Antigua: Guarded optimism in U.S. discussions

U.S. flags

Antigua's trade dispute over online gambling, initiated in 2003 and under negotiation since 2007, may be looking at delays again now that a new U.S. president is in power.

In 2003, Antigua filed a case with the World Trade Organization claiming that the United States' total prohibition of Internet gambling services offered by Antiguan operators to consumers in the United States was in violation of the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) treaty.

The WTO agreed. The United States appealed its decision, but lost in early 2007.

Rather than comply, the United States then decided to pull online gambling unilaterally from its international treaties, despite the commitments it had made under the GATS treaty to free trade in such services.

Following the ruling against the U.S. on appeal, the United States and Antigua began discussions regarding monetary compensation due to Antigua under the WTO findings. In addition, the countries continued talks aimed at getting the United States to change its policy toward Antigua's online gambling services.

Last month, Antigua's Finance Minister, Dr. Errol Cort, flew to Washington D.C. to meet with representatives of the U.S. Trade Relations (USTR) as well as "high-ranking officials of the Justice Department" to try to reach an overall agreement before the end of the Bush administration.

Cort left empty-handed and, thus, almost six years after the trade dispute began between the two countries, they are no closer to a resolution. Now they will have to deal with President Barack Obama's administration to settle the matter.

Antigua's attorney Mark Mendel discussed what Antigua's plans and options are in the face of dealing with a new administration in an interview with PokerListings.

PokerListings: Do you feel as if you will have to start over from scratch negotiating with a new administration?

Mendel: Not in any material respect, although we will have to see. We have spent a fair amount of time with Congressional Democrats and some of the senior ones are aware of our case and somewhat sympathetic. There are also career people throughout the USTR and other government agencies with knowledge of the case.

No doubt we are being optimistic, but we feel like the new administration might be more inclined to listen to what we have to say and engage in some real problem solving.

PokerListings: Do you or Mr. Cort or some other representative from Antigua have more trips planned to talk to officials in the U.S.?

Mendel: Not yet, but we are hoping to make contact soon and see if there is any interest in the new administration. Note that the USTR designate has yet to be confirmed, so there is still [only] temporary leadership at the top.

PokerListings: Have you received any sense if there will be a change in approach under the new administration?

Mendel: Not at all.

PokerListings: Are you concerned that the new attorney general has voiced his support for implementing the UIGEA?

Mendel: No, as I believe he has a lot to be educated about, and more likely than not, he said that to placate certain people rather than out of some informed conviction.

PokerListings: Do you have plans to add any complaints at the WTO regarding the UIGEA?

Mendel: It is a possibility, but hopefully we can have some decent resolution before that. The UIGEA would fail miserably at the WTO.

PokerListings: Are negotiations out of the question and will Antigua instead pursue its sanctions?

Mendel: Negotiation is Antigua's primary strategy right now. Only if they truly and utterly fail will, I believe, the government seriously consider sanctions.

PokerListings: What are your expectations on the issue of access?

Mendel: Although the prior administration was having a very difficult time conceptualizing access, with the efforts of Barney Frank and the fact that some of the more bombastic antigaming people in Congress are either gone or marginalized, I think that there should at least be a chance for a thorough discussion of access alternatives.

PokerListings: If you do not reach a reasonable settlement, might Antigua raise the issue of the UIGEA at the WTO?

Mendel: Well, we had to do so much trailblazing in our case that, given what we know now, a new WTO case challenging the UIGEA and every state anti-remote gambling law would be a relatively simple and straightforward affair. A "slam dunk," you might say!

Surely, before it comes to that, the governments can get together and find some mutually reasonable solution. Like the rest of the world, I would say we have great expectations for the new administration - at least in its acceptance of differing points of view, its acknowledgment that international treaty obligations are important to honor and its respect for its trading partners and other countries around the globe.

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