Columns

Risky 'citizenship' sale and end of Bird political era in Antigua

Rickey Singh

Sunday, December 02, 2012    

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TWO quite significant political developments occurred in Antigua and Barbuda late last month that could well influence the outcome of the next general elections due by March 2014 with both the governing United Progressive Party (UPP) and the Opposition Antigua Labour Party (ALP) facing new challenges for state power.

The first development involved a highly controversial 'economic citizenship' scheme that may require an official response not only from the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) but the wider Caribbean Community on the sensitive issue of intra-regional free movement of Caricom nationals.

The second occurrence was a surprising leadership change in the ALP that ended a 66-year-old tradition of always being associated with the family name of its patriarch, Vere Cornwall Bird.

With his passing, papa Bird's son, Lester, a lawyer by profession, became his successor and was to successfully lead the party for 18 years, 10 of them as prime minister, ending in 2004, and since then as parliamentary opposition leader.

Health problems, plus the age factor at 74, were advanced as primary reasons by those who favoured a leadership change at the party's convention last month.

But Bird's more passionate loyalists felt otherwise and urged him to face the leadership challenge from a once quite loyal and articulate colleague, Gaston Browne, banker by reputation.

Browne emerged victorious by capturing some 56 per cent of the votes declared and by last week both victor and vanquished were said to be working out the modalities for a future "constructive relationship" amid reported post-convention bitterness among their respective supporters.

Their shared commitment is to prevent Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer's ruling PUP, currently in its second term, from exploiting the ALP's leadership change to secure a third term.

The PUP has already indicated its intention to re-align electoral boundaries for new elections for the 17-member House of Representatives, even as there remains sharp divisions over the Government's control of the elections commission.

Vexing issues for Caricom

The big vexing political issue currently, however, is the Government's passage in the House of Representatives, against the Opposition's objections, of what's officially titled the 'Antigua and Barbuda Citizenship Investment Act 2012'.

This form of "citizenship" is a device utilised by some developed and underdeveloped states to attract wealthy investors. It is known to be a risky venture if laws are not carefully framed to avoid loopholes that could be exploited by criminal elements and financial 'sharks' bent on evading taxation while, at the same time, having the effect of diminishing the sovereign citizenship of nationals by birth.

Major developed nations, such as USA, United Kingdom and Canada, have laws to grant citizenship that's linked to economic investment, but tight conditionalities, among them length of residence, are involved and constantly under review.

In our small Caricom region, however, there have been the early examples of Dominica and St Kitts and Nevis moving to attract "investors" by offering "economic citizenship" while playing 'footsy' politics on residential status with particular clientele.

Among these "investors" for "economic citizenship" at times privately canvassed, could be, for example, wealthy Chinese, Taiwanese, Koreans and Arabs, as well as Europeans and Americans — all of whom are granted citizenship with little or no requirements for reasonable periods of resident status.

Conflicting images

Now Antigua and Barbuda, the Caricom state with a long won reputation as a delightful tourism resort, but also bearing the burden of political and financial corruption under varying administrations of both the ALP and UPP, has come up with legislation by which a foreign national — from wherever — could be awarded citizenship in less than a fortnight.

Basic requirement? Dole out specific sums of money as identified and determined by the relevant Cabinet minister! In contrast other people, including nationals of Caricom, are required to be residing in the country for seven continuous years before the can be granted citizenship.

This quick-to-get 'economic citizenship' that confers all the rights and privileges of a national by birth, can be facilitated, according to the new 'Citizenship by Investment' legislation, passed by the House of Representatives and soon to be approved by the Senate — once the potential 'investor' contributes to identified projects, including "a charity designated by the minister".

In most Caricom states it normally takes between five and eight years for a Community national living and working in the particular jurisdiction to be approved for citizenship.

Curiously, there are two factors not mentioned in the Act but located in the Government's White Paper that preceded passage in the House of Representatives.

First, that vetting and supervision of applicants could be made to the same external body that is currently marketing the 'citizenship' programme, namely Henderson & Partners, headquartered in Jersey in the Channel Islands.

Second, while Antigua and Barbuda appears to have significant advantages in the 'citizenship-by-investment' area in the prevailing political culture, the country's income tax law — which would have to be amended to avoid conflicting with the tax evasion scheme as approved by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development — could derail the process.

More immediate is the extra onerous burden this quick-to-obtain 'economic citizenship' could create for the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), which allows freedom of movement within the context of its unfolding economic union, as immigration and customs officials have to be more scrupulous in scrutinising holders of passports issued by Antigua and Barbuda.

And even more problems could be in store for citizens by birth in the wider Caribbean Community in dealing with immigration officers mindful of foreigners with suspected nationalities traversing Caricom states with "passports" of convenience, obtained in any state of the OECS sub-region to conduct their variety of claimed "businesses".

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