By Gaston Browne, Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda
Fellow citizens and residents, as the Old Year ends and the New Year begins we, the people of Antigua and Barbuda, have much for which we should be justifiably proud. We have not emerged from the struggles of 2020 and 2021 unscathed, but we are far less wounded than many less fortunate peoples all over the world.
The COVID-19 pandemic injured us in many ways, but it did not kill our national spirit of resilience that has lifted generations of our people from the depths of despair, to the great heights of achievement.
Rallying in support of the measures that your government implemented, we kept our economy afloat, we maintained public sector employment fully, we incentivized the tourism sector and safeguarded private-sector jobs in construction and hotel refurbishment.
In addition, we continued to renew and expand our infrastructure in roads, government buildings, ports, water supply and digital capacity. We moved forward in dire circumstances, where other countries have reversed. And that is because, together, we reaffirmed the spirit of resilience that has consistently triumphed over adversity and trials.
Yes; there were some who doubted. And yes; those doubters continue to find new reasons for questioning our capacity to meet our challenges and to overcome them. But, as a people, we listened to the voice of reason and common sense, acknowledging that, as an Antiguan and Barbudan family, we would rise, or fall together, as one nation, one people, with a common destiny. We acted on that recognition, unlike those who failed to join the battle against COVID, but instead chose to carp, criticize, and squawk on the sidelines of our efforts.
Showing faith in your government’s leadership, we, the Antiguan and Barbudan people, picked ourselves up and fought our way back; though the road was arduous and the journey long. And, that is why by the end of 2021, we happily witnessed the fruits of our labour in the revitalization of our tourism industry, the return to work of many of our people, and greater optimism about our future. This unrelenting fight for a strong recovery has resulted in an economic expansion of four percent in 2021, despite the battering from COVID 19.
Your loyalty to your country’s future; your belief in us as a people; and your determination to support your government’s leadership, has brought us, with God’s grace, out of the worst valleys of darkness, into the bright light of new possibilities.
I thank every Antiguan and Barbudan who was courageous enough, not to surrender to fear; not to succumb to despair; not to listen to the opportunistic voices of division, discord, doom and gloom.
I recall Romans, Chapter 8, verse 31:
“What shall we say about things as wonderful as these?
If God is for us, who can ever be against us?”
My fellow citizens and residents, you will recall the long period when the main source countries, from which our tourists originate, closed their borders, grounded planes and stopped cruise liners from traversing the seas, resulting in our economy declining by 17.3 percent. You will recall that the government’s revenues dropped suddenly and gravely by 50 percent in May of 2020. Yet, we managed to keep all public servants employed, ensuring that families had at least one person, bringing in an income.
We continued to build out infrastructure, providing employment for hundreds, while building for the future. We completed the Friars Hill and Sir George Walter Highways, and we are close to completing the Factory/Lunar Park roads for several miles up to Willikies. We have substantially completed the US$95M cargo port, to facilitate transshipments of cargo, positioning the St John’s port, as a vital logistics and shipping hub for the future.
We can be proud of the fact, that we will host the most modern airport and seaport in the region. We should also commend the directors and staff of the Antigua and Barbuda Airport Authority for their achievement, in copping the prize for the best Caribbean airport.
We also maintained investment in education, thereby continuing to give our young people every opportunity to compete with the best in the world, and to contribute to our national growth and development.
Thus, we completed the expansion of the Sir Novelle Richards Academy; and we continue to expand the broadband infrastructure in our schools and enhance the Five Islands Campus of the University of the West Indies. Among other things; we established an agreement with Harvard University to certify the graduates of Five Islands in certain disciplines and to give them access to the learning material and teachings of Harvard.
My fellow country men and country women, in the budget statement that we will present during the course of 2022, we will lay out in detail the complete plan for the country’s further economic and social development. Our development and investment plan, will not be fanciful promises of mythical investors, sitting abroad on millions of dollars, earning no interest or other return, while they wait for a different government in Antigua and Barbuda. Those beliefs are unrealistic imaginations – dreamt by loafers, lacking sound judgment; or deliberately weaved by unscrupulous charlatans; whose purpose is to deceive and manipulate the minds of the innocent and unsuspecting.
Here is the reality: No bonafide investor sits idly on money. All investors want to make money work; giving them interest/profits quickly and continuously. Instead of trying to sell false promises to our people, your government offers reality in deeds and in accomplishments.
While we engage in diversification of our economy into cannabis, stem cells, blockchain and cryptocurrencies; we continue to strengthen agriculture to ensure food security and food sovereignty. We are also developing digital technologies, to facilitate digitalization of our economy, to create new jobs and opportunities for entrepreneurship.
We are also recovering our vital tourism industry: 2021 was a year of steady growth particularly in July and August, when air arrivals surpassed our best ever monthly 2019 numbers, for the same period.
Air arrivals from all markets by the end of November 2021 showed strong growth over 2020. We are estimating 167,000 air arrivals for this year, 2021. This is more than half of the total number of arrivals by air in 2019. These figures indicate that tourism is bouncing back, and that our promotional efforts and preparations in Antigua and Barbuda are working.
On the cruise tourism front, at the end of December 77,565 persons visited since cruising resumed in July. Already, the scheduled calls for 2022 are encouraging, demonstrating the value in the investment we have made.
Our yachting industry has proved to be durable and resilient. The latest improvements of the industry’s infrastructure such as the increased availability of potable water, additional berths, and the availability of low-sulphur diesel fuel for the mega-yachts; have also improved the attractiveness of yachts remaining in Antigua as a major home base.
Our tourism industry has proven to be resilient, and we will continue to work with our international partners, not only to hold but, to strengthen the place we occupy as one of the most desirable destinations globally.
Over the past 18 months, we incentivised the hotel industry, helping hoteliers to refurbish and renovate their properties so that, as the pandemic eases, they could present our country as a fresh, reinvigorated destination to tourists. This strategy, together with the patience and endurance of the workers in the industry, is what causes our hotels to be near full capacity now, despite the shadow of COVID that hangs over the globe.
We also increased capital spending, despite the huge constraints, to complete the new cruise tourism berth that will accommodate the Oasis-class ships, bringing thousands more tourists to our shores, and greater earnings to our people. Much was made by self-serving voices of the fact that this month, even though the new pier was ready, an Oasis ship could not call. No attention was drawn to the fact that we enjoyed as many as five cruise ships on many days this month, because of the new Oasis class pier. And no reference was made to the fact that, what stopped the Oasis ship from calling, was not that we had not built the fifth pier, but that an unexpected rock formation delayed the completion of the dredging of the space required for the turning apron.
That work is underway and will be completed by March, despite the dark hopes and selfish wishes of siren voices, that would lure ships to crash on rocks, rather than to moor safely on solid shores; bringing not moans of misery but cries of joy.
As our National Hero, Sir Vere Cornwall Bird Snr, would have said: “The dogs bark but the caravan moves on”.
You know for 18 long months, in the most stringent economic circumstances, your government worked diligently and creatively, to keep every one of us safe from the ravages of the COVID-19 virus. That was our first priority for spending.
It did not matter who was black or white; who was born Antiguan and Barbudan, or who was not born here, who was young or old, who was rich or poor – we wanted everyone to be defended, to be safeguarded, to be secure. In our Antigua and Barbuda, we wanted no one to be unseen, no one to be unheard, no one to be unprotected, and no one to be left behind. That is why our government spent scarce financial resources on building the capacity to fight COVID, including the purchase of ventilators, drugs, protective equipment, vaccines and compensating medical personnel for their front-line work.
It is why we significantly increased our number of hospital beds, to the point where we are among the best in the Caribbean. It is why we built and equipped in rapid time, the new 17 beds infectious disease Centre; the Sir Cuthwyn Lake Medical Centre; and two modern polyclinics, located in Glanvilles and Villa. It is also why we renovated and expanded the Hannah Thomas Hospital in Barbuda, and why we are developing a new cardiac unit at the Sir Lester Bird Medical Centre, and a renal facility at Holberton, to increase and expand our renal and kidney transplant services.
Simply put, the health, the well-being and the lives of all who inhabit this country comes before anything and everything else. And your government will not play with lives and livelihoods for political gain. That’s not the Gaston Browne administration way; that is other people’s game.
Our government is guided by Philippians, Chapter 2, verse 4:
“Let each of you, look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others”.
To your government, the interest of the people of Antigua and Barbuda is first, second, last, and always. It is because of the vigilance of your government and the support of the people who recognized the wisdom of vaccinations that, of the 4,259 infected cases, 4,060 persons recovered.
By any objective measure, the recovery of 95.3 percent of those persons infected by COVID-19, is a truly remarkable achievement. Again, I thank the health workers on the front line of this grand and noble effort. We will long remember them for their courage, skill and care. Equally, we will remember with deep regret the 119 persons who died. We still lament their untimely deaths in the grip of this dreaded disease, and we continue to join their families and loved ones in praying for the rest of their souls.
But, even one death was too many. That is why, so many of us in our country call upon those who still refuse to be inoculated, to think again. Think particularly of young children who cannot help themselves and have to rely on the good sense of adults, to protect them and preserve lives, they have only just started to live. As a father of young children, one of them 15 months old, I am frightened every day that they might be infected by a disease we know is debilitating and deadly. Like all other parents, I know the anguish and heart-rending pain that I would feel, if any of my young children were to be struck down by COVID. I do all in my power every day to protect them and I pray for God’s continued mercy.
Timothy Chapter 5, verse 8 teaches every one of us that:
“If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever”.
I understand the fear of the vaccine, but it has killed no one in our country; it has saved tens of millions of lives across the globe. Is it not better to take the vaccine which has so evidently saved so many lives, instead of risking COVID-19 and its many variants that could more certainly take your life, or the life of children and grandparents?
So, once again as we enter a New Year, I appeal to those, who are hesitant to be inoculated, to join the majority of us who have taken the vaccine in order to protect ourselves and everyone in our community; especially the helpless and the vulnerable. I also, implore the vulnerable ones among us, to get boosted as soon as possible, in light of the rapid spread of the omicron variant.
While I am talking about the senseless talking of lives, let me deplore the 16 murders our country endured in 2021. Most of these homicides were the consequence of domestic disputes, jealousies and rivalries. Our country is too small, and our people too few, for 16 murders to simply be a statistic. All of us are affected by murder, however, it occurs. None of us can be tolerant of murder in any circumstances. I will take no comfort in comparisons with other countries, which indicate that we have fewer murders than most. Every life in our small society is precious. No one has the right to end the life of another.
Therefore, bright and early in 2022, as your prime minister, I will require the Cabinet Ministers responsible for social transformation, gender affairs, law enforcement and education, to construct and launch an expanded and robust conflict resolution and public education programme, to proactively curb crime and violence.
Barbuda and Antigua are intrinsic and integral parts of our one nation, and our one people. Barbuda’s development and the welfare of its people may be a political football to some, but to my administration, the interests of the people in Barbuda are as important as the interests of the people in Antigua.
Despite all the financial challenges we have faced, work has continued on the newly paved 6,100 feet runaway on Barbuda to facilitate jet aircraft traffic. This will help to upgrade the Barbuda tourism industry, bringing jobs and a higher standard of living to our brothers and sisters in Barbuda. A new solar-voltaic plant and additional battery storage are being installed on Barbuda, to make it the first island community in this hemisphere, powered exclusively by solar-voltaic power. It will be the cleanest and greenest island in the world.
Again, despite extremely scarce resources, my government has directed external assistance, and its own funds, to repairing and rebuilding most of the homes that were damaged by hurricane Irma, at no cost to the families that occupied them.
With regard to private sector investment; the PLH/Discovery Land project is currently under construction employing over 500 persons directly. More than US$120M was expended on this project in 2021, and the spending for the next 10 years, is projected to be at least US$150M per year.
My friends, there are those who talk of differences between Antiguans and Barbudans: they deliberately exaggerate and exploit these differences that they themselves create, without regard for the progress and prosperity that they deny the people on Barbuda. But, we know this truth – that whatever differences may be conjured up in the minds of some, most of us share the same hopes and vision to transform our nation into an economic powerhouse. This is a vision from which we shall not relent, despite the existential threats, challenges and COVID setbacks.
We want to empower our children and our grandchildren with a life of prosperity and happiness; built on good healthcare, good education, good quality housing and good opportunities for rewarding employment and expanded ownership.
That is our common bond and our shared purpose. We will not change from it; we will not abandon it. Antiguans and Barbudans will grow and prosper together.
Ownership is empowerment, therefore, we continue to encourage and support entrepreneurship and ownership among our Barbudan brothers and sisters. To this end, work is advanced on the development of a land registry on Barbuda, to facilitate the granting of freehold land ownership to Barbudans, starting in 2022. This will secure real ownership empowerment of our Barbudan brothers and sisters while displacing the disempowering myth of collective ownership.
There is a housing revolution taking place in our country, with enlarged land and homeownership in both Antigua and Barbuda. Several housing developments are already obvious in our country. In 2022, the pace will be accelerated, as the economy builds on the growth that we achieved in 2021. With regard to water, we share the desire for greater and more reliable supply. That’s why we have invested in three additional reverse osmosis plants, that will provide an additional four million gallons of water every day, while subsidising the cost to every user.
As I speak, APUA is in the process of commissioning two of these three reverse osmosis plants, that will become operational in January 2022. The third water plant will produce 3 million gallons a day and will be installed in Bethesda, later in the year.
And while I am talking about APUA, let me say this: Very conscious that today’s world – in all its economic and social aspects – is rapidly moving toward digitalized communication, and determined that we, the people of Antigua and Barbuda, will not be left behind and disadvantaged; your government, through APUA, invested in enlarging our telecommunication infrastructure. APUA is currently investing over $100 M to expand its home and subsea cable infrastructure, to give modern and affordable broadband services to every Antiguan and Barbudan, and to digitalize our nation’s economy.
The image and regard for Antigua and Barbuda in the global community today are rising. We can all take pride in the evident facts that our country is today, treated with regard and respect in the international community.
Good governance is good business. Whenever and wherever there have been indications of wrongdoing or corruption in my administration, with the support of my Cabinet, I have acted on it.
The evidence is there to prove it, and I thank my Cabinet colleagues who stood with me, to uphold our nation’s integrity and protect its reputation without fear or favour. I have just concluded the chairmanship of CARICOM, where I worked to advance the regional interest, particularly in securing much-needed vaccines and turning around the belief that we are a region of money launderers. I was invited to patriciate in, and I contributed actively, to each of president Joseph Biden’s global summits on Corruption, Democracy, Human Rights and Climate Change.
As the chair of the Alliance of Small Islands States, I oversaw negotiations at COP 26 in Glasgow, pushing for more funding and for compensation for loss and damage, wreaked on small states by Climate Change. And, I launched with other small island states in Oceania and the Pacific, a Commission to try to invoke international law to hold polluting states accountable for their actions that threaten our nations.
Antigua and Barbuda was trusted by others, with the responsibility to Chair the Commission and to host the Secretariat of the Commission. Throughout Latin America and in Canada and the US, because of our principled positions adopted and advanced in the Organisation of American States, our country is given regard greater than its size. Without offending anyone, we have developed close relations with major developing nations such as China and India, securing tangible benefits for all who reside in our country.
As I said at the beginning of this message, the COVID-19 pandemic hurt us in many ways, but it did not kill our national spirit of resilience, that has lifted generations of our people from the depths of despair to the great heights of achievement.
COVID has not gone, and the pandemic has not ended. COVID is still here. But we have managed it better than most. We have developed the capacity to cope with it, so that we could open our borders and keep them open, rebuilding industry and commerce and getting our people back to work. It is that knowledge and experience that our country needs, and upon which it relies, to take our people forward, particularly as new variants of the disease emerge.
So, as the New Year dawns, opening new possibilities and challenges, I believe we can build on the progress we’ve made. We will have to wear masks for some time yet, as we will have to continue physical distancing and the practice of handwashing and sanitizing. No people can avoid disease and pandemics or their economic and social impact; but, through leadership, we can choose to overcome the obstacles they present and to turn fear and paralysis to optimism and action.
Proven leadership – the combination of creativity, courage, strength, resilience, strategic thinking, and commitment to people – can lead us out of crisis, create conditions for progress and prosperity, and lift up all the people in our land.
We will leave no one neglected, no one ignored, and no one disadvantaged. Our nation is ready to resume its egalitarian march to prosperity on which we had so firmly and convincingly set our feet.
We can do it. And we certainly will do it.
Let us welcome 2022, and resolve to use the foundations, we have so painstakingly built, to make it a year of revival, recovery, and resurgence.
Happy New Year to you. God bless you and God bless our beloved Antigua and Barbuda.