Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Political grandstanding won't save us

IT IS LIKE all the tough lessons I have had to learn, I learnt them in the last two weeks.
   I had an informative casual sit down with one of the region's biggest investors in hotels, malls and real estate -- an aging American millionaire with investments in a few islands who strangely has socialist sensibilities.
   And, as the luck of the draw will have it, I ran into a St Lucian technocrat who works as a senior official of the International Monetary Fund -- and through my probing and questioning had another informative two-hour chat about the magnitude of the economic challenges facing all these islands, and how possibly they can get out of it.
   Add that, to the recent comments by St Lucia Prime Minister Dr Kenny Anthony who described the current regional economic situation as a "tragedy of the times."
He said that the  Caribbean is "in the throes of a major crisis like it has never ever experienced before".
   "Make no mistake about it, our region is in the throes of the greatest crisis since independence. The spectre of evolving into failed societies is no longer a subject of imagination. How our societies crawl out of this vicious vortex of persistent low growth, crippling debt, huge fiscal deficits and high unemployment is the single most important question facing us at this time," he recently said during a lecture series in Barbados.
  With the exception of Trinidad and Tobago where oil and gas revenues keep the economy buoyant, and Guyana with its broad agricultural and mineral base, the economic picture of the majority of Caricom countries is grim. Yet, some governments try to airbrush from the portrait of rising poverty, rising unemployment, rising debt and declining economic growth.
  And there are even more dangers on the horizon -- none more so than with potential changes in the Petrocaribe arrangement next year, with Venezuela amidst its own dire economic headaches.
   While the Venezuelan government has promised to keep Petrocaribe intact, it has quietly cut oil shipments, and may be contemplating pushing up interest rates and modifying repayment terms.
   According to a report in the Christian Science Monitor, any such changes could have deep and lasting impacts on small countries accustomed to propping up their economies with the shipments.
  The threat of any change to the Petrocaribe repayment terms is especially frightening for small islands that are heavily reliant on Venezuelan oil, it further reported. Without Petrocaribe shipments, they will be forced to turn to the open market, where they will pay the going rate without the long-term financing option.
  The picture might become clearer at a crucial Petrocaribe meeting in Caracas on December 16.
   Recently I have been studying the Antigua situation -- and they have come through a particularly tough period. Added to the same problems all the other islands shared, they had the Stanford debacle.
  The Baldwin Spencer administration had to have taken some tough and bold decisions -- and after four years of "negative growth" -- they had some real growth for the first time last year. They are expected to see more growth this year as well.
  The stewardship of the economy in recent years under Finance Minister Harold Lovell has come in for high praise from the technical people.
  Of course Antigua is likely to have general elections early next year -- and as we all know from experience, things get distorted ten-fold in an election campaign.
  I witnessed an opposition Antigua Labour Party rally nearly two weeks ago - and while, like in those things it made good theatre -- when you cut off the fluff you come to acknowledge that these things are political grandstanding that have no real solutions.
  Which brought my mind back to Grenada, and the measures that the current government have been forced to take to save the land from virtual total economic collapse.
  We can return to the finger-pointing and the blame-gaming.
  But as in Antigua -- and in all those other islands -- political grandstanding won't save us.
  Imagine in the last month Grenada wasted weeks of debating time on a six percent increase for 15 men and women -- that amounted to under $100 each when you take out the taxes.
   But that's the stories of our lives -- we trade in low political currencies, when there is a higher stake reality that could consume all of us.
  The times are too dire; the challenges are too great for our debate to be that cheap.
  Let's all lift our games!

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