Stephen Brenkley: Everyone seemed to have every penny in the bank

Thursday 19 February 2009 01:00

They were dressed in summer clothes. The sun was beating down but the palm trees dimmed its heat. Nothing, however, could disguise the frightened mood of the people.

Outside the Bank of Antigua yesterday, the overwhelming fear was that hell had come to paradise. There were perhaps 150 people queueing outside desperate to get inside.

They had come to check the state of their accounts. Every person there seemed to have every penny they had in the world deposited with the bank.

The Bank of Antigua is owned by Stanford Financial Group and the day before in the US, its chairman, Sir Allen Stanford, had been charged with taking part in an $8bn (£5.6bn) fraud. The Securities and Exchange Commission in Texas cannot have known the potential catastrophe its actions were inflicting on Antigua and Barbuda.

Sir Allen first brought his business to these Caribbean islands 26 years ago. He is, next to the government, the biggest employer in the country with some 2,000 workers. Since the population is only 70,000 his departure will have a cataclysmic effect. “Of course, I’m worried. I want to try to see if my money is safe and I want to try to take it out,” said Derek John. His life savings are deposited with the bank and without them his building contracting company in the Antiguan countryside may |be in big trouble.

Sir Allen came to prominence in Britain last year when the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) signed a five-year multi-million dollar deal with him to play series of Twenty20 matches. The idea was to play one match in Antigua each year with $20m at stake and a tournament at Lord’s each summer. If it looked tacky at the time, by yesterday it was looking like folly and there was at least the prospect that it might bring down the entire ECB management board.

The Texan banker first became involved in cricket in the Caribbean when he established a T20 competition in Antigua. The land around the airport became the nerve centre of his operations. There are two banking businesses – the offshore Stanford International Bank, and the Bank of Antigua, a high-street bank regulated by the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank (ECCB). The ECCB’s governor, K Dwight Venner, said the Bank of Antigua was sound. “However, if individuals persists in rushing to the bank in a panic they will precipitate the very panic we are all trying to avoid,” he said.

Nobody seemed to be wholly mollified by this statement. A boat builder from the US said he was there to check his funds. “There have been statements from all sorts of people including the Prime Minister but nobody has yet been able to guarantee that my savings are safe,” he said. Only Charlie Baltimore, a taxi driver, seemed sanguine. “I ain’t gonna jump when other people jump,” he said.

The West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) was looking a touch silly yesterday. Having much less money than the ECB it probably had more reason to respond to his blandishments but that did not make it a sound proposition. The WICB president, Dr Julian Hunte, said: “I don’t want to pass judgement. I don’t like kicking a man when he is down.”

On the day Sir Allen was charged, a general election was called in the country. Baldwin Spencer, the Prime Minister, said: “If ever there was a reason and a time for the Antiguan and Barbaduan people to pull together it is now.” But Mr Spencer was not under the swaying palms outside the Bank of Antigua.

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