Tuesday, May 3, 2016
Barbados Confronts Strikes, Another Bond Downgrade & Climate Change
Bajans and visitors try to forget troubles at Digicel Beach fete 2 weeks ago.
Our 3-week visit to Barbados the past month found the island grappling with numerous problems, and dark clouds gathering with more issues on the horizon. This didn't detract much from our holiday but it did serve as a reminder that the island nation doesn't exist in some special paradise-style bubble immune from the rest of the world. (Recall two years ago - on our last visit- I posted on the discovery that mercenaries were being funded through Barbados to fight in the Ukraine. See e.g.
This year's headaches commenced with the Moody's downgrade of Barbados' government bonds to Caa1+, or even worse junk than the previous (BB) level. It means higher interest due on any new gov't loans taken out, and let me point out the island's debt is already estimated to be nearly 55% of GDP by those I've spoken to including a previous finance minister. The word also circulating around the island is that ever more money is being printed - but evidently not fast enough to pay workers at the Barbados Water Authority. The BWA instigated an island-wide industrial action (including from allied unions at the Port and Airport) mere days before we arrived.
Strike themes and threats ramped up even further within a week of our arrival as the Barbados Secondary Teachers' Union (BSTU) and Barbados Union of Teachers (BUT) called for the expulsion of a 14 year -old student who kicked a female secondary school teacher in the groin and spit at her. Make no mistake that in most of the southern U.S. this girl's fate might be not only a severe paddling, but expulsion. But in Bim, the politicos know how to play on false public sympathy (to corner more votes) and even child "advocates" like Shelley Ross scream the "child deserves her own say".
Really? I don't think so. As many teachers quoted in the island's media noted (and at least one school psychologist visitor from NY I spoke with) there are certain actions that are indefensible "no matter what the provocation". In this case, that "provocation" might have been sternly telling the girl to take her seat, or even cease talking back.
BSTU President Mary Redman, quoted in a piece in The Barbados NATION (April 25, p. 7) didn't mince words. After one politico (Dontrelle Inniss) bloviated about the teachers unions not showing enough deference to their ruling higher ups (in demanding to speak directly to the Minister of Education), Ms. Redman flatly noted he was off base and stated the "Ministry of Education's code of discipline has to be applied to the incident"
Speaking to a general teachers' union meeting at Solidarity House, she said that when judged against the code and the Education Act, the student clearly committed "two Level 3 infractions". (Spitting at the teacher and using physical violence against her). Redman also flatly denied claims by the mother and student that the pair had filed earlier complaints and that the teacher was the aggressor. Ms. Redman pointedly noted that "the teacher had 16 years' experience and won the 'Teacher of the Year Award' in 2013." In a subsequent NATION article Redman insisted that "deviant students" who act out and whose parents are impotent to exert discipline (meaning teachers aren't able either) ought to be placed into a special school setting. A lot of Bajans - again mainly in the middle and upper classes- concur with this take.
But thanks to exploitative politicians ( known as "yardfowls" in local parlance) rumors began spreading especially amongst the lower classes that the student (attending a comprehensive, or non-elite school) was violated by the teacher. The claims included that the teacher "was a lesbian" and "made a lesbian advance" toward the girl. (Both of which would be firing offenses if true.)
Media polls taken with selected published comments disclosed that most of those who believed this BS were lower working class Bajans. Most of those who adhered to strict punishment were from the upper classes - business, academic strata. This shows again that the Barbadian divisions are extremely class-based.
This incident might not normally have developed to this point, except that the two teachers' unions have threatened industrial actions, and if the BWA strike was any indicator - the action could spread. This is the last thing the island needs, apart from the terrible publicity.
Most of those witnessing events from outside have expressed the opinion that it reflects the island nation's increasing disrespect for authority and the growing prevalence of an "anything goes" culture. One NATION columnist and UWI Political Science Professor argued that the incident created great turmoil among the masses because "it meant their charges would no longer have the benefit of glorified nannies" and the schools "would be without glorified security guards and custodians". He specifically called out the low esteem with which teachers were held. That struck home with many teachers.
Other issues confronting the island:
-The continued calls for closure of "tax havens" in the Caribbean, and how the local business people and industries are reacting. (More about this in a future post).
- Continuing impacts from climate change now felt at many levels, from the bleached coral reefs that are slowly dying (from the much warmer sea temperatures), to the ever encroaching seas and reclamation of beaches (to the detriment of tourism) and the ever increasing high temperatures. On the Sunday before we left the Meteorological Office recorded one of the highest ever April temperatures at Grantley Adams Airport: 32 C or nearly 90 F.
- Mounting worries about the actual financial condition of the island and the real level of debt. Most citizens paying attention believe the country is living on borrowed time and needs to address pressing issues such as the growing ratio of debt to GDP. The unemployment among the young is also a formidable problem, and not addressed enough in the local media.
- Lack of adequate economic growth, related to the parlous financial situation and the debt attendant upon it, has been a grave concern the past 6 years since I first wrote about it in May of 2010, e.g.
What is new has been the frequency of calls in the local press (often by businessmen) for either privatization of the National Insurance system, or more worrisome, allowing a devaluation of the Barbados dollar (now pegged at $1 BDS = $0.50 U.S.) . The main reason given, as in the Business section of the Barbados Advocate, is that Bajan goods and services are too costly for the island's Caricom neighbors. Thus, Bim is running up large trade deficits (as with Trinidad) because while it needs to import Trinidad oil to run tens of thousands of autos, Trinidad isn't purchasing Barbadian clothes, food or services - because of the cost compared to Trinidad's.
Every sane and sober person acknowledges the island state's trade imblance problem but we believe that devaluing the currency isn't the solution, as it has not really improved conditions where it has been tried (Guyana, Jamaica and even Trinidad- only spared the worst because of its oil reserves.)
Tourism meanwhile remains the one bright spot and arrivals have been reported up 5 percent over last year and even more this year. People choose to come here because well, the beaches are still delightful despite the erosion, and rising sea levels.
The economic costs of importing too much food are still high, and one still sees repeated calls for the island to grow more of its own. Our initial shock transpired the evening we arrived when we went to buy some basic provisions such as eggs, bacon, Almond milk, cereal, bread, turkey hot dogs etc. The total came to $125 U.S. with the greatest shock a box of cereal (Alpen) at $9, and bacon at $11. (We have an apt. with kitchen and cook a lot of our own food to save $$$ at the expesive restaurants).
One huge recurring problem is the widespread praedial larceny: the theft of food crops just before they are ready to harvest, including cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce, cabbage, pumpkin etc. At the supermarkets, for instance, we seldom beheld any cucumbers at all. This alone is harming the island's balance of payments standing given the vast amounts spent on food importation - mostly from the U.S. and Canada. Fortunately, the government finally is increasing penalties for any crop thieves caught. The problem is that they seldom are given most are doing the thievery late at night or in the early morning hours.
Barbados today can best be described as "getting by" but many want it to do much better, starting with getting its financial house in order.