The Barbados government Tuesday night formally announced plans to sell its shares in the cash strapped regional airline, LIAT, but insisted that it was committed to regional transportation and would continue to hold minimum shares in the Antigua-based carrier.
Barbados along with Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica Grenada and St. Vincent and the Grenadines are the main shareholders of the airline that employs over 600 people and operates 491 flights weekly across 15 destinations.
Prime Minister Mia Mottley in a statement to Parliament confirmed reports that Antigua and Barbuda would be seeking to replace Barbados as the largest shareholder government by seeking to acquire the shares Bridgetown would be outing up for sale.
She said that Attorney General Dale Marshall would lead the negotiations.
“There is only so much that Barbados can responsibly do at this time given our current circumstances and our current position on the journey which I referred to just now,” she said, having earlier made reference to the island’s multi-million dollar agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to turn around the ailing economy.
“Therefore…notwithstanding our absolute commitment to regional air travel and notwithstanding the fact and given in fact that the studies have recommended a different module and restructuring for LIAT and given the inability of the government of Barbados to do for LIAT in the next five to 10 years what the government of Barbados did for LIAT in the last five to 10 years when we moved significantly to assume major shareholder responsibilities, we have taken the determination, a decision as a cabinet that it is time for us to step back while at the same time allowing other governments to continue with their proposals to restructure LIAT in the way which they have determined.”
Last month, Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne said he had received communication from his Barbados counterpart indicating that Bridgetown was willing to sell all but 10 per cent of its shares in the airline that serves 15 Caribbean destinations.
Antigua and Barbuda currently holds 34 per cent of the shares and if it succeeds in convincing Bridgetown to part with its LIAT shares, would have 81 per cent of the airline.
The government in a statement last month had said that “an offer was made for Antigua and Barbuda to acquire the LIAT shares owned by Barbados, through a take-over of the liability of Barbados to the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB).”
The Antigua and Barbuda government chief of staff, Lionel Max Hurst, said that “there are many jobs here in Antigua and Barbuda connected to LIAT and we intend to ensure that those jobs are not lost.
“Many of the route rights that LIAT now possesses would be utilized more fully if Antigua and Barbuda gets its way,’ Hurst said.
Mottley told Parliament that Barbados would not be turning its back on regional transportation or LIAT, adding it would maintain a “minimum shareholding in LIAT should we reach an agreement with our sister governments for them to take over our shareholding with respect to the negotiations.
“We will continue to provide a minimum revenue guarantee, I shouldn’t say continue, we will provide a minimum revenue guarantee on any route that is unprofitable, recognising however that the majority of routes that Barbados is involved in, is in fact profitable with LIAT.
“And it is against this background Mr. Speaker, our commitment continues that such within the last few weeks the government of Barbados would have sent a further one million dollars to LIAT and would also have satisfied our commitment to the Caribbean Development Bank with respect to the re-fleeting of LIAT,” she added.
In May, St. Vincent and the Grenadines Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves said that the shareholder governments had agreed to give further consideration to a proposal by Prime Minister Browne regarding the future direction of the airline.
Gonsalves said he had hoped that the proposal from Antigua and Barbuda would be discussed by the shareholders “before the end of May is out”.
Grenada recently became the latest shareholder in LIAT and Gonsalves confirmed that St. Kitts-Nevis had responded positively to the call for raising US$5.4 million to help the airline deal with its current financial problems.
St. Lucia Prime Minister Allen Chastanet has said that Castries would not contribute any funds unless there’s a significant change to the airline’s structure.