Irma: a neoliberal hurricane

By Bennylin - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
The smaller of the two main islands forming the nation of Antigua and Barbuda, Barbuda, is a small sun-drenched island in the eastern Caribbean; it has an area of 70 square miles and a population of less than 2,000. With a small tourist industry but at the same time largely untouched by mass commercial tourism, Barbuda would be many people’s idea of a tropical island paradise, writes Paul Metcalfe

All this though has changed since the devastation of the island caused by Hurricane Irma in September 2017. All the buildings on the island suffered damage and virtually the entire population was forced to leave for neighbouring Antigua.

For the people of Barbuda though, Hurricane Irma is no longer the problem. The problem is the political fallout after Irma hit the island. Barbuda has no private land ownership with the freehold of the whole island under the control of the locally elected Barbuda Council.

Originally under British rule Barbuda was a slave plantation leased from the Crown to the Codrington family. After emancipation from slavery in 1834, Barbuda in practise became owned collectively as commons by its residents, once the Codrington’s leasehold from the Crown expired. More recently this collective ownership was legally enshrined in the 2007 Barbuda Land Act.

The government of Antigua and Barbuda though is now trying to use the post-Irma devastation as an excuse to repeal the Act. The cost of repairing the damage caused by Irma is likely to run into hundreds of millions of dollars and the question is who will pay for it?

Barbuda accounts for only 2% of the population of Antigua and Barbuda, so the nation’s Parliament can legislate over the heads of and against the interests and wishes of the island’s residents. It is no secret that in recent years many Antiguan politicians have wanted to repeal the Barbuda Land Act, to privatise the land and turn the island over to the commercial tourist industry.

The government though is using a carrot as well as a stick. Barbudans have been promised the freeholds to the leaseholds of their houses and plots of land for a nominal sum, bearing in mind though that this is after Hurricane Irma destroyed most of the islands residences. The rationale is ostensibly that the new freeholders could obtain mortgages to rebuild their homes.

We can see a similar rationale to the privatisation of social housing in Britain pioneered by the Thatcher government. Allowing social housing tenants to buy their dwellings takes both the tenants and their properties out of social housing altogether, breaking up solidarity within working class communities and reducing the social housing stock.

Even before Hurricane Irma, the seeds of privatisation were being sown. Three years ago, despite much local opposition, the island’s residents narrowly voted to allow the development of the Paradise Found tourist resort on a 99-year lease and a 25-year exemption from paying local taxes; shareholders in Paradise Found include the actor Robert de Niro and Australian billionaire James Packer. However, it is now known that the leasehold agreement between Paradise Found and the Antiguan government contained a clause allowing Paradise Found to buy the freehold to the resort for US$1 million if the law on freehold was changed at any point in the future!

Antiguan Prime Minister Gaston Browne has said of Barbuda that “I’m not running no giant welfare island over there” and has denounced Barbudan critics who want to maintain collective land ownership as “imbeciles.”

Gaston Browne has two things in his favour. For him the natural crisis caused by Hurricane Irma present an opportunity; by refusing or limiting government funds to rebuild Barbuda he hopes he can force the Barbudan people to accept that their only salvation lies in rebuilding the island through land privatisation and allowing mass commercial tourism. Secondly, most Barbudan residents are still off Barbuda due to the destruction of the island’s infrastructure, self-evidently they would be in a far stronger position to resist the government if they were on the island.

Recently the House of Representatives of Antigua and Barbuda passed the Barbuda Land (Amendment) Bill 2017, if passed by the Senate it would allow for private ownership of land on Barbuda, though there could well be a dispute about the constitutionality of the bill if passed. Whether or not the bill becomes law the struggle for defence of communal land ownership is likely to continue.

The monetarist economist Milton Friedman once wrote

“Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”

We have seen any number of economic crises leading to change for the worse and the erosion of working class gains within capitalism. The structural adjustment programmes imposed on countries in severe economic difficulties in return for IMF loans, the social and economic devastation imposed on Greece by the Troika and so on. In Britain after the 2010 general election the ConDem government used the excuse of the financial crash of 2008 to unleash its austerity programme which continues to the present day.

What perhaps is unusual about the proposed land privatisation on Barbuda is that this not a neoliberal response to an economic crisis but to a natural crisis caused by Hurricane Irma. By trying to end communal ownership of land on Barbuda, the Antiguan government almost seems to be inspired by the words of Milton Friedman. What before Irma was politically impossible, after Irma they now try to present as being politically inevitable.

More generally the lesson to be learnt is that no part of the world is free from the danger of neoliberal economic policies, not even tropical island paradises.

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