man. His virtues are not written in stone at home or elsewhere, but in the hearts and minds of ordinary men and women that crossed this region and we shall remember him forever,” Gonsalves added.

One of the most stunning deaths of 2016 was that of Sir Dwight Venner on December 22.

The St Vincent-born economist, who was the longest serving governor of the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank (ECCB), died in St Lucia as attempts were being made to fly him to the neighbouring French island of Martinique for medical treatment.

In immediate reaction, St Lucia’s Prime Minister Allen Chastanet said the Caribbean had lost an “unparalleled genius”.

The late Sir Dwight Venner

“It goes without saying that Sir Dwight was a pioneer and among the most respected men in our region and has served the Caribbean and the financial fraternity with distinction,” Chastanet added.

Sir Dwight’s passing at age 70 came just over a year after he announced his retirement in late November 2015 after 26 years of service as the central banker for Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Grenada, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, St Kitts-Nevis, Montserrat, Anguilla and the British Virgin islands.

Sir Dwight was the longest-serving governor of any central bank, monetary authority, or Federal Reserve, having served since 1989.

“He dedicated his life to our region, and his wife and family made enormous sacrifices to support his labour of love over many, many years. Those of us on whom the mantle now rests have a duty of care to continue his exceptional service,” said his successor at the ECCB, Grenadian Timothy Antoine.

2016 would also be the year when ‘the voice of West Indies cricket’ was silenced. Renowned regional and international cricket journalist Tony Cozier died on May 11 in his native Barbados.

The late Tony Cozier

Cozier’s illustrious career coincided with the halcyon days of West Indies cricket during the 1970s and 1980s, and he continued to chronicle the regional team’s fortunes over the last few decades of their decline.

The 75-year-old Barbadian, whose skills spanned radio, television and print, worked for nearly every major international media entity and also wrote extensively for Caribbean and international newspapers.

The West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) hailed Cozier as a “great ambassador” who had made an enduring impact on the sport.

“He was not just a great journalist, but also a great ambassador. He represented West Indies wherever he went. He educated people around the world about our cricket, our people, our culture and who we are. His voice was strong and echoed around the cricket world,” the WICB said in a statement.

Two years after the Caribbean moved quickly to deal with the chikungunya virus, regional health authorities were battling a new mosquito-borne viral disease, Zika.

The Aedes aegypti mosquito, which transports the virus, is found throughout the region, except in continental Chile and Canada.

However, in October, the Trinidad-based Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) dismissed suggestions of a “cover up” of the real Zika situation in the region.

During the year, Caribbean countries also launched a campaign to get women to delay pregnancies for fear that pregnant mothers could give birth to babies with microcephaly, a birth defect that causes an infant’s head to be smaller than normal. Babies with microcephaly may also have smaller underdeveloped brains.

CMC

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