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Caribbean Elections in the Age of Cambridge Analytica: External Interference – Antigua and Barbuda

  • Caribbean Elections in the Age of Cambridge Analytica: External Interference – Antigua and Barbuda
Published 21 June 2018

PM Gaston Brown has fingered the likes of Cambridge Analytica in failed efforts to influence regime change in his country through external interference.

The March 13th 2018 Grenada general election was followed (a week later) by Antigua and Barbuda’s on March 21.

Devastated by two hurricanes in 2017 and with the entire population of the smaller ward island of Barbuda being forcibly moved to the mainland, Antigua and Barbuda has been busy rebuilding, with much solidarity from its Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and other Caribbean neighbors, including Cuba and Venezuela. 

But even while it was still mopping-up and picking up its broken pieces, the international financial agencies were insisting on the poor small-island Caribbean nation paying its outstanding debts on loans, as per schedule, in the immediate post-hurricane period.

Antigua and Barbuda, another small Caribbean nation of 171 square miles (442 square kilometers) and just over 85,000 people of predominantly African descent, has long been ruled by the Antigua and Barbuda Labour Party (ABLP). 

Ruled by Britain since the 17th century until independence in 1981, it is (like Grenada) a member of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) and CARICOM, the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC).

Bird Dynasty

The late Vere Bird (father of now retired former Prime Minister Lester Bird) led the family’s political dynasty that ruled Antigua through the ABLP in the period leading to and after independence and was only defeated at the polls after ‘the old man’ (also known as ‘Papa Bird’) died.

Papa Bird’s son, Lester, succeeded him as both ABLP Leader and Prime Minister for many years, while a third son, Vere Bird Jr, also served as a senior government minister in successive ABLP Cabinets.

Lester Bird is now retired and Vere Bird Jr is no longer active. But another family member is keeping the political dynasty’s name alive through a small party called ‘The Real Antigua Labour Party’ (RALP), which also contested the March 21st poll.

Disunited Opposition

The ALP and the opposition United People’s Party (UPP) have basically shared power during the past three decades and current Prime Minister Gaston Browne called an early election a week after Grenada’s, taking advantage of a disunited opposition to seek a renewed mandate.

The UPP, under former tourism and finance minister Harold Lovell, had deepened interval division by sidelining an effective faction led by Dr Joyce Massiah, a forceful former government minister who’d challenged Lovell for the party’s leadership.

Massiah and her supporters eventually joined others opposed to the ABLP and UPP and formed the Democratic National Alliance (DNA), which, alongside the UPP, sought to mount a credible opposition for the March 21st poll. 

But here again, under the Westminster electoral system, the ABLP won 15 of the 17 seats and the UPP won only one, while the local opposition Barbuda People’s Movement, which had campaigned in alliance with the UPP, won in Barbuda. 

Neither UPP Leader Lovell, nor DNA Leader Massiah won seats, but the ABLP leader’s wife won in her first outing. Among the winners too was Maria Bird-Brown, who won the St. John’s Rural East seat held by former Prime Minister and ABLP Leader Sir Lester Bird before his retirement from active politics.

By winning 15 of the 17 seats, the ABLP increased its earlier majority by one. But here too, as in Grenada, the level of opposition support or the numbers of voters who didn’t vote isn’t seen in the distribution of seats.

Sandals Factor

The ABLP repeatedly says it won the elections despite a massive opposition campaign assisted in part by the effect of a long-running feud between the government and world-famous couples-only Caribbean hotel chain, Sandals, which also operates in Antigua.

The award-winning chain has been operating in many hotels on several Caribbean islands during the past three decades – (‘in seven countries and eight islands’ as its PR people love to remind all who’ll listen) including: Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, The Bahamas, Grenada, Jamaica, Saint Lucia and the Turks and Caicos Islands.

Sandals is now entering Trinidad & Tobago -- and also has eyes set on the Latin American market, already marketing Beaches – the Sandals family holiday brand --  in Brazil.

Based in Jamaica but very present in the US and European markets, Sandals is a major economic player in each Caribbean state it operates -- including Antigua.

Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister and Antigua and Barbuda Labour Party (ABLP) Leader Gaston Brown has fingered the likes of Cambridge Analytica in failed efforts to influence regime change in his country through external interference.

Browne and the ABLP in 2017 engaged in a major public brawl with Sandals over payment of taxes, as well as the Caribbean hotel conglomerate’s attitude to the island’s government, which operates on a budget amounting to drops in Sandals’ ocean of finances.

The ABLP and the Prime Minister insist they won the election despite Sandals’ best efforts to influence regime change. 

But Sandals is still crucial to the government’s annual financial earnings and it is expected that, as usually happens, the government and the company will eventually find ways to coexist and allow the status quo to continue.

External Efforts

Browne and the ABLP have, however, pointedly claimed that there was some external effort and influence exercised during the March 21st poll.

The prime minister and ruling party have not (yet) directly accused the UK-based firm Strategic Communications Laboratories (SCL) and/or its brainchild Cambridge Analytica (CA) of directly involvement in the election.

But by the time of the Antigua and Barbuda elections, both London-based entities were already being accused of hacking Facebook accounts of over 71 million unsuspecting users worldwide to engage in ‘mind-bending’ exercises aimed at influencing national election outcomes.

By then too, SCL and its subsidiary outfit were already under investigation by UK and US authorities after London’s Observer newspaper exposed details suggesting they had possibly stolen the large troves of personal data to influence the 2016 US presidential election in favor of Donald Trump, as well as to influence Britain’s Brexit vote.

SCL and CA may have been forced by circumstances to ride out the Antigua and Barbuda elections in March, but Browne and the ABLP insist their fingerprints were very present during the election campaign.

Top ABLP officials point to an imported outfit led by a hitherto unknown character named Monte Friesner, which, they claim, openly assisted the opposition’s anti-ABLP campaign. 

Freisner’s operation actively used social media to engage in the same type of mind-bending exercises CA and SCL boast of -- and in interviews with the local media he defended what he claimed was the accuracy of his outfit’s largely outlandish and unproven claims against Browne and the ABLP.

Conditioning Opinion

Indeed, Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the US and the OAS, Sir Ronald Sanders – who also led the ABLP’s propaganda campaign for the elections – offers an interesting perspective on elections happenings in the two-island state.

In a recent widely-published post-election article entitled ‘External Interference in Caribbean Elections is Real’, Sanders wrote: 

“In the case of the recent general elections in Antigua and Barbuda, a great deal of effort and resources had to be devoted to exposing and refuting false information fed to the public on social media and on internet blog sites, such as the one operated by Monte Friesner.  

“It is clear that external forces, intent on achieving their own objectives, have been operating in the Caribbean for some time, using the Internet and social media to condition opinion through the manufacturing and distribution of false information.  

“However, they could not succeed without the collusion of political parties which, in their own desire to attain power, engage them for such nefarious activity.”  

Sanders warned: “It is a frightening and worrying development that should be curbed quickly, or democracy in the region will be undermined and, unsuspecting Caribbean electorates, will be the victims.”

But Browne, Sanders and the ABLP do not let Sandals off the hook either, pointing to the heavy anti-Browne, anti-ABLP slant of pre-election coverage of Antigua and Barbuda by the Jamaica Observer newspaper -- also owned by Sandals founding chairman Gordon “Butch” Stewart.

New Term, Old Challenges

Browne has started an early second term and the small nation he leads still faces the same challenges at home and abroad, including the refusal of the US to obey a World Trade Organization (WTO) ruling to remove restrictions blocking Antigua’s pursuit of internet gaming in the large related US market.

Choking with debt (like most of its CARICOM allies), Antigua and Barbuda has benefited from its membership of the PetroCaribe and ALBA-TCP groupings of Latin American and Caribbean States, especially low fuel prices and bilateral investments.

Following the election, PetroCaribe forgave Antigua and Barbuda’s debt to help the government access more finances for post-hurricane reconstruction.

During the 15th Cuba-CARICOM Summit hosted in St. John’s (the island’s capital) in December 2017, Cuba also pledged to continue assisting the island’s reconstruction efforts, despite itself also having been ravaged by Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

Since the election, the US State Department has also negatively named and listed Antigua and Barbuda in the 2018 edition of its annual report on the status of drugs and money laundering in the Caribbean, enlisting a robust response from Sanders, who is back in his respective posts as the Antigua and Barbuda Ambassador to the US and the OAS.

But even though they may have escaped the full scale onslaught of a SCL-Cambridge Analytica offensive, the ABLP and its leadership still insist that like fingerprints were heavily-traced in the opposition’s propaganda, at home and abroad, during the brief but heated campaign.

Like Grenada’s Mitchell, Browne is starting a brand new term, in his case one year ahead of schedule. Likewise, he also has to serve a divided nation in which the opposition is overly under-represented in the national parliament.

Browne hinted in a post-election victory speech that the way Barbuda voted – against the ABLP – may “stymie their progress and development.”

But he later encouraged all citizens, voters and parties “to cooperate towards betterment for all. He also urged them to “forego the division of politics in order to reunite the nation.”

Having taken office as Chairman of CARICOM immediately upon the ABLP winning the previous elections in 2014, Browne identified with the Petro CARIBE, ALBA-TCP, CELAC and other Latin American and Caribbean initiatives in like manner as the UPP did in office under Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer.

The entry of Browne’s wife into politics and the cabinet of ministers notwithstanding, the ABLP not only got a new lease on national political life, but also a changed face from the traditional dynastic politics of the Bird era. 

However, none of that has changed Washington’s continued hostile stance against the island. As under President Barack Obama, the Donald Trump administration is likewise refusing to accept the WTO’s ruling.

And in its 2018 annual report, the US State Department named Antigua and Barbuda among several Caribbean nations Washington accuses of harboring money laundering, being transit drug smuggling centers and selling passports and citizenship to questionable persons from extra-regional territories through easy-to-afford Citizenship by Investment Programs (CIPs).

Meanwhile, Asot Michael, a Cabinet Minister in the new ABLP administration, has commenced formal proceedings in US courts against Monte Freisner and others involved in the ongoing online social media campaign alleging his involvement in corrupt practices.

Will a resulting court battle reveal any level of possible SCL-Cambridge Analytica third-party involvement in the Antigua and Barbuda elections? 

Only time will tell…

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