Sunday, August 30, 2015

Saint Lucia's National Debt Crisis - Nightmare on Laborie Street

I have wondered for quite some time, what the exact amount is for Saint Lucia's national debt. Year in and year out we hear of loans being taken by our government, for a multitude of different reasons. There have been budget debates, and House sittings, but somehow the exact amount seems to be as elusive as the national bolom and escapes the lips of our elected representatives. Or could it be that my use of Q-tips has failed to be as thorough is it should be?

Asking many friends was no help in shedding too much light on our debt situation. They all seemed to know that it was some astronomical amount but were not quite sure exactly how high. This was amazing to me since ultimately the payback, of whatever this colossal amount is, rests squarely on the shoulders of the people of Saint Lucia. Is it tens of millions, hundreds of millions, or even billions of dollars in debt?

And with all this brouhaha about our high debt, wage freezee, layoffs, and rumours of war and famine, and destitution...blah blah blah; how does the ordinary man in the street relate, or have any clue, to the debt that looms over our heads. Will Saint Lucia be seized to pay off our unpaid debt which has so many zeroes on the end? Can out lenders somehow demand the money we owe from every single Saint Lucian? Imagine that!

But still the question prevails, how much do we owe?

Not being one to just sit on my derriere shooting the breeze I finally decided to tackle our mysterious national debt by the horns and ask publicly in the ONELUCIAN group on Facebook (a closed group) whether anyone knew exactly what our debt numbers were - well I should have done it sooner. BI had barely posted my question when the responses came rattling in - links galore! The  numbers were right there for my dry eyes to see. I had no tears and neither could I scream. Those dry, horrific figures gave me the biggest gorjette I have ever received. I felt like sucking my thumb and going to sleep. I wanted to cry for my mommy but couldn't. Eventually I was able to gather enough strength to raise my arm and administer a slap and gorjette to myself - I was in a daze. How much you ask? Wait for it...

A whopping EC$2.7 BILLION!!!  Bon Dieu, La Vierge, Sainte Marie!!!
See page 40 and down: Debt Analysis. A document by our own government.


However, as colossal as it seemed how does the regular man in the street appreciate the enormity and severity of such an amount in a Saint Lucia context. Of course he will say it is a big number, in fact he may most likely say "dat's a lotta monee ee" or "whole chou nous pas bon."  But how does the ordinary man in the street really quantify the meaning of such a large sum of money.

Realizing the dilemma the ordinary citizen will have in fathoming our debt situation I have put together a few slides to break those numbers down into visible comparisons..
(click for full sized photos)

So, where do we go from here? Is the debt collector gonna come knocking pretty soon? Will we have to make bom to pay off all of this debt? Well, that's gonna take a whole lotta of bom, I can tell you! Or will we do like most debtors and begin selling off or leasing any meaningful assets in order to raise funds? 

Wait, have this already begun happening in Saint Lucia? Will they resort to selling off chunks of fair Helen and sell our passports for economic citizenship? Will they sell the Pitons? Ooops, seems like they already tried that? Sell the beaches, Pigeon Point, Black Bay, Pointe Sable, Hewanorra Airport,  WASCO, and a host of other lucrative properties? 

But how do we fix this mess? It's all well and good to pay off what we owe, but what about the underlying practices which have caused us languish under this colossal debt in the first place? Something is terribly wrong with how we do business as a nation and needs to be changed pronto! I daresay this debt has been accrued in the past 20 years. This means we've borrowed, on average, EC$135 million per year!  What can we show for all this debt?

It seems our only meaningful earner is tourism which amounts to 80% of GDP! This is nothing short of lunacy when every aspect of this industry is out of our hands. Agriculture and everything else has been allowed to deteriorate Many years ago we boasted about Agriculture, Industry, and Tourism. Is tourism really benefiting Saint Lucia as much as we are made to believe? Of course it pays the bills, but can't we be sensible and not put all our eggs in one basket? For crying out loud it's a debt of EC$2.7 billion!  We're constantly bombarded by new record figures in tourist arrivals yet witness so many layoffs in the tourism industry. How much of the tourist dollar actually stays in Saint Lucia? Maybe they should also release the figures on tourist spending; that would be a more sensible indicator.

If our debt situation is not fixed we will surely languish in our version of the black hole of Calcutta!

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Freedom of the Press, Convenience, Truth, and Social Media

The three wise monkeys -Iwazaru, Mizaru, and Kikazaru
Recently I have noticed a subtle yet concerted effort to target those who use social media to express dissenting views. This effort has gradually increased in crescendo as the rhetoric, both online and off, has continued by those who have vested interests in silencing any criticism or opposing viewpoints. 

For whatever reason those in the diaspora come in for special attention since their medium of choice for expressing, unfettered, their points of view, is social media. It has allowed all and sundry to sidestep any blocks or censorship to their patriotic concerns and rights to freedom of speech and expression. This freedom and flexibility is clearly an issue to some. Ironically those who find fault with others' use of this medium wish to maintain it for the expression of their own perspectives wherever, whenever, and however they please. The use and freedoms of use should only be for a select few who share and espouse the same leanings as them.

They sit on their lofty perches as if theirs is the only valid voice of relevance or importance. Little do they realize that the perspectives of all are important, including the uneducated and those perceived to be the lowest in our society. Everyone has their real world experiences which are all part of the big picture.

Just because some do not have the same societal or political status does not mean their vision of their world is irrelevant. In typical Saint Lucian fashion the attitude displayed to them asks, "Who are you?" As if one needs to be of a special club to have a valid or worthy point of view.

This is the Internet age when information is accessible by all and sundry. No longer is it reserved for those who have financial means or those with special connections to know of what happens in the world today. No longer is information delayed by weeks, months, or even years before a publication lands on our shores. 

No one needs to be an expert to express an opinion. Hell, even experts disagree vehemently with each other; we see it everyday in courts of law. Ironically, social media has made these instances readily available for the world to witness and discuss.

The diaspora is always chided for its unrealistic perspective on Saint Lucian life and politics because "you live in metropolitan countries in the outside world"  or their experience is from "over there" and does not relate. Baloney!

Yet it is this same foreign experience and perspective that the multitude of consultants bring to our shores when hired. All of a sudden it is now relevant. 

If anyone is cognizant of the reach social of media and the Internet it should be our politicians and representatives who are of even higher visibility. They, more than anyone else should realize that their every utterance has more influence and reach than the average citizen who dissents on Facebook or other social media. As a result they should be even more mindful that every lie, half truth, mamaguy, character assassination, bluff, propaganda spew, or other utterance is under even greater scrutiny and has even more weight.

The complaint that everyone seems to feel they are an expert is surprising when it is considered that people making these complaints portray themselves as experts of everything. Such hypocrisy!

The complaint that the average man and woman does not understand or have a meaningful grasp of the issues seems to evaporate around elections time when they somehow, magically, develop the understanding of complex issues thrown about on the campaign trail. These lowly people who dare not comment on social media with their faux sense of expertism are suddenly smart enough to make a decision to render a victor at the polls. A few days later they no longer have what it takes to understand and comment on these very same issues. 

The ordinary citizen posting on Facebook or other social media is not the cause of Saint Lucia's current economic, financial, investment, or other malady. It lies squarely on the shoulders of our politicians, whether elected, selected, or appointed. 

This attitude clearly exemplifies what is obviously expressed behind closed doors.

The three wise monkeys, sometimes called the three mystic apes embody the proverbial principle "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil." There are various meanings ascribed to the monkeys and the proverb including associations with being of good mind, speech and action. In the Western world the phrase is often used to refer to those who deal with impropriety by turning a blind eye.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Mercury Beach Rising

Lets get it straight, 'Mercury Beach' at Pigeon Island has blown 'St. Lucia Jazz' out of the water like the HMS Sheffield by an Exocet missile during the Falklands War. Never in all its fantasy history has St. Lucia Jazz seen so many boats 'up Point.' There were no grossly overpaid artistes either, but still the people droves. It was like one big Spring break! 

And so, for the second consecutive year "Mercury Beach" was held at Pigeon Island bringing in between 7 and 8 thousand fans who jammed the beach to attend an event organized by marine engine maker Mercury. Making the trip this year were 70 catamarans and 400 motor boats! To participate in this year's event it is estimated that Martiniquans spent between 3 to 4 million euros for boat rental,  hotel accommodation, meals, taxis, and a two day pass to the event (55 euros). 

"Mercury Beach"  is one big "Aqua Action." For those of you who don't know what Aqua Action was, go ask your parents. The organizers of Jazz must be green with envy when they see the astounding success of this event in just two years. This envy is not because of greenbacks, oh no! No US dulluhs here strictly euros flowing up deh. Uh huh. 

Sandwiched between Pigeon Island and the so-called private Sandals beach (slip the guard a few euros and a lukewarm Piton and you get in with no hassle) the last spot for locals to bathe freely was transformed into the biggest beach jam since....uhhhhhh...last year's event. By all accounts this event dwarfs Jazz by leaps and bounds. There were more jamets than Jazz, more drunks, more artistes, more poom poom, more G-strings, more rum, more fried chicken, more cougars, more weed, more drugs, more boodeh robbah, more vieux neg, more free condoms, more glass bottles, more trash, more foam, more pee, more sea ants, more wining (or is it spelt whining, or winding?). Anyway! There was no shade! You get up there and is sun in your a$$! Too hot? Then you take a dip and come out to bake again, this time seasoned with some Caribbean sea salt.  Bake, season, wine, repeat. You get the idea.

Wait, I'm not done yet! There was also more 6:30 than Jazz, more totots, more wet t-shirts, more bodah, more poonie printers, more camel toes, more wardrobe malfunctions, more body malfunctions, more go-pros, more drones, more foam.....and yes, there were a LOT more trouser snakes! And oh yes, a lot more sex too! I mean seriously, who has sex during St. Lucia Jazz anyway?

But putting all this aside "Mercury Beach" is like a shot of adrenaline into the vein of St. Lucia's flagging economy. The benefits to local businesses are apparent and don't need an accounting wizard to explain with flow charts and PowerPoint presentations. 

There are, however, concerns from many quarters about the environmental impact of this event. Although there is the usual garbage, and abandoned drunk or crackhead cleanup, much is unknown of the inevitable garbage dumping and chemical contamination from this unprecedented number of boats moored off Pigeon Island. It would have been a good idea to have an environmental impacts assessment done by the relevant ministry or agency in order to determine whether our national park can survive ecologically. In all sensibility, an environmental impact charge should be attached to any permit issued for such an event. This would not only cover garbage removal but aid in determining any effects and necessary measures to minimize any adverse effects. Recently New York City required Uber taxi to conduct an environmental impact study as a condition of their license to operate, requiring submission in three months. I daresay we need such a study and report before the next iteration of this event.

To derive maximum benefit from this event we cannot only be focused on the monetary aspects but also on the social, ecological, drug, crime, environmental, and other impacts on our country. Although there is much of a boost to the economy the attendant negative side effects can be worse than its benefits.

Already plans are afoot for "Mercury Beach" 2016 but reports are that the Martinique tourism authorities are trying to woo the event back to their shores. Could this be the last we see of this event? Time will tell.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Online Freedom Under Attack - Is Digicel a Telecommunications Bully?

Lets get it straight from the outset, Digicel and all telecommunications companies operating in Saint Lucia are out to make money, a lot of it! They don't give a shyte about anything other than hefty returns for their owners and investors. PERIOD! So now that we've got that out in the open lets deal with the hot news on the block about Digicel reportedly blocking voice calling via Whatsapp.

In a galaxy far far away through the monopoly black hole Cable & Wireless ruled supreme, and handled their Saint Lucian empire with an iron fist. Competition was nonexistent as they had been blessed, by the government, with unfettered control of the telecommunications market. For over 100 years, since the 1870s, they ruled in the Caribbean. As usual, monopolies become arrogant and are slow to innovate since there is little fear of competition and therefore no incentive to spend any more than they have  to. It was also a time of analog communications, and the Internet was only available towards the turn of the century to only those with the deepest pockets. Computers were exceedingly expensive contraptions to be viewed and dreamed about by those who had access to magazines on the subject. Smartphones were not yet even invented and most internet connectivity was via dialup...very slow dialup.

Liberalization of the telecommunications industry occurred when The Eastern Caribbean Telecommunications Authority (ECTEL) was established on 4th. May, 2000 by a treaty signed in St. George’s, Grenada, by the Governments of five Eastern Caribbean States - Commonwealth of Dominica, Grenada, St. Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines. It was a watershed moment and seen as an opportunity for competition which would greatly reduce prices and improve technology since many had considered Cable and Wireless as a money sucking parasite. Indeed, rates for all services offered then were among the highest in the world.

Enter Digicel, a fledgling telecommunications company founded in April 2001 by Irish billionaire Denis O'Brien. Digicel was the darling back then. New phones, competing rates, and 2G. Wow! Prices on cell phones were reduced overnight by Cable and Wireless to unheard of prices.

Fast forward to 2015 and Digicel is now seen by many in what has become a duopoly seemingly as bad as the loathed Cable and Wireless monopoly. They have been very aggressive in marketing and come across to many as bullying and avaricious in their battle for market share. It seems that when companies pass a certain critical mass that they lose all consideration and care for the customer and become solely focused on squeezing every last cent they can by any means necessary.

Digicel got into the St. Lucian market with promises of innovation and actually boasts in their company's slogan that they are"The Bigger Better Network."  That network, and the services provided was based on new technologies making it onto the market as opposed to C&W's legacy and deteriorating infrastructure. And of course, they were a smaller and more nimble company able to make changes faster than the mammoth Cable and Wireless which had been accustomed to a non-competitive market and bureaucratic corporate structure. In essence Cable & Wireless was caught up in an old business model and was very slow to adapt. Digicel benefited from that, tremendously.

But lets get back on track...Whatsapp.

Since those early years of this 21st century Internet technologies have advanced at a blinding rate, unarguably faster than the preceding 100 years of Cable & Wireless' presence in St. Lucia. Dialup disappeared, DSL is a technology fast disappearing in the rear view mirror of technology, and practically all communications and entertainment is moving towards pure IP (Internet Protocol). When Digicel rolled out services, there was no Whatsapp, no Viber, Facetime, or any of the host of other voice services currently available for communications between end users.In fact the speeds then would have rendered those services useless.

Even though any similar services (Skype) were available the presence was only available on desktop computers. With the advent of smartphones, apps, changed the world. Smartphones were miniature computers with all services available in the palm of your hand. 3G, and now 4G blew everything out the water. A company which was granted a license to provide voice services was now competing with itself because of the Internet services which they also now provide.

What took 100 years to happen to Cable & Wireless has now happened to Digicel in 10. Technology has now developed so quickly that Digicel wants to remain in their same early2000s business model. The great issue here is that voice is no longer analog or only available on feature phones. Now, voice calling is no longer relegated to  cellphone or telecommunication companies. Any individual or company can roll out their own IP services via the Internet from anywhere in the world!

Whatsapp is one of these apps which has turned the world upside down with regard to voice calling because of it's reach and ease of use. After being bought by Facebook for US$15 billion it has exploded from a few million customers to almost a billion, worldwide.. Running purely on IP it requires only an app on the relevant cellphone platform to function. The only other needed component is a data package from your service provider over which calls can be placed to any other Whatsapp subscriber.

The problem here is that voice is no longer controlled by proprietary hardware or network. These are changing times, and sadly for providers, the old model of voice calling being the cash cow is quickly vanishing, the same way how text messaging is practically dead. 

In response to this dramatic change in technology it has been reported that Digicel has resorted to blocking Whatsapp on their network. In response to these allegations they have ofered some of the most ridiculous explanations in denial of these accusations. In one instance it was reported they said that Whatsapp is implemented differently on different providers' networks and the problem is not because of their blocking of the Whatsapp service. 

Whatsapp failure message on Digicel network
Yeah right! IP is IP and performs no differently on any network unless there are hardware problems or serious congestion issues. It is my opinion that if Digicel is not blocking the Whatsapp service outright that they are de-prioritizing their packets adding significant latency and causing the connections to fail. In other words the packets take so long to reach their destination that they timeout. 

Whatsapp under attack

But why would Digicel feel they could attack the very tenets of the Internet, net neutrality? This allows all traffic from any provider to traverse all others unfettered. It is why we can access websites all over the world, as the Internet is exactly what it is called, an inter network of networks. If network neutrality is destroyed then Lime can block iTunes, Spotify, Radionomy, and all other music services which compete with their own Deezer music service partnership. Digicel could block access to Lime's or other competitor's webpages. The Internet would be chaos and information would no longer be free.

Pretty soon the 5G specification will be ratified (expected 2019) and data speeds are expected to be at least 100 times faster than the current 4G. Imagine what the world will be like then. Cell phones and mobile devices will then be amazing in their functionality. It will also signal the end of voice plans as we know it. Subscribers will simply purchase data and use apps to connect to whatever services they want on the Internet. If you think telecommunications is amazing now expect it to be blown wide open in a few years. This will happen! These Whatsapp-blocking moves are just a mad dash to squeeze as much money out of us as possible until the inevitable.

The very technology which should free us and make our citizens more connected is what's used to squeeze every cent possible through our bleeding eyes, to our noncompetitive detriment. Which reminds me of a time many years ago when Cable and Wireless ruled supreme when I saved their webpage of rates for dedicated internet access. Please go down this road in history with me and see how we were choked under similar circumstances when Cable & Wireless was the big gorilla in town. Rates are with yearly contracts with setup and monthly rates. Look at the speeds and rates and figure out how we could have ever been a viable option on the world market.

We all know that the telecommunications industry is big bucks. Big money is paid for licenses, and big money is made for the services y the consumer. So why would a company block services so blatantly and thumb its nose at us almost defying any action? Could it be they expect our elected representatives to be silent because they are 'owned' by these very telecomms companies? Is there institutionalized low level bribery or largesse extended to our elected officials which makes them disinclined to deal with these situations head-on? 

Is it not a conflict of interest, and compromising of integrity, when an elected official of our government is gifted smartphones by telecommunications companies soon after being elected into office - no charge?  Who does that phone belong to ultimately, and who does the phone records belong to? Even more blatantly, Digicel donated 4G enabled laptops to parliaments and were boldly allowed to make that presentation at our House of Assembly!! Does nobody see anything wrong with this at all!!


We have high ranking members of our parliament making appearances at the launches of products by telecommunications companies without reservation in no official capacity! Is this not a conflict of interest when these very same officials have to render decisions for or against telecomms companies in our House when applications are made for licenses or regulations enacted?  Can we ever expect their decisions to be impartial? Are our officials so desperate for freeness that they will allow themselves to be pimped and surreptitiously used to advertise products for a few cocktail sausages dipped in pepper sauce and ketchup, or some oily accras on a plate?

LIME launch of Blackberry Z10 April 2013

It is true that elected officials are also private citizens, but these actions call into serious question the impartiality they are called upon to exercise everyday on our behalf. Aren't these instances textbook examples of a clear conflict of interest?

A conflict of interest (COI) is a situation in which a person or organization is involved in multiple interests (financial, emotional, or otherwise), one of which could possibly corrupt the motivation of the individual or organization.
The presence of a conflict of interest is independent of the occurrence of impropriety. Therefore, a conflict of interest can be discovered and voluntarily defused before any corruption occurs.

A widely used definition is: "A conflict of interest is a set of circumstances that creates a risk that professional judgement or actions regarding a primary interest will be unduly influenced by a secondary interest."[1] Primary interest refers to the principal goals of the profession or activity, such as the protection of clients, the health of patients, the integrity of research, and the duties of public office. Secondary interest includes not only financial gain but also such motives as the desire for professional advancement and the wish to do favours for family and friends, but conflict of interest rules usually focus on financial relationships because they are relatively more objective, fungible, and quantifiable.

The secondary interests are not treated as wrong in themselves, but become objectionable when they are believed to have greater weight than the primary interests. The conflict in a conflict of interest exists whether or not a particular individual is actually influenced by the secondary interest. It exists if the circumstances are reasonably believed (on the basis of past experience and objective evidence) to create a risk that decisions may be unduly influenced by secondary interests.

So, is Digicel not concerned because they believe our officials are in their back pocket?

You decide.