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Caribbean Community Backs Antigua in Dispute

Antigua and Barbuda has achieved a boost in its long running battle with the United States over online gambling issues, with the Caribbean Community (Caricom) reiterating its support for the country in the dispute.

It came after the Secretary General of the regional organisation, Irwin LaRocque, accepted the credentials of Antigua and Barbuda’s new key representative to Caricom, Dr Clarence Henry. During the acceptance, LaRocque said that the region “reiterates its full support” of the country in its online gaming dispute, and that the support was “fully in keeping with Caricom’s belief that all sovereign member states should be regarded as equals, and respected accordingly within the WTO.”

The online gaming dispute between the US and Antigua dates back to 2003, when the Caribbean nation went to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to challenge the United States’ total prohibition of cross-border gambling services offered by Antiguan-based companies. Four years later, the WTO gave Antigua and Barbuda the right to target US services, trademarks and copyrights in retaliation to the prohibition up to a WTO-imposed limit of $21 million.

Online gaming has been a major and integral part of Antigua and Barbuda’s economy since the mid-late 1990s. According to an April 2011 Reuters article, online gaming was the second-largest employer in the country, which has a population of around 82,000 people.

A number of online gaming companies have established or moved their operations to the nation, the overwhelming majority of which are run out of Antigua, the larger of the two islands. One of the first such companies to set up shop on the island was World Sports Exchange (WSEX), which began operations in 1996. WSEX recently made headlines last month due to its ceasing of operations and the subsequent death of one of its founders, Steve Schillinger, in Antigua.

Blanca Games, which owned Absolute Poker and Ultimate Bet, also operated out of Antigua before becoming insolvent following the infamous Black Friday. Bodog also bases some of its operations on the Caribbean island, although they too have taken a mammoth battering following the US crackdown on online poker. This has also affected other businesses that were fully or partly reliant on the industry for its success.

One such business was Call Center Services (CSS), a company which operated in Antigua and had Bodog as its largest client. All 156 of the centre’s employees lost their jobs after CSS closed its doors in May 2012 due to US indictments on four figures closely associated with Bodog, including founder Calvin Ayres. Such closures have been anything but positive for the country, which has an unemployment rate of around 11 per cent.

While the reiteration of Caricom’s support is highly likely to be welcomed by Antigua and Barbuda, it is unlikely to speed up any resolution to the ongoing dispute.

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