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Senate working group on Cuba
* Five US Democrats and five Republicans opposed to the US trade embargo announced on 21 March the formation of the Senate Working Group on Cuba. The group says it will "examine US policies toward Cuba" and described the sanction policy of the US as "ineffective" and placed "our farmers, workers, and companies at an international competitive disadvantage". The group estimates that the embargo denies the US an export market of "nearly US$1bn per year" because of the trade embargo. The Senate working group is similar to, but not formally affiliated with, the 44-strong bipartisan Cuba Working Group in Congress.
Jamaica dollar down
* The Jamaican currency continued its march towards another psychological barrier of J$60/US$1, trading on 25 March at J$55.94 to US$1, a loss of 43 cents on the previous day's trade. Market analysts said that the devaluation was being fuelled by speculative holding by traders, uncertainty about the sustainability of government borrowing, the uncertainty fuelled by the war in Iraq, especially on the tourism sector, and a genuine shortage of US dollars.
* The Jamaica Public Service Company (JPSCo) and the National Water Commission (NWC) lose a combined J$2.5bn (US$48.7m) a year as a result of non-technical losses, including the stealing of electricity and water, according to J Paul Morgan, director-general of the Office of Utilities Regulation (OUR). He calculated that JPSCo loses approximately 17% of potential revenue each year, with 7% related to non-technical losses. The NWC loses approximately 60% of its potential revenue each year, with 30% being lost through the technical problem of leakage and the other 30% being associated with non-technical losses.
* Air Jamaica has asked the government to take a bigger stake in the airline, in a debt-to equity swap that would increase the state's share of the national carrier to 45%. Christopher Zacca, the airline's chief executive officer, has reported that "since the conflict in Iraq started Air Jamaica has seen a major decline in the number of calls to our reservation centres and bookings for travel beyond the Easter holidays". Air Jamaica Holdings Limited, which comprises a consortium of investors led by Gordon 'Butch' Stewart, would continue to be the major shareholder with 55% down from its current 75%. The airline is also looking for the government to guarantee or directly supply an immediate injection of cash - some US$30-25m - to finance operations over the next year. Last year, the airline grossed US$420m, but operational expenses topped US$500m. In anticipation of the war in Iraq, the company has cut flights, replaced some larger planes with smaller ones, renegotiated leases, and proposed salary cuts. Air Jamaica carries more than 60% of all airline passengers into Jamaica.
Caribbean investment fund talks in St Lucia
* Chairman of the Stanford Group and owner of Caribbean Star Airlines, Allen Stanford, met with Prime Minister Kenny Anthony on 20 March to discuss The Stanford Caribbean Investment Fund - a US$2bn investment fund to help stimulate regional growth. Mr Stanford has proposed that the Fund will comprise US$100m to be injected by himself, backed by another US$900m from investors, in addition to US$700m in conventional funding and US$300m in non-cash government concessions. Mr Stanford told Prime Minister Kenny Anthony that the proposal envisages two major complementary investment projects. The first will see 60% of the Fund being invested in the development of upscale tourism-related projects - to be financed and owned by the Fund - in the form of five-star hotels, championship golf courses, luxury condominiums and prime commercial properties. In the second aspect, the remaining 40% of the Fund will be invested in the construction of "vital infrastructure developments, financed and built by the Fund, with permanent financing and sale to third parties established prior to the start of the project." These investments will also include the improvements and construction of roads, bridges, piers, schools, and low-income housing and waste treatment plants. The fund will be managed from its headquarters at the VC Bird International Airport in Antigua, with satellite offices throughout the Caribbean.
US$200m gas pipeline for T&T
* The National Gas Company of Trinidad & Tobago plans to build a US$200m pipeline to transport gas from Galeota to Point Fortin. Work on the pipeline, which will boost transmission capacity from 2.3bn cubic feet of gas to 4.6bn cubic feet of gas, is expected to begin in November and come on stream in 2005. The pipeline will provide gas to Atlantic LNG's Train 4 initially but will have the capacity to provide feedstock for two other liquefied natural gas (LNG) plants.