New Internationalist

Antigua and Barbuda

June 2007

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.

David Thorley
Antigua and Barbuda Fact File
Leader Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer. The British Queen Elizabeth II is Head of State.
Economy GNI per capita: $10,920 (St Kitts & Nevis $8,210, UK $37,600).
Monetary unit East Caribbean dollar.
Main exports Bedding, handicrafts, electronic components. Tourism accounts for over half of GDP. Over 80 per cent of the workforce are in service industries; agriculture is constrained by water shortage and by labour being pulled into tourism and construction.
People 83,000. About 28,000 live in the capital, St John’s. People per square kilometre, 190 (UK 246).
Health Infant mortality 11 per 1,000 live births (St Kitts & Nevis 18, UK 5). Antigua’s hospitals have improved greatly since the 1980s, when the Minister for Health would fly to New York for treatment. Cardiovascular disease is a significant problem, especially for men (as it is in many Caribbean populations). Traditional problems of undernutrition are giving way to Western ones, like obesity.
Environment Hurricanes present a significant threat. In 1999 Hurricane José destroyed over 500 homes; according to forecasts a new hurricane is two years overdue. Other environmental problems are seasonal drought conditions and coastal/marine erosion (a side-effect of the tourist industry).
Culture Most Antiguans (around 91 per cent) are the descendants of African slaves, although there are minority British and Portuguese groups. From centuries of colonial rule the islands absorbed much British culture (including cricket). There is a gap between the British-American coastal resorts and Caribbean cultures inland.
Religion Protestants 74% (among them Anglicans 32%, Moravians 12%, Methodists 9%, Seventh Day Adventists 9%); Catholics 11%; Jehovah’s Witnesses 1%; Rastafarians 1%.
Language English (with local dialects).
Sources World Guide, State of the World’s Children, United Nations Human Development Index.
Antigua and Barbuda ratings in detail
Since 2004 there have been no suggestions of electoral fraud, or irregularities at the polls. The Government is committed to a healthy and ethical environment for the media.
Previously reviewed
Income distribution
The tourist trade generates jobs, and with them the potential for social mobility; but with more foreign companies building hotel complexes, profits do not always filter down to the Antiguans themselves.
Previously reviewed
Life expectancy
74 years – slightly above the Caribbean average (UK 79).
Previously reviewed
Over 85 per cent – one of the highest rates of adult literacy in the Caribbean.
Previously reviewed
Sexual minorities
Homosexuality is legal and persecution of gay people is expressly forbidden by the Constitution. There are still reports of discrimination and homophobic violence.
Position of women
Women gained full voting rights in 1951 and now make up around 15% of elected representatives in both houses. Violence against women is prevalent but the Domestic Violence Act treats this seriously.
Previously reviewed
NI Assessment (Politics)
Antigua is beginning to make a mark, both as a member of Caricom (the Caribbean Community and Common Market), and in the global community. The corruption of the Bird governments has been eradicated and more progressive policies adopted. Much headway still has to be made in tackling domestic poverty. The Constitution provides for social progress in many key areas, but implementation has been a slow process.

This column was published in the June 2007 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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Country ratings (details)
Previously reviewed3
Income distribution3
Previously reviewed3
Life expectancy5
Previously reviewed5
Previously reviewed4
Sexual minorities3
Position of women3
Previously reviewed3
NI Assessment (Politics)3

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