The tiny Caribbean nation of Antigua and Barbuda intends to pursue retaliatory sanctions against US commercial services and intellectual property as part of its David vs Goliath trade battle with the United States, the islands' finance minister has announced.
Antigua Finance Minister Harold Lovell said the tiny country of less than 90,000 people has tried unsuccessfully for years to negotiate a "fair settlement" with the US.
It accuses its neighbour to the north of hobbling its fragile economy by banning Americans from placing online bets with gambling operators, including licensed online casinos, based in the twin-island nation.
"As a small country, it is not our intention to have a fight with the United States. But we believe also that as a sovereign nation we are entitled to all the rights and the protection of the WTO", Mr Lovell said. We believe the time has come (to pursue sanctions) having exhausted all other possibilities."
Save a last minute settlement, Antigua intends to formally announce its intentions to pursue punitive action at a December 17 meeting of the Geneva-based World Trade Organisation. It will then announce specifics of which US industries it intends to target.
In 2007, the WTO awarded Antigua the right to target US services, copyrights and trademarks in retaliation for its online betting ban. But in a setback for the Caribbean country, the global trade body capped the limit of annual trade sanctions at 21 million dollars (£13 million). Antigua had sought the right to impose 3.4 billion dollars (£2.12 billion) in retaliatory measures, while the US offered about 500,000 dollars (£311,000).
Still, Mr Lovell believes the countermeasures can be an effective tool to pressure the US, even with the WTO's token amount of 21 million dollars a year. "We are resolved that, absent a fair settlement, that this is the route we will take," Mr Lovell.
The former British colony had been promoting electronic commerce as a way to diversify its small economy and end its reliance on tourism, which was slammed by a series of hurricanes in the late 1990s. In 2000, there were numerous licensed online casinos that employed roughly 3,000 people, and the flourishing sector had an annual income of nearly one billion dollars (£623 million).
Now, Mr Lovell said the shrivelled sector's annual income is 'minuscule' and there are just 400 employees. He described the impact of the US ban as "devastating" for the islands' economy, which was also rocked by the 2009 collapse of the financial empire of convicted Texas tycoon R. Allen Stanford, who based his Stanford International Bank on Antigua and was once the country's largest private employer.
"We have basically been driven over our fiscal cliff .... We feel that we really have had our backs pushed right up against the wall," said Mr Lovell, referring to the impact of the US online betting ban.