If the United States wants to help the hurricane-ravaged island of Barbuda, it could do so by paying a $273 million debt over online gambling that started accruing in 2007.

Barbuda, devastated by Hurricane Irma

The island of Barbuda was 95 percent destroyed by Hurricane Irma, with TK,000 residents displaced. Its government would really like to collect on old debts. (Image: The Independent)

Antigua and Barbuda has called on the US to pay money that the World Trade Organization says it owes.

Ronald Sanders, the dual-island nation’s ambassador to the US, told NBC News that the payment would help to rebuild Barbuda, which was literally flattened by Hurricane Irma.

The eye of the hurricane passed directly over Barbuda, destroying 95 percent of its buildings, and forcing the island’s 1,650 or so residents to evacuate to Antigua, 40 miles south, which faced a less catastrophic impact from the storm.

Prime Minister’s Plea for Help

Prime Minister Gaston Browne addressed the United Nations on Thursday seeking international help. His words:

“The island of Barbuda is decimated, its entire population left homeless, and its buildings reduced to empty shells … For the first time in over 300 years, there is now no permanent resident on Barbuda. The footprints of an entire civilization have been emasculated by the brutality and magnitude of Irma … Antigua and Barbuda urgently requires the assistance of the international community, including the international development and finance institutions, to accomplish this vital task of rebuilding Barbuda.”

Estimated rebuilding costs range from $250 to $300 million, which is close to the amount Antigua and Barbuda believe the United States owes them, according to stipulations of a 2007 WTO ruling.

Death of an Industry

Antigua and Barbuda was an early adopter of online gambling, and quickly became an industry hub by developing a legislative and investment framework to create an infrastructure as early as 1994, before the any sort of online gambling industry even existed.

By 2000, Antigua had issued 93 online gambling licenses. But a US crackdown on online sports betting (based on the Wire Act of 1961 and two other laws) and then the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 decimated the industry.

Antigua and Barbuda filed suit in 2003, claiming that US laws allowing some gambling (horse racing) while disallowing others (online sportsbetting and poker) was discriminatory. In 2007, the WTO agreed, and awarded Antigua and Barbuda $21 million in damages annually, backdated to 2004, the amount it was estimated the island was losing each year due to the demise of its online gambling industry.

Settling Debts

The WTO ruled that the US had violated the General Agreement on Trades and Services (GATS), a 1995 treaty applicable to 123 nations designed to remove international trade barriers.

In trying to settle the ongoing dispute, the WTO made the unprecedented decision to allow Antigua to collect its debt by running a “pirate” website trafficking in protected US intellectual property, such as music, movies, TV shows, books, and pharmaceuticals.

The US has essentially ignored repeated efforts to collect or come to a new agreement, and in January of this year, the nation’s Governor-General declared an intent to introduce legislation to finally set up the means to begin selling American intellectual property as allowed by the WTO’s 2007 ruling.

“We feel a little disadvantaged by this process. We’ve been trying very hard over 14 years to get the US Trade Representative’s Office to reach a reasonable settlement with us,” Sanders told NBC News.

“If they were going to do it, there would be no better time than now to allow us to rebuild our country on the basis of money which we have lost because of the United States’ action and which has been arbitrated fairly and squarely and legally in our country’s favor,” he said.