Double US blow for Caribbean
Published on: 10/10/06.

AN OBJECTIVE ASSESSMENT of how decisions by United States lawmakers can negatively impact on the economies of the Caribbean would establish that last month was one that brought very bad news for this region.

Both the decisions by the United States Congress early last month to make it illegal for banks and credit card companies to facilitate payments to foreign online gambling sites, and the subsequent legislation that requires American citizens travelling by air to have a valid passport on returning home, effective January 8, 2007, came as a double whammy for the region.

Some Caribbean Community member states, Antigua and Barbuda and Belize, for example, had come to depend significantly over the years on revenue derived from cross-border Internet gambling.

Antigua and Barbuda has been engaged in a long battle with the United States over restrictions on its Internet gambling sector. It eventually secured a favourable ruling by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) only to face a new challenge from Washington. In the past five years it had lost approximately US$70 million and witnessed a drastic cut in employment provided by gambling companies from 3 500 to just around 700.

Now Congress last month passed the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act which prohibits Americans from participating in foreign online gambling sites. Conveniently, the new law does not affect the myriad of United States gambling businesses that remain secure as long as they operate within America's borders with no benefits to foreign interests.

The former ambassador of Antigua and Barbuda, Sir Ronald Sanders, who had initially led the twin-island state's case to the WTO on cross-border Internet gambling, contends that the Internet gambling legislation passed by Congress "has nothing to do with morality, but simply protectionism in America's interest".

In the wake of Congress' anti-Internet gambling act, United States lawmakers were to deal an even more severe blow to Caribbean states whose economies heavily depend on foreign tourists, at least 50 per cent of them from the United States. It was their rush, before recess for next month's mid-term elections, to amend the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) on passport requirement for United States citizens.

Basically, the amended WHTI, shaped to satisfy United States national security concerns, discriminates in its application for American travellers – tourists and others – returning by air from January 8, 2009, to have a valid passport. In contrast, the law discriminated in extending the passport requirement up to June 2009 for those United States citizens travelling by sea (cruise line passengers).

Question is whether renewed lobbying can secure a unified implementation date on passport requirement for United States air and sea travellers when Congress reconvenes. Efforts to engage the WTO on America's new Internet gambling law will have to be separate.