Privatisation in Antigua – A Very Bad Idea

By Alvette E Jeffers

The Antigua and Barbuda Labour Party (A&BLP) government with support from the United Progressive Party (UPP), has announced that it will offer to the public 10 percent of its 51 percent holdings in the West Indies Oil Company (WIOC).

The other shareholders are Venezuela which owns 25 percent of the stock and Fancy Bridge owns the other 24 percent. The government hopes to raise EC18 million “to be utilized to fund a number of its critical capital projects” according to the Antigua Newsroom (AN) of 3/24/2021; additionally, the government claims, the selling of WIOC shares will afford members of the public the opportunity “to build wealth”, according to the Newsroom.

Ten percent of the stocks amount to 301,920 shares. This means that with a minimum allocation of “50 shares per applicant”, 6,038 people will have an opportunity to become private investors in WIOC, if there is no attempt made to manipulate the sale and purchase to benefit an already wealthy class of citizens. Both the UPP and the government see the furthering of the privatization of the industry as opposed to a deepening of social ownership, as a significant turning point worth pursuing which bodes well for a minority of Antigua and Barbuda’s population of over 97,000 people.

There is no doubt that if there is scrupulous accounting and public oversight and agitation, there can be an efficient and judicious allocation of funds to improve existing social institutions or the creation of new ones. These will significantly enhance the lives of the majority of the working class and everyday people as opposed to allowing wealth concentration in a few hands. The government and the UPP seem to think that the enrichment and enhancement of the few to the detriment of many is, in this case, a better option.

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Antiguans and Barbudans are already vested in WIOC and there is no need to privatize public assets for all to derive some benefits from the company. The Public owns 51% of WIOC. That does not seem clear to Antiguans and Barbudans and the reason is that the government does not act as if its role is a fiduciary one. The government, therefore, is obligated to see to it that there is in place proper management and oversight of the disbursement of the public ’s profits from WIOC so that its usages can have maximum utility for the majority of the population. Being proficient managers of public finance is particularly important especially since foreign investors in Antigua and Barbuda are allowed to operate for years without paying taxes and custom duties; and this, in part, contributes to regular budget deficits which render the government incapable of meeting its obligations to the public.

Profits from WIOC do not eliminate this problem. They ease the burden somewhat. In light of this recurring deficit, it begs the question as to why the government continues to encourage foreign investment or a growth strategy that do not generate sufficient revenue to fund the building of the social institutions that a modern society requires?

The working class and everyday people in Antigua and Barbuda require socialized medicine. Women and men need easy access to universal day care and PreK for their children at minimum costs to them. Pipe-borne water should be available on a daily and consistent basis and infrastructure should continuously be improved. The population should have secured public spaces and parks for family gatherings and cultural institutions to entertain and fire their imagination. A national institution for research and development is mandatory. And, of course, beautifully constructed sport arenas for popular consumption.

A country, as small as Antigua and Barbuda, can aim to develop these institutions, but only if the economy is organized primarily to service the needs and aspirations of the great majority and not to enrich the few. It means that the economy cannot be organized to satisfy private accumulation of wealth and with it the concentration of social power in the hands of the few to determine the conditions under which the rest of us will live or die.

The economic elite does not need socialized medicine or universal daycare and PreK because they can purchase the best. Those who live by selling their labor need a social safety net and a society that mobilizes the energies of all for the benefit of all. It seems to me, that the idea of taking the wealth of the commons and placing it in the pockets of a minority of the islands’ citizens is driven by the perverse notion that everyone has to look out for him or herself and both should acquire, by any means necessary, as much as they can to enhance their personal life with no regard as to the wellbeing of the majority population. This promotion of vulgar individualism by the government and those who support the idea is not surprising given the fact that Ministers, past and present, are the most ardent practitioners of the gospel of “personal enrichment.”

The notion of transferring wealth from the commons into the hands of a minority of Antigua and Barbuda’s citizens is not just bad but also morally offensive. It is bad because it reduces the public purse and morally offensive because it ignores the suffering of the majority who need some basic security and are told that nothing can be done to ease their suffering because there is no money.

There should have been a little something stashed away from the profits WIOC made from 2015-2019. A public enterprise’s main economic objective is to accumulate capital for development all geared to promoting the wellbeing of the majority population since its profits derive from the collective purchase of its products by the people of Antigua and Barbuda. If this is not the case, we should insist upon it and if there are stumbling blocks put in the way we should remove those stumbling blocks and institute democratic control over public enterprises so that that they benefit the majority and not the few.

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