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Not just regional travel at stake

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The LIAT demise and, to a lesser extent, the ongoing controversy over the outcome of the March elections in
Guyana, have dominated the regional news during the last two weeks.

Before offering some comments of my own, let me join in extending congratulations to the people of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela and to those of the United States of America on their recent independence anniversaries. Both had to wage armed struggles against European colonialists to achieve independence, the Americans against the British, succeeding in 1776, and the Venezuelans who succeeded in freeing themselves from the Spanish yoke 35 years later.

What an irony, that in the 21st century, both countries should find themselves at loggerheads, with the USA, which had rendered support to several Latin American nations when they were fighting for their independence from Spain, today trying to impose its own will over Venezuela! What a tragedy that the USA of today is trying to strangle the Venezuelan people using all means in its mighty arsenal, replacing old colonial Spain in its domination of the region!

But back to LIAT, since the ruling of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) on the Guyana elections will come too late for any comment before our press deadline. In sounding the death knell on the regional airline the customary chants of it being uneconomic and inefficient have been repeated even more loudly. The evidence would support this, but in going forward it is critical that we learn the lessons from the LIAT experience and use those in guiding us as to the way forward. Like it or not, the issue before us as a region is what do we do about regional transportation, air travel in particular, not whether LIAT survives or not.

Those lessons to be learnt should not be confined to LIAT, but should include the history of Caribbean civil aviation. LIAT may have had the longest experience, but it is not the first venture to have been upended. In CARICOM alone, besides a multiplicity of small airlines, there have been failures of “national” airlines in Guyana, Jamaica and even Barbados, while Caribbean Airlines, which succeeded BWIA, has survived as did its predecessor, largely due to huge subsidies from the petro-funded state. Are we to make these a part of our collective analysis?

Since the announcement of the impending LIAT liquidation, the media, both regular as well as the social media, has been flooded with all sorts of ideas on new approaches to regional aviation. One dominant feature has been an emerging consensus that any such approach should be private sector-led. Welcome as this is, most of these calls have come from people in governments, politics and regional institutions. It would be good to hear something concrete from potential private sector investors themselves. We run the risk in this crisis of virtually selling out our souls in our desperation to find a solution. It nearly happened before when Sanford was around.

The most unfortunate aspect of the crisis has been the clear divisions among regional leaders, especially in the OECS, and the bickering in public. It is almost childish and needs to be arrested before it deteriorates further, for at this rate, can we expect any reasonable solution? There is also the clear politicking on the issue as parties, in and out of government, seek to get political advantage out of the situation.

Already in the OECS itself the strain is showing and one Prime Minister has been ridiculously talking of a “northern” OECS against “the rest”. What arrant nonsense in an already divided regional grouping of mini-states! CARICOM too is feeling the strain and some political commentators are even predicting a possible break-up of the regional grouping.

Sober heads must be kept and the interests of the region’s peoples be kept as our foremost priority. If each government, private investor or airline company can see no further than immediate advantage, the region will lose.

The regional economy depends heavily on travel and tourism and short-term gain can lead to long-term loss.

There is no substitute for mature negotiation, eschewing the old statist approaches and meaningful involvement of investors in what can become a model of partnership between the public and private sectors in ensuring the future of the regional travel industry.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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