Lester Bryant Bird: Since the 24th of March this year.
ISA-CASINOS: How long were you Prime Minister?
Mr. Bird: I was Prime Minister for 10 Years, from 1994 to 2004.
ISA-CASINOS: What was the reason that there is a new government in power? Was it because of structural problems, was it because the people wanted to have a change or that you were tired of being in power?
Mr. Bird: Well, I was also a Minister since 1976, so I was really in parliament for more than 28 years and nearly had every portfolio: provision, economic development, trade and finance.
ISA-CASINOS: What advantages have offshore companies such as the online casinos brought to the island?
Mr. Bird: Well, I thought we had to diversify the economy; we could not rely upon our one-dimensional economy of tourism. As you know, tourism is volatile and we got hurricanes which knocked out the hotels. We decided in the 1990’s that we had to find another leg for the economy and we thought of offshore financial services together with internet gaming.
ISA-CASINOS: Are you able to say when exactly everything started.
Mr. Bird: We started this, I think, 1994/95.
ISA-CASINOS: Was it foreseeable for you, which seminal companies you brought into the country?
Mr. Bird: Yes, we sent people out to try and entice companies to come and take advantage of IBC (RH1)’s. On the gaming side, we attended conferences, sent specialists to speak about Antigua’s tax safe haven, IBC’s, confidentiality and topics of that nature. By strong campaigning, we were able to win quite a fair amount of people. We had also already put in place the infrastructure or the legislation to allow this.
ISA-CASINOS: Was it important for you that the security of the country was given?
Mr. Bird: Yes, we set up the best offshore legislation. Then the OECD and countries such as France, Britain, Germany and others blackballed us within one year. They thought our legislation was too loose and so we tightened up and became perhaps the best jurisdiction and still are in terms of the balance of protecting the rights of the person who has their offshore business here and also insuring the international community that we are not an open door for money laundry and things of that nature. There are several difference things, for instance, you cannot bring cash into Antigua and disburse is as you like. Another example of what we have done is the “know your customer” policy: you have to be able to indicate who that person is. All these policies are put in place and we have won a lot of these nations for being able to do so. We think that Antigua and Barbuda is now the best jurisdiction for anyone who wants to do offshore business and that includes Bermuda, the Caiman Island’s and so on. We have done an excellent job of that.
ISA-CASINOS: Do you know how many companies running online casinos started their business in Antigua during your time in power?
Mr. Bird: At one stage we had over 120. We actually had more than a 100 licenses when the Americans began to cut off the different areas of funding like credit cards and that naturally became very difficult so a lot of them went to Costa Rica, where the laws are not as tight as our laws. We lost a whole lot of them and I think we now have about 40.
ISA-CASINOS: Please answer just with yes or no: Are the laws in Antigua tighter than in other countries.
Mr. Bird: Absolutely.
ISA-CASINOS: Could you tell us names of companies or individuals with which you had and still have a good cooperation and names of companies or individuals with which the cooperation was not that good?
Mr. Bird: I don’t want to go into details, but I think there are quite a lot of companies that have done Antigua very well: Cassava, Global-Player, WWTS, those are the companies that I know well. WWTS is still running and by an Australian Company, but they have stuck through all thick and thin. I must mention Joe Cohen who challenged the United States. He took the case up to the Supreme Court of the United States arguing that it is democratic for an American to have offshore gaming. We, the Antiguan government actually helped him in granting him counsel to go to the different cases. Ultimately he lost the case, but we demonstrated to all of the people here that the government is prepared to stand behind our legislation as being legal and legible. Thus our credibility went up.
You should also be aware that under my government, we took the United States to the WTO, the World Trade Organization. We did it, and we won the case.
ISA-CASINOS: When did you put the dispute to the WTO?
Mr. Bird: We did it last year. In 2003 we went to the Dispute Settlement Committee. We argued about the restrains of trade and said it is was discrimination by the United States. The WTO in the first instance ruled in favour of Antigua and Barbuda and then when the new government got in, they gave them a chance to come back and further discuss the matter again. This was a big mistake. They came here 3-4 weeks ago with a low level delegation and they did not change their position. Now the Antiguan government has asked for the disclosure of the decision and it is being published clearly showing that Antigua won.
ISA-CASINOS: Today it got published, that Antigua has won. As you made this approach, did you have any support from other countries, European countries, or was just you on your own?
Mr. Bird: Well, we went first, but once we filed, we got Canada, Japan, and Lichtenstein I think, and Australia.
Mr. Bird: No.
ISA-CASINOS: Can you then say that Antigua was not alone?
Mr. Bird: No, no! Antigua was alone! And then after they saw that we were serious about going forward, then you are allowed under the WTO-Rules to put your name down as being a supporter of the motion.
ISA-CASINOS: Did the Austrians, Germans or Swiss support you as well?
Mr. Bird: It is possible that Switzerland came on board and others will continue to come on board. It is not that the support is out. The Americans will properly appeal but it is the basis on how this is done such as the banana thing, the United States against the European Union. The principles are clear: you cannot discriminate against one other country and so on. America’s domestic law shall not be used as a basis for securing. You know this issue with cross lines in Las Vegas and so on.
All was done by us; the present government could not have achieved all this in 7 months.
ISA-CASINOS: What exactly is your title right now?
Mr. Bird: I tell you how it works: There is a leader of the opposition in the house (the parliament) because he won a seat. That is Mr. Yearwood. However, I am the overall leader of the Labour Party which is the Opposition Party.
If there was a general election tomorrow and I was leading the Labour Party, as I am now, and we won; I would become the Prime Minister again.
ISA-CASINOS: Are you able to, or do you want to provide figures, how much money came into Antigua because of the online gambling industry?
Mr. Bird: A very good question. A lot of money passed through Antigua. If you asked me how much money is actually left in Antigua for the workers and so on, I would say about 24 Million USD per year. These are the amounts we can verify.
Mr. Stanford said that in 3 years the government will get a 100 Million US in revenue.
ISA-CASINOS: How many jobs have been created because of online gambling?
Mr. Bird: Right now it is about two to three thousand. At its peak it was about five thousand or more. In a small population like this, earning the kind of money they earned is very, very significant. Mr. Stanford has to be given a lot of credit. Mr. Allan R. Stanford himself spoke in order to get the offshore financial thing going.
ISA-CASINOS: Are you able to say that the economic growth grew because of the offshore companies?
Mr. Bird: There are three elements that caused our growth over 25 years. We had growth every year except 1995 when we got hit by hurricane Luis. One was construction. The other one was government services. The government entered into the economy and we became a catalyst. We built the hotel in Heritage Quay. We saw, my government, that the private sector was a little bit bounded and not as dynamic as it should be. However, we did not sit back and wait for them to become better. We entered into to the economy and we built structures that generated tourism projects and so on. The third element was the offshore financial services, all aspects of it: IBC, we had to establish the trust which we are now doing. The offshore gaming was fairly significant in terms of that. Yes, they are the third wing of that peak of insuring that Antigua’s Capital Income grew to become the highest in the OECS [RH2]: USD 10.000 per year. We have a higher income than the CARICOM states too. We have a higher income than Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, and Barbados.
It was on March 4th that President Bush said that Antigua was no longer a third world country but that we are a high income country. Those are the elements. Rather than constricting the economy, by bringing personal income tax and things of that nature, we believed in expanding the economy: growth in the economy, construction, creating more jobs, and having to grow the offshore industry significantly, so that we could earn millions of dollars. We ended up in an agreement with Mr. Stanford that we would want whole marketing teams and he would put the funding in with USD 8 million. We want to go out into the world and we are going to say: “We have the best legislation, we have the best environment! So come to Antigua and Barbuda and invest!” That was the plan. So we did not just do this thing by chance, we had a specific plan, that was interrelated: construction, employment and the offshore financial services.
ISA-CASINOS: How was the situation in 2002 as the government defeated to introduce taxes for online casinos?
Mr. Bird: That was part of the settlement with the OECD. They were saying that we were ring fencing all of these companies and giving them a higher advantage than to other companies. So we introduced that percentage to indicate to them that we were not giving them any special dissociation: that they were in fact in our taxation even though it was fairly small. That was a direct response from the OECD and the French, the German, and all of them were going to say: by virtue of not having any taxes at all you are discriminating against those other countries that have taxes. That was the only reason we did it: to respond to them in order that they did not blackball us again like they did before.
ISA-CASINOS: Was Germany a country who made these problems?
Mr. Bird: Very strong! Especially: Germany, France and Italy. Switzerland is on our side. The Netherlands were kind of against us. When the Democratic Party was in power in the United States, there was a banker called Larry Summers – he was very bad and was very much linked to these countries. Then Bush won, not that I am a Bush Supporter, and he put in Paul O’Neil. Paul O’Neil then went to the meeting in France and said: „No, no, no, the United States is not going to take this kind of hard line position“. It is Paul O’Neil that helped us to recover our situation.
ISA-CASINOS: As you introduced the taxes a lot of companies left Antigua. Did you, therefore, decide to reverse the taxes?
Mr. Bird: We were moving in that direction when they moved away this whole notion, intention: and that there would not have been a possibility of blackballing us. We were moving in that direction, but the election came along and we never got a chance in parliament to revise it.
We removed it in December 2003.
ISA-CASINOS: Even though you are not in power anymore, do you still keep track of the situation of online casinos and offshore companies.
Mr. Bird: Oh, very much! I think that they should not have had any meetings with the United States and the WTO because they are not going to change their position without the force of law and even then you have to have the time to comply with them.
So I thought that they have 6 months and they should not have met them. So said so done, they thought they would have sent a high power team down here. Then they came with the ambassador of Barbados and a couple of low level administrators, who are not decision makers, and they just repeated what they got told from the top.
ISA-CASINOS: Last question: Do you think that you with your team have the chance to get re-elected for a new term?
Mr. Bird: I think the present government has made a lot of fundamental mistakes very early, and demonstrated a sense of immaturity, and if they introduce the taxes they have told us to introduce they are crazy. Antigua will no longer be a tax haven; you will not be having this conversation with me. They have gone into a strict constructionist IMF[RH3]-Program. Guiana is still in it; Jamaica is still in it, all of these countries. The Prime Minister of Jamaica told me: „Never go into an IMF-Program“ and this is what these guys are about to do. Our philosophy was low personal income tax, minimum taxes to allow people to have the disposable income to be able to build a nice home and to be able to give them all of the different benefits to attract people like Giancarlo[RH4] into Antigua, to give them an opportunity to make money, to create jobs. I believe that my party will have to stay united, and due to internal fighting we lost the last election. If we can stay together as a unified body, as happened in 1971 to 76 this would be a one term government, we could very well get back in office.
Six months ago I would not have said that to you, but in seven months they have created an atmosphere that we could win the election.
ISA-CASINOS: Thank you very much for the interview.
Translator: Roman Humpelstetter