Admittedly, when Gaston Browne was elected as Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda, there was no compelling reason for optimism amongst Caribbean progressives. Inheriting, as he did, the Antigua Labour Party steeped in the Vere-Lester Bird aura, and part of a political generation which has worshipped at the altar neo-liberal dependency since the 1980s, there was very little expectation that Browne would govern Antigua and Barbuda, other than by bending over backwards to accommodate the demands of capital.
However, Browne’s decision to make public the kinds of pressures under which he had been placed by Gordon “Butch” Stewart, the “Right Honourable King” of the Sandals Hotel Chain, as Browne exasperatedly described him in a tell-all parliamentary presentation, has suggested strongly that at least one Caribbean prime minister, whilst being focused on his country’s development, is willing to stand up to excessive demands from predatory capital.
By way of background, Gaston Browne has been strongly resisting demands for concessions from Sandals. In Browne’s view, such demands are unreasonable, particularly given the precarious state of the Antiguan economy, and since they would have to be offered to all hotel operators.
Equally troubling has been Sandals approach, as recounted by Browne, to impose its will on the sovereign country and a duly elected prime minister. Brown’s revelations of Sandal’s threat of closure for five months unless the requested concessions are delivered, are reminiscent of the period in 2006 in St. Lucia when Sandals staff were openly, visibly demonstrating against the government’s labour code.
Browne’s ultimate stance is that, whilst he is deeply interested in the welfare of his population and in the development of his economy as a whole, he is not willing to accept the manner of Sandal’s conduct in relation to his government.
All of this has deep implications for other Caribbean governments. It is not without significance that St. Lucia’s Prime Minister, Allen Chastanet, was perhaps the first to overstep his bounds by criticising Browne for criticizing Butch. Indeed, both Chastanet and his tourism minister Dominique Fedeé are former employees of Butch, and have never demonstrated the kinds of political understanding exhibited by Gaston Browne. It is also significant that Browne has rejected the kinds of concessions offered to Sandals both in St. Lucia and Barbados.
Browne’s struggle against Butch therefore, is coming at a critical time when a group of new administrations have assumed power with little understanding that sovereign governments do not have to make themselves slaves to overbearing capital in the name of development.
Whatever the final outcome of the Browne vs Butch saga, Prime Minister Browne should rest assured that his resistance to Sandals has created a new material reality, which has exposed the limits of the other Caribbean governments whose politics begins and ends with the idea that there is no alternative.
By Dr. Tennyson S. D. Joseph