Saturday, Jul 21, 2018
Industry & Trade | North America & Caribbean | Antigua and Barbuda

Being small does not prevent us from being important

4 years ago

Hon. Charles Fernandez, Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Trade
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Hon. Charles Fernandez

Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Trade

Antigua and Barbuda’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Trade shares the Prime Minister’s goal of making their nation the economic powerhouse of the region. Charles Fernandez told United World that his nation is ready to lead by example in the CARICOM, as he called on Antiguans abroad and international investors to buy into the government’s vision.

Your government was elected on the bold promise to make Antigua and Barbuda the “economic powerhouse of the Caribbean”. What competitive advantages does Antigua and Barbuda possess that give it the potential to become the economic powerhouse of the region if utilised properly?

The biggest advantage we have is the fact that our Prime Minister is very well qualified. He has a Masters in economics, he was a banker for much of his career, and he was an entrepreneur. He is very well rounded and knows what is needed to bring the country back onto a sustainable financial footing. One of the most important things is leadership. The prime minister is able to articulate a vision and make it happen.

There is a lot of potential in this country. We have the finest beaches in the Caribbean, and world travel has expanded in big ways. The Asian market is opening up, and there is an immense number of tourists coming out of China. This all bodes well for a country like Antigua because it has a stable government, crime is still relatively low, and our climate is among the best in the world. We have all the necessary ingredients; what we need now is for someone who has the vision to create opportunities for the people of Antigua and Barbuda. I think the Prime Minister is most ably suited for that role.

The government has hit the ground running, approving investments worth over $3 billion since being elected in June, notably in tourism and infrastructure. Could you highlight the sectors that are most ripe for further investment and how would you sell the enabling environment here to American investors looking for opportunities?

Antigua has a very stable currency and that is very important; you do not have to worry that you invest your money today and you do not know if it is going up and down over the next few weeks; we are part of the Eastern Caribbean Exchange and our currency is linked to the United States dollar.

All the ministries of finance have to agree if there is going to be a revaluation; we have been at the same rate since 1977-78. I was told that the European Union used the model of the OECS currency for their own.

If you get into the hospitality business our workforce is something like 98-99% literate; we speak English, which is very important, and we have a large segment of the population which is also bilingual – Spanish/English – because we have a large influx of people from Santo Domingo residing here. We are almost becoming like Miami here to an extent.

The other thing that is important to know is that our climate is not too hot and not too cold. Antigua is an ideal place for people who are looking to make the country not just their headquarters but their home. Our taxes are relatively low and the government is trying to abolish personal income tax within the next 4 years.

The one impediment that we may have is that our utilities are relatively high, but we are committed to reducing our dependence on oil and fossil fuels over the next 5 years; that in itself is an opportunity for people who want to get into renewable energy projects in Antigua, and we have the right climate to attract that kind of industry.

Since Obama was elected for a second term, there has perhaps been more engagement between the US and the Caribbean. The US-CARICOM Council on Trade and Investment was established last year, and this year Vice President Joe Biden announced the Caribbean Energy Security Initiative. How does Antigua and Barbuda stand to benefit from increased American engagement in the region, and how important is it for A&B to maintain a strong relationship with the US?

Well we are basically in the backyard of the US so it is very important to have a strong relationship; most of our trade right now is with the US, and a large segment of the tourism product is from the US so it is very important from that stand point. Anything that can be done to forge closer links would undoubtedly benefit Antigua and Barbuda.

There has been a long-standing and well documented dispute between Antigua & Barbuda and the USA over their decision to ban foreign-based operators from offering gambling and betting services to its citizens; Antigua & Barbuda suffered greatly from this and the WTO ruled in your favour. Both sides recently agreed to put together teams to work out an amicable solution. Could you elaborate on the financial impact for Antigua & Barbuda on America’s original decision to ban offshore operators, and are you optimistic that the recent discussions between high level delegations from both sides will result in a satisfactory solution?

We lost in excess of 3,000 relatively good paying jobs; that was a big blow to us. With the loss of the jobs we also lost a number of businesses. It definitively had a negative impact on the economy when this industry was forced to close, and it has been a little difficult picking up that pace because many of these jobs came at a time when we had the per capital lead in the Caribbean in terms of our IT industry; it was really booming because we had pushed it very heavily in schools, and we had created a number of IT labs. We were all preparing for this industry, and we had done quite well; but, when it left it was very difficult for those people to find IT-related jobs so they had to settle for other fields of work that were low paying.

In terms of the displacement of the employees, a number of them were unable to find work, and some of them had to emigrate to find jobs outside of Antigua. Over the past ten years I do not think that enough was done.

We had a World Trade Organization decision in our favour, the US agreed that we had won the case, but the problem is the settlement. I am happy to say that we met with the US trade representative and they were anxious to get it settled quickly; the prime minister has since put a team together to work with their team to find a way to settle it, and it might not necessarily be in monetary terms because it is very difficult getting money out of Congress, so we may have to find other ways to balance it without actually taking cash. They realize we are prepared to work with them and we are open to various suggestions, so I think that we can look forward to having some kind of workable solution within the next 6 months.

The Prime Minister recently toured the north-east Bronx, an area that is home to an estimated 125,000 people of Antiguan/ Barbudan descent. What role do you foresee for the large diaspora community in the USA in your government’s “vision to rebuild and empower”, and how are you reaching out to them to communicate the opportunities here?

We want to harness their talent and wealth. Antiguans want the economy to improve in the US. When it does, Antiguans living there will be able to send more remittances home. The other thing is that a lot of them are now looking to retire and they have money that they could work with. We tell them, “Welcome home! Buy a piece of land and build a property here.” That will assist our construction industry, which is important.

Many of them are quite professionally schooled and are able to come back home to set up their own businesses or professions. Removing the personal income tax is another further incentive. It would, in effect, bring a brain pool back to Antigua and that is something we think is going to help overall.

Upon assuming the chairmanship of CARICOM in July, the Prime Minister made clear Antigua’s commitment to the removal of all barriers to free movement, and the strengthening of the CARICOM Secretariat to advance the CARICOM Single Market and Economy (CSME). Given the impact of all the global financial crisis on some of the CSME targets, why do you think the time is now right to give fresh impetus to the fulfilment of these aspirations, and what role do you envision for a more integrated CARICOM on the global stage?

The prime minister felt that, being the chairman of CARICOM, being a new prime minister, he was able to say, “Look, I am prepared to work with you; I have come in with this new thrust, new ideas, new energy, this is an opportunity. I am asking you to join me, and let’s carry it forward.” The world is becoming a ‘globalized village’ and it is very difficult for any country to survive on its own; if we work as a block we are able to accomplish much more.

I think he was trying to sell to them the idea that, “look we are trying to work together, especially now that everybody is looking to put their hands together in the world, and we have a natural alliance that has been in place for a number of years; we have to be serious about it and put our personal agendas aside and move towards what is best for the region rather than what is best for one person in the region.”

When the Prime Minister addressed the UN General Assembly in September, he made an impassioned defence of the rights of small nations on the global stage. What over-riding message will this new government take to the Summit of the Americas and the disparate nations of the Americas and the Caribbean in April 2015?

Being small should not prevent us from being important, and I think that the prime minister is saying that size is not an excuse. We intend to make Antigua, as he said, “the economic powerhouse in the Caribbean.” I know Singapore is smaller than Antigua, but it is considered a powerhouse of a country. The Prime Minister has to try to get all the people in Antigua and Barbuda to buy into that vision.

Being Minister of Foreign Affairs, I have been to a number of meetings with him all over the world. I can tell you that invariably, at the end of each meeting, somebody walks up to him very impressed because he exudes this whole new type of energy, directness, forthrightness, and honesty. He comes across as a breath of fresh air and somebody who is ready for action: saying, “You know, a lot of talk is going on, lets now get down to the bottom line and get things done.” He is the youngest prime minister in the region.  

You are not just a politician of course. We understand you are the father of three sons. How does being a father shape your ideas about the direction in which the country should be heading, and what would be the greatest legacy this government could leave for your sons and their generation?

I want a country where everyone that wants to work can work. I want a country where everyone is free to be able to express themselves without affecting their neighbours’ freedom of expression in terms of religion and culture. Antigua has a very diverse population so hopefully we can achieve all those things in harmony.

One of the concerns I have is the advent of drugs and what they can do to a country, what they can do to families, and what they can do to the fabric of societies; we need to be very careful because when the country starts to do better you have all these negative things that start to come in to take away from the positive. I think that we need to instil solid values in our young people to let them understand that they are part of this whole movement, part of this vision, they have a role to play, the future is theirs, and they need to be able to take advantage of it.




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