Antigua and Barbuda

When new Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer moved into Antigua’s government offices in 2004, his predecessors had bequeathed him a scene of desolation. Wilmoth Daniel, his deputy, explained that they found ‘the drawers open – all the files were removed like a thief in the night ... What a shame of those individuals in authority to [remove] all those files, the soul and heart of the country.’

From 1949 until 2004, embracing the moment of independence from Britain in 1981, the Antigua Labour Party had dominated governance of the two islands under the rule first of Vere Bird, and then of his son, Lester. Whatever was in the missing files, it cannot have reflected kindly on the Bird dynasty which – in spite of Vere Bird’s posturing as a reformer from the trade-unionist movement – was mired in corruption, and was once compared by the Antiguan-American novelist Jamaica Kincaid to the Haitian dictatorship of Papa Doc Duvalier.

The general election of 2004 saw the vote of the United Progressive Party (UPP) increase by 49 per cent in an electoral rejection of the Birds’ vices. The _Jamaica Observer_ reported ‘allegations of bribery, misuse of funds in the national health insurance plan, and a 13-year-old girl’s charges that he [Lester Bird] and his brother used her for sex and to procure cocaine’.

The 2004 election was fought and won on the basis of public transparency and suitability to govern, rather than along strict policy lines. The UPP is a moderate party which aims to cultivate the private sector as a means of attracting investment, but also fosters ‘genuine empowerment of the people through decentralization’. In 2005, the Government reintroduced income tax in response to a growing deficit between revenue and expenditure. At an international level it has forged economic ties with the left wing governments of Cuba and Venezuela.

Relations with the US are moot. When the US began to regulate against internet gambling, many of its most profitable websites decamped to Antigua. In the hope of closing the loophole which allowed Antiguan-based sites to target American custom, in 2006 the US passed the Unlawful Gaming Act, which criminalized money-transfers to offshore gaming websites. It was a new step in a concerted drive which had already seen Antigua’s gambling revenue fall from $1,000 million in 2000 to $130 million in 2006 – and had cost 10 per cent of Antigua’s workforce their jobs. The Antiguan Government lodged a complaint with the World Trade Organization, publicly supported by China, Japan and the European Union, which decided in Antigua’s favour both in 2005 and 2007.

As in many other Caribbean nations, however, tourism is the principal source of Antigua and Barbuda’s income. New hotels continue to be planned and built, though tourist revenue has dipped in recent years, leading the Government to promote eco-tourism. Tourism remains vital but it tends to lead to development of the islands’ coastal areas, while domestic poverty thrives inland. A recent article in the _Antigua Sun_ highlighted problems with vagrancy and gang violence.

The question of how far foreign capital can alleviate these problems is hotly debated. Recently the Texan oil billionaire Allen Stanford was at the centre of a spat about the status of foreign investors when he made disparaging remarks about Baldwin Spencer. Stanford had promised heavy investment in cricketing facilities for the nation, but many Antiguans felt strongly that such investment bought him no rights to criticize their elected government.

Domestic criticism is mounting too, however. The Government promised to make poverty and social welfare a priority but there has been little sign of urgency. Its own investigation into domestic poverty has been slow to produce results; and in 2004 the UN found that child poverty had increased.