Discover more from CPSI Newsletters
Caribbean Currents #005 - The Speed of Molasses
Mobility woes and airborne in-fighting
In this issue
Where De Bus?
Two Turkeys, No Eagles
Guyana’s Oil Aspirations
A Drop of Culture
Podcast of the Week
USVI moves to ratify drafts, Barbados… tries to make a draft
The concept of low productivity and efficiency, which is pervasive throughout the Caribbean, especially among the smaller island states. Island time is easily identified by the lack of agency or urgency among all parties involved with a task, function, or project.
Did Jeffrey process those applications for the new housing development yet?
No, he’s still relaxing in the lobby. He’s moving on island time.
Caribbean islands tend to be highly inefficient and slow in even the simplest initiatives. It comes as a surprise to many outside observers, especially when one considers their comparatively diminutive governments, which ideally should be rather nimble. Curiously, these ruling bodies are the exact opposite, having devised interesting ways to emulate the Kafkaesque bureaucracy of their much larger mainland neighbors to often infuriating and detrimental results.
Take, for example, the monumental act of constitutional reform. Two territories within the region are attempting core changes to the foundation documents of law for their jurisdictions: the US Virgin Islands, which have so far been governed by the “Organic Act” and Barbados, which became a republic in 2021 and has yet to ratify even a single draft for consideration since the haphazard transition began.
The US Virgin Islands are an unincorporated territory of the United States. They are mostly governed by the same laws that regulate the federation itself, as interpreted via the US Constitution. Most US territories possess their own constitutions (Guam does not), mostly to handle the nuances of day-to-day legal quirks specific to the government structure of that territory, but also importantly they define the relationship with the USA in lieu of Washington’s own definition.
Currently, the Organic Act of 1954 fulfills this role. So what exactly does their constitutional reform aim to do? Simply put, Congressional delegate Stacey Plaskett, is trying to turn the existing act into the constitution. That’s it. This all seems rather straightforward until however, one takes a glance at the USVI’s previous attempts, of which there have so far been five. Of particular note is the most recent attempt at a 5th constitutional convention in 2009 and 2012. The first was rejected by the US DoJ and Congress due to not clearly declaring US sovereignty, and the second simply because the allotted voting period expired. Island time.
So what about Barbados? The island ushered in a new period of governance (that truthfully looks a lot like the old) when it shed the monarchy on its 50th year of Independence. There was plenty of fanfare, celebrations, and government propaganda thrown about, culminating in a grand celebration, featuring a rather awkward speech by Prince Charles, which was to conclude at the stroke of midnight with a fireworks display ringing in the new republic. Even with all the pieces laid out, somehow, the display was two hours late. Citizens stood at key locations across the island in an anticlimactic fashion for the event that would portend what was to come but was also not a surprise in its tardiness.
Oh right, about that constitution. The island still doesn’t have one. In a most egregious case of “fix it in post” it was decided that the 50th anniversary would mark the start of a consultation period for a new constitution. Somehow, the brand new republic government, which had also gone to great lengths to unironically elect the Monarch’s Governor General as its new President, neglected to prepare the most important part of the new republic: its founding document. The consultation period has been ongoing for the last two years. In fact, it recently got extended to April 2024. Island time.
This is all rather normal for the region. From the lowest levels of various ministries to the executive departments of CARICOM itself, nothing seems to be done in a timely manner in the West Indies. There is no shortage of stalled projects and neglected legislation, and you could spend all day on single islands alone. This laissez-faire approach to everything stems not just from unproductive actors fueled by a lack of incentive, but also from an outright dearth of expertise and an abundance of small village nepotism. What you’re left with are bloated governments, unable to execute even the most succinct objectives in anything other than island time.
“Where de bus?”
The precipitous decline of Barbados’ transport infrastructure.
The year is 2004. Barbados, alongside Jamaica, Grenada, Guyana, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, and Trinidad and Tobago have been chosen by the ICC (International Cricket Council) to host the Cricket World Cup in 2007. This would be a momentous occasion. The West Indies Cricket team was the second most successful in the world and much like the Olympics returning to Athens in 2004, this was seen as the year that the games would come home.
Preparations were on. In Barbados, Kensington Oval, the “Mecca of Cricket” would see a full redesign at a cost of just over US 130 million. But the island wouldn’t just stop at a new stadium, after all, Barbados was going to be in the world spotlight. The ICC World Cup is the third most viewed sporting event on Earth, with a peak broadcast viewership of 2.9 billion in 2019. This was a chance to show the world that Barbados was ready and up to the challenge as not only a top-tier tourism but business destination. The government scrambled to make improvements across the board. Roads were repaved en masse, much to the bemusement of the public. The Ministry of Transport and Works would then run an infamous campaign along the lines of “the new roads are for all of us, we can’t take them back up after anyway”. Houses and government buildings were repainted, gardens and greenery materialized seemingly overnight. In just three short years the road network was expanded and modernized with new signage, all in preparation for the stars of the show: buses.
70 brand-new Marcopolo buses from Brazil were ferried onto the roads to be the flagship transport option for the thousands of spectators, expected to arrive shortly. These buses would bring the existing fleet to just over 350 vehicles and this would be the peak of the Transport Board’s capacity, and a number not seen since. The games would come and go (Australia won, boo) and the government made good on the promise: they didn’t take back any of the infrastructure they had improved or introduced leading up to them.
But they didn’t say anything about maintaining it all either. As with most ventures in the region, foresight is usually an afterthought. The games didn’t bring the spike in tourism that the governments of the region expected. In a textbook case of overestimation, Barbados even procured the services of two cruise liners to act as floating hotels, which turned out to be unnecessary. A sprawling fleet of 300 buses, more than half of which were now aging beyond a decade, could not be rectified with a one-off band-aid of 70 impulsive new additions. Soon enough, gradual wear and tear would chip away at the fleet. And with no major sporting event to spur them on, the Ministry slowly allowed large swaths of the vehicles to fall into disrepair. A vicious cycle began.
You see, Barbados is one of the most developed countries by density not just only in the Eastern Caribbean, but in the Caribbean as a whole. The island is only 430 square kilometers in area but boasts an incredible 1500 km of paved roads. These roads would experience the usual abuse of the climate and cars using the surface, but a series of events would send it all into overdrive. First, there was the collapse of the fleet. Replacing buses in large tranches at a time may look great for government PR, but doesn’t take into account that there will be around 70 new buses that will all reach a decade of service at the same time. They will likely run into repair issues, all at the same time. The Transport Board was ill-equipped and ill-funded to handle the mounting maintenance costs, with many vehicles becoming spare part piles for the rest of the operational fleet. In the space of a decade, the fleet was nearly halved and the public took note of the marked degradation in service.
Thus began the era of the family car. Well, it had begun sometime before, but the faltering public services fueled the purchase of personal vehicles in earnest for Barbadians. An unreliable public transit system meant tardiness for work and Barbadians, who were mostly employed by the government itself and the service-based tourism industry, simply couldn’t afford it. The 2010 census tallied the number at 70000 vehicles. With a population of just over 280000, this meant that the average family had now surpassed one vehicle per household in significant numbers. Record car ownership leads to traffic, and traffic leads to road wear. The 9-5 (It’s actually 8-4 for most government agencies) nature of work on the island meant that there was no clear window for repairs either even if they could afford them. As of 2019, Barbados ranks 109th out of 142 countries in road quality, among the likes of Bangladesh and Benin.
Fast forward to 2020 and the reeling transport board is now limping on a diminished fleet of just around 60 buses, even fewer than the tranche it had acquired for the 2007 games. In 2022 Barbados saw the delivery of 33 electric buses from Chinese automaker BYD. A welcomed addition, but against the backdrop of a diminished COVID economy, an even more derelict diesel fleet, and the lack of public trust in the transit network, it is feared this may not be enough to restore the service to its first world glory. The tattered road infrastructure has sent the majority of the diesel fleet to the bone yards and is poised to do the same to the low-floored electric fleet if the drivers don’t do them in first.
The writing was on the wall. There were no clear plans for the rotation or replenishment of such a large fleet of buses. The Ministries of Transportation and Road Works were neither funded nor equipped to handle the road network they inherited. As if this simple logic weren’t enough to foreshadow the current woes of the island, allow me to end this one with a damning story. The final match of the ICC 2007 World Cup was played in Barbados at Kensington Oval, and ended in a controversial win for Australia against Sri Lanka, when the match needed to be cut short due to the reduced visibility of approaching night. How does night stop play in a modern stadium you ask? Well, the multi-billion-dollar, award-winning redesign of the Oval, did not include lights. Imagine that.
Two Turkeys, No Eagles
Antigua objects to CAL expansion
Caribbean Airlines (CAL) is set to welcome new aircraft to its fleet in preparation for expansion into the Lesser Antilles. The largest operator in the region and flag carrier of Trinidad and Tobago will lease an additional three Boeing 737-800 jetliners, four ATR turboprops, and five Embraer E175 regional jets. This will reportedly bring the fleet back to pre-pandemic capacity.
Of particular note are the four ATR and five Embraer craft, which would allow feeder service from smaller destinations to CAL’s larger hubs. Currently, the airline has two hubs with regular service out of Piarco International and Norman Manley International. Its fleet consists primarily of the narrow-body Boeing 737 family, and the smaller ATR and Embraer aircraft will enable more frequent flights to outlier destinations in the island arc, such as Dominica and Anguilla.
Caribbean Airlines has historically focussed on the largest territories in the region with service to select international destinations. Granular intra-regional travel was primarily the domain of the beleaguered LIAT. With the financial deterioration of the latter, which entered into administration in 2021, several smaller carriers have taken up the mantle of Leeward connectivity. InterCaribbean, Air Antilles and even Cayman Airways started expanded service throughout the Lesser Antilles to fill the void. With travel finally rebounding to post-pandemic levels, the competition is welcomed in the hopes of driving down prohibitively high travel costs.
“CAL essentially intends to take from Antigua and Barbuda the aviation services that we have been providing by way of LIAT for more than 60 years. So we are going to continue to fight this approach of trying to take from Antigua and Barbuda the important role which LIAT did in not only providing service to inter-regional travel in the Caribbean but more importantly for Antigua and Barbuda all those jobs, more than 600 jobs…”
Chief of Staff in the Office of the Prime Minister Lionel Hurst, Antigua
Evidently, Antigua’s government doesn’t share this outlook. St John’s has indicated that it firmly objects to CAL’s expansion plans especially with regards to routes currently served by LIAT. For context, what remains of LIAT is now headquartered in Antigua and Barbuda. There is some sentiment from the Antiguan government that its counterparts in Barbados and Saint Vincent have abandoned their commitment to the airline as LIAT (1974 Ltd) was jointly funded by the governments of all three nations.
This stance from the Antiguan government is puzzling, however not surprising given the insularity amongst Caribbean states. One would think increased competition would be a beneficial outcome for a part of the world plagued by high travel taxes and depressed demand. Demand which, as noted by Trinidad Finance Minister Colm Imbert, has risen since LIAT’s decline. It seems highly unreasonable not to expect the largest carrier in the region to capitalize on this opportunity. Additionally, more options on these routes would be beneficial to the vision of a connected Caribbean. Instead, Antigua is taking the protectionist route, citing future plans for LIAT (2020), its revival of the airline in cooperation with Lagos-based AirPeace. These plans have yet to materialize, though are slated for Q4 of this year.
Guyana’s Oil Aspirations
The clock is ticking on profitability
Guyana’s recent oil boom already has a looming expiration date. President Irfaan Ali remarked on the time scale necessary to ramp up production, noting that “time is not on our side”. The government is acutely aware of the optics of the situation. Guyana, an Amazonian state is hedging its future development on fossil fuels just as the world is beginning efforts to wean itself in the name of climate goals.
Guyana’s reserves now stand at approximately 11 million barrels, similar capacity to countries like Brazil and Norway. It is hoped that this newfound source of wealth will spur on much-needed improvements across the country. The South American country of only 800000 people, is the size of the UK which has 67 million. It’s historically been one of the least developed CARICOM states. This is attributed to the sensitive biome (Amazon) in which most of the countries sit and a rather stagnant political landscape.
The discovery of oil portends a period of growth for Guyana. IMF reports indicated a 67% growth in 2022 alone, the highest in the world. The government also intends to pour investment into its domestic energy sector, following shortages and the forced introduction of a business electricity tax to combat the shortfall in its infrastructure.
Several challenges lie ahead for Georgetown’s dreams of progress. Venezuela still contests wide swaths of its western territory. The government of Guyana however is confident that its currently observed borders will hold firm in all relevant courts and has urged Venezuela to respect those internationally recognized boundaries.
Then there’s the cautionary tale of small fossil fuel economies. The Caribbean is no stranger to price shocks across the global energy market. Trinidad’s own economy has been in a slump due to lower oil and gas prices among other things. Guyana does not intend to join OPEC, which would still place it at the whims of commodity prices which are often dictated by the highly political decisions of the organization. An oil-rich Guyana could also become lazy in its transition to renewables, a predicament in which its twin island neighbor to the north has unfortunately found itself. Trinidad’s gas and oil-wealthy government must soon face the reality of depleted reserves and a country that is ill-prepared to face the consequences of subsidy-induced high energy consumption.
Venezuelan immigration influence being felt in Trinidadian Music
Over 24000 Venezuelans have made their way from the mainland to neighboring Trinidad and Tobago. It’s a mere 24 km journey by boat. Some 7 million Venezuelans have fled their homeland, in what has been described as the largest immigration crisis in the Americas. It’s not all doom and gloom, as the immigrants bring a wealth of culture with them, but also exert some influence over the culture of the host nation. The song below is an example of this, calling for more unity and love for Trinidad’s new Latin American guests.
CPSI Podcast of the Week
Why and How to Dollarize Argentina with Emilio Campo
Argentina is gearing up to make one of the most pivotal decisions in its economic recovery: dollarization. The country heads to the polls this weekend, and a win for presidential hopeful Javier Milei means a vote for the shift to an officially dollarized financial system. Emilio Ocampo is the man tasked by the potential new president to coordinate and execute the transition to the dollar. In this episode, he discusses the implications of this controversial move and the conditions that have brought one of Latin America's most culturally and economically significant players to this historical crossroads.
🌴 Dive Deeper!
Stay up to date with the latest from Caribbean Currents 👇