It is worrying that public comment on this venture is increasingly centered on the possibilities for corruption in the management of this scheme, the likelihood that unsavoury characters will become one of us, and as well on the steps in place to provide assurance to other countries of the bona fides of our scheme. Whether by design or otherwise, our focus has shifted from the nature of what we are proposing to do to the mechanics by which it may be done, providing tacit approval for the indefensible.
Before going further, allow me to also point out, to those who are only able to see issues through the red or yellow lenses of their party of affiliation, that this proposed sale of our nationality has the support of both of the parties in the House of Assembly. That support, however, does nothing to sanitize the scheme, and our democracy requires the raising of dissenting voices.
It was not too long ago that this nation was torn in two over the issue of the introduction of legalized gambling. Twenty years ago, we were extremely concerned over the moral decay which this represented and discussion and disagreement continued for quite a while after that. Today, we seem to be much more “developed”, and our increased “sophistication” allows us to look past those things which define us and hold us together as we maintain an unrelenting focus on the dollar sign. There is however, a price to be paid, and it is really unfortunate that the full impact of the decisions which we are taking today will be felt not by us, but by the generations to come.
Even with the passage of the legislation, there is little to inform us in the press of precisely what is being proposed other than the Prime Minister’s recent statement that no more than 500 passports will be sold, and that purchasers must have a net worth in excess of US$3 million.
An internet search however, produces sites on which both the governing act and the regulations can be found. The regulations indicate that citizenship can be obtained by investment of US$200,000 into the Saint Lucia National Fund, with additional options for investment in an approved real estate project, in an approved enterprise project, and for the purchase of 5 year non-interest bearing government bonds. None of these options has a requirement for residency – you pay your money and you get your passport.
There is a world of difference between the Citizenship by Investment programme now law and the Residency by Investment programmes offered by developed countries, further to which period of residency citizenship can be attained. Were St. Lucia to offer a residency by investment programme, it would imply assimilation into our culture and a contribution to our social fabric by the prospective applicant, a process consistent with our recent laws regarding citizenship. Our diversity confirms this. But this is not what has been established.
The only requirement of the Citizenship by Investment Regulations is that a successful applicant must show up in St. Lucia or before any St. Lucian Embassy, High Commission or Consulate to take an oath of affirmation or allegiance. What does it mean when a rich Pakistani or Afghan national living in Dubai buys a St. Lucian passport ostensibly because it facilitates his travel to Hong Kong, shows up at an airport in the UK or the US claiming to be a St. Lucian citizen, but has never been here, and probably has no idea where to find us on a world map? Is this person really a citizen? And what happens when the rest of us show up at these airports?
For those who may think that the morality issue is being overemphasized, an article appearing in the Bloomberg press on March 11 of this year entitled “Passport King Christian Kalin Helps Nations Sell Citizenship” provides background to the development of this practice in the Caribbean. The article quotes Antigua and Barbuda’s Prime Minister, Gaston Browne, commenting on his government’s decision to reduce the residency requirement in Antigua from 35 days in five years to 5 days over the same period as saying that this was a compromise “so there will be some familiarity with the destination. We don’t want it to look as just a vulgar sale of passports”. His words. St. Lucia has no residency requirement.
There are however, three further grounds for objection to this citizenship by investment scheme:
What message are we sending to our youth, 40% of whom are currently unemployed – with a significant number reportedly unemployable – when the government engages in this type of get rich quick scheme? On what authority do we expect them to become hard working, up-right citizens contributing to society? We are creating the social conditions which in the near future will make our current crime concerns seem like child’s play, and we seem not to care.
Secondly, if the path to citizenship is by way of investment in the National Economic Fund, how are those windfall funds to be used to generate employment? Will government become involved in investment in those areas in which the private sector does not now have the confidence to do, or are we to see an expansion of the welfare programmes like STEP and NICE with the attendant problems for productive employment? If citizenship is however, to be by investment in real estate, with employment to be provided through construction activity, how are we to cope with the expected escalation in the price of land and in the cost of construction? Will the average St. Lucian be able to afford a home? How, when its nearly impossible now?
Thirdly, if the suggestion is being made that the funds generated by this scheme are to used by government to provide services and address our fiscal issues, is there anyone who really believes that this or successive governments can be relied on to be prudent? At the same time that we are proposing desperate measures for revenue generation, we are also proposing the expenditure of $156 million for expansion of the Choc to Gros Islet highway. Other than the small jump in GDP during the construction period, this expansion will have no lasting impact on economic growth, (where is the increased demand to come from?), while others have pointed out the futility of this approach as a traffic management option. Yet our overall debt will have increased by an amount in excess of 5%.
To those who dismiss the concerns and simply state that the expansion of this road is necessary to relieve traffic congestion, how do we convince investors to buy our bonds at the next offering? As an alternative, traffic congestion, particularly on the Castries-Gros Islet highway, can be greatly reduced by managing the hours during which heavy duty slow moving vehicles are allowed to use the roads, by upgrading the bottleneck junctions, and ultimately by the possible adoption of schemes charging fees for use during peak hours. We need to get to the point where we can manage our convenience issues from our internal resources, allowing the $150 million type expenditures to be directed to projects such as the new route from Gros Islet to Dennery.
But the Prime Minister has the last say, and in his address in Monaco where he introduced the country’s Citizenship by Investment Programme as reproduced in THE VOICE of October 19, 2015, he had this to say in part: “Truth be told, I firmly believe that citizenship should always be a statement of national pride and an expression of national sovereignty”. Well said! That is the sentiment and message that we expect from the Prime Minister. He would have served us better however, had he stuck to his conviction rather than allowing his government to be railroaded into the current position by those who must know better. Residency by Investment is a sensible option; Citizenship by Investment is just the crass sale of our nationality. It’s not too late to change course.