Though tiny in terms of territory, the twin island nation of Antigua and Barbuda knows how to make its voice heard in international forums. As Foreign Minister H. Charles Fernandez notes, at the Paris climate change talks the Caribbean country was regarded as a mouse, yet “roared like a lion.” There is reason for Antiguans and Barbudans to care for the environment, and as such, the country is involved in several environmental projects that offer opportunities for investment, as does its strongest sector of all, tourism.
You have long been a key figure in Antigua and Barbuda. How have your past experiences influenced your vision for your country, and what are your main priorities in your current role as Minister of Foreign Affairs, International Trade and Immigration?
My past experience was in family business. I did the equivalent of a bachelor’s in business management through the University of the West Indies, but I love history and I think there is a lot to be learned from it; even more so today, as the world has become smaller in terms of connectivity. I think the past is important to lead us into the future. If you don’t learn from the past, you’re going to lose your future. And as a small developing country, we need to be friends of all and enemies of none. We have to be very aware of how we react to what is happening in the world, we have to be conscious of what is going on around us, and see if we can carve out our niche in the world without creating any enemies in the process. So it’s important for us to have friendly foreign relations with everyone else.
What about the bilateral relationship between Antigua and Barbuda and the UK in terms of trade, culture and investment? Do you see new opportunities for the countries to become closer in the wake of Brexit?
As a former colony of the UK, most of our agreements, our legislation and our parliamentary system mirror the UK system. We still look to the UK as an important partner, and our tourism sector is developing a lot more in the UK market. Also, we are an English-speaking country, which reinforces our bond. But now we also have to start looking at the European community in a different light. We have to become more assertive about getting into a EU without the UK in it. We no longer have the UK as a gateway into the EU, representing our interests there.
How do you plan to do that?
I think the best way to do it is through CARICOM, the Caribbean Community. People sit up and take a lot more notice of you when you represent not just one vote, but 14 or 15 votes in the United Nations. At international forums, that really makes a difference. The challenge now within CARICOM is for us to be able to work closer together, to have a more streamlined foreign policy and a more streamlined thrust in terms of where we are going – a better idea of what we really want and the best way for us to work together to achieve it. Of course, that does not preclude working individually at the diplomatic level. We have given our ambassadors a very heavy mandate to deliver on; we have become a lot more proactive in our engagement with other countries in the EU, while still wanting to preserve our close relationship with the UK.
Antigua has what is probably one of the best safety records in the region; we are very proactive in our policing and we take our safety and that of our citizens very seriously; it’s a priority for us
Antigua and Barbuda competes with other countries in the region for a piece of the pie in terms of the opportunities offered by Brexit. What makes it stand out among its fellow Commonwealth members?
Now that the UK is leaving the EU, that’s going to make the Commonwealth that much more important to the UK. This has got to be an important partnership for them. They’re going to want to enhance their position within the Commonwealth, and that is an opportunity for us. At the same time, the secretary general of the Commonwealth is from the Caribbean for the first time. She was born in Dominica and her father was born in Antigua. This is definitely an opportunity that we need to seize and to work aggressively towards.
How does Antigua and Barbuda participate in the Commonwealth?
In terms of our mind-set, most Caribbean islands suffer from the same issues: we are small island developing states; we are all concerned about environmental issues, because we stand to lose our beaches, our reefs could be affected and we are subject to more hurricanes; we are united in banking issues and blacklisting, and as a result of that we are able to speak with one voice. We have also signed the Paris climate change accord, and we played a big role in getting everybody on board this agreement – even though we were considered a mouse, we roared like a lion. We can also benefit from some of the things that the UK has to offer, like solar and wind energy. One of our aims is for Barbuda to use 100% renewable energies. In Antigua we have a fossil fuel footprint reduction target. So we work together, but also independently to benefit our individual countries. As for Antigua and Barbuda specifically, each island markets itself not just as a Caribbean territory but through what is unique to us. In Antigua what is unique to us is that our people are very friendly, we speak English, our population is very well-educated, our crime rate is exceptionally low, we’re very investment-friendly, we have the best beaches in the world and a wonderful environment. These are the things that we promote as an island nation.
Can you tell us about success stories in your sustainable ocean management? What opportunities exist in the “blue” economy?
Because we’re a small country, it is relatively easy to initiate projects here. We were one of the first countries in the area to ban plastic bags in supermarkets, and that is a tremendous achievement, as plastic bags are a major source of ocean pollution. We have a solar power project to put solar panels on all government buildings, schools, hospitals and so on. And besides reducing the use of fossil fuels, we are also reducing costs: government power is subsidised by the private sector, so in this way, we reduce the cost borne by the private sector. Barbuda is also part of the Blue Halo Initiative to develop sustainable ocean policies, funded by a wealthy entrepreneur named Ted Waitt and his Waitt Institute.
We have become a lot more proactive in our engagement with other countries in the EU, while still wanting to preserve our close relationship with the UK
Besides renewable energies, what other sectors offer significant opportunities for trade and investment?
Tourism is still very important and becoming even more so, bearing in mind the unfortunate terrorist incidents taking place around the world. The Caribbean is still considered a zone of peace. Antigua has what is probably one of the best safety records in the region; we are very proactive in our policing and we take our safety and that of our citizens very seriously; it’s a priority for us. We work very closely with our international partners and pass legislation to ensure that we remain a safe haven. We want people to come here and relax and not have to worry about safety. We will worry about safety for them, so they don’t have to. And Cuba’s opening up is an opportunity for us too, because it’s going to attract more visitors to the Caribbean. That means that we have to be ready to make the most of this excess of visitors to the region, and there are many exciting opportunities for investment there. Because we speak English, there are also opportunities for call centres. We have a very well educated population with a literacy rate of over 90%. We’re also working really hard on broadband issues. To entrepreneurs, we say: you can come set up your business here and enjoy great weather, the sea, and at the same time operate your business from here.
It is very easy for me to sell a country like this one because we have so much going for us
What incentives does Antigua and Barbuda offer its trading partners that makes it stand out from other countries in the region?
We don’t have a lot of manufacturing in Antigua and that is because of economies of scale. We have to ensure that what we do make such as a very good pepper sauce and rum, gets access to the markets. We are encouraging cottage industries. We are trying to open up markets – not in North America because of the scale, but in the Caribbean region. A number of our manufacturers have been to Cuba to show them what we can offer them.
What makes Antigua and Barbuda an exceptional place to come visit and to do business in?
I believe Antiguans and Barbudans probably have the best personality in terms of the service industry, but it goes beyond that. I think it’s inbred. Because we’re such a small country, we all know one another. And that kindness and welcoming hospitality is something that comes naturally, it’s not something that is trained into us. I was at a forum recently where an investor who is coming to Antigua met the prime minister of another country in my presence, and the prime minister asked the investor: ‘Why are you going to Antigua? My country is bigger. I’m in the Caribbean too and I will offer you all the same incentives and more if you come to my country.’ And his response was: ‘The people of Antigua are what brought me to Antigua.’ Whether you approach a street vendor or a police officer, we try to ensure that this exceptional hospitality remains true, allowing Antigua and Barbuda to stand out from all other countries. It is very easy for me to sell a country like this one because we have so much going for us. Like our logo says: the beach is just the beginning.