February 12, 2010

The economic citizenship issue


Nine years ago, one of the key issues in the elections of 2001 was that of economic citizenship. The debate around this added to the volatile cocktails of issues that helped to bring about the demise of the New Democratic Party (NDP) administration of the day. Soon after assuming office, the victorious Unity Labour Party (ULP) majority in Parliament ensured the passage of legislation that repealed the law permitting the sale of passports to non-nationals who were then able to qualify under a curious category of “economic citizens”.{{more}}

One would have thought that as far as St. Vincent and the Grenadines is concerned, the issue was dead and buried. Some other Caribbean nations, notably St. Kitts/Nevis and Dominica, continued to maintain this category of citizens. The idea had gained popularity in the nineties as developing countries found themselves squeezed for revenue, between worsening economic conditions, the sharp reduction of foreign aid and investment and the rules of global trade liberalisation which did not prove to be kind to their export revenues while giving a fillip to burgeoning imports. It was thought that this was a relatively easy way of attracting foreign capital and several countries rushed headlong into it.

However well-intentioned, the reality of today’s world is that besides persons who may be genuinely interested in investing in developing countries under such schemes, there is no shortage of international schemers, money-launderers, tax-evaders and downright criminals seeking a safe haven from justice, who are only too willing to take advantage of such opportunities for their own nefarious purposes. On the other hand, too, there were leaders in some of those countries who were not above turning such situations to their personal benefits, dolling out passports and citizenship for their personal enrichment. In the process, a number of high-profile international scams and efforts by some developed nations to prevent tax-evasion soon caused a backlash with stringent requirements for migration being placed on the citizens of countries with such laws on their books.

It was in that context that the Gonsalves-led ULP first opposed such schemes, and, once in office, removed St. Vincent and the Grenadines from the list of countries harbouring economic citizens. The opposition NDP, though not in agreement, did not make it a major issue over the years, and the matter only resurfaced last year, during the political campaign leading up to the referendum on the Constitution. Prime Minister Gonsalves had himself led the charge, alleging that the Opposition’s “VOTE NO” campaign was being funded and organised by a foreign company with interests in economic citizenship. That issue was largely clouded out, though, by counter allegations of lack of transparency on the part of leading ULP persons in financial transactions at the state-owned National Commercial Bank and lost in the wave of anti-ULP propaganda which characterised the campaign.

It has now been further magnified following the Budget Debate, with the Prime Minister insisting on holding the line against any such scheme, stating loftily that our passports are “not tradeable commodities”. He also disclosed to Parliament an offer from a foreign company advertising “the managed migration” of 3,500 persons representing a sum of some EC$850 million, an offer which he spurns. Strangely, the Opposition Leader has not only come out in support of economic citizenship, but has spoken a similar language of “tight and well-managed” economic citizenship programmes, in order to attract investors.

So it seems that, ten years on from 2001, we are due to have a rehash of the battle around economic citizenship as one of the principal issues in the next general elections. It is a debate in which we all should participate for it can have serious implications for the development of our country. Indeed it is so serious a matter that it is attracting comment in the regional media. The Barbados NATION of Feb. 2nd saw it fit to comment on it and commended PM Gonsalves for his stand on the matter. We end with this quote from the NATION:

“At this period of quite challenging financial and economic problems for countries of our Caribbean Community, it is very important that strenuous efforts be made to guard against any kind of bartering with external forces and elements that could prove injurious to national sovereignty and dignity….Prime Minister Gonsalves has revealed that his written response to the company’s offer was that ‘the highest office in our land is that of citizen and it is NOT for SALE’…

“A commendable stand, indeed, in defence of the meaning of citizenship and sovereignty-a definition that should be applicable not ONLY for Vincentians.”

The matter is that serious.