The Jeff Cumberbatch Column – A Race to the Bottom?
As was the Prime Minister of St Vincent & the Grenadines, Dr Ralph Gonsalves, I, too, was not overly enthusiastic at first blush about the involvement of some of our neighbouring jurisdictions such as Antigua & Barbuda, Dominica and St Kitts-Nevis in the Citizenship by Investment [CBI] programme or, as it has been more popularly referred to, “the sale of passports”. While addressing the launch of the Chamber of Industry and Commerce Finance Fair in May last year in St. Vincent, Dr Gonsalves maintained his administration’s opposition to the programme that he described as “a race to the bottom”.
This is understandable. After all, as individuals, we tend to regard some things as being not for sale, however destitute we may become. We, or at least most of us, would not sell our dignity, for instance, nor our lifeblood or vital organs; we would not sell our children. In a similar vein, one calypsonian was proud to proclaim a few years ago that come what might, he would never sell the old donkey that he had recently inherited from his deceased father.
I readily concede that others might be of a different persuasion, a different practice even. Dr Gonsalves was of the view, however, that his country’s passport was too sacred a document to be sold. According to him, while wishing his colleagues well, “We just simply have a different perspective on it…we start from the simple proposition that that the two most important books in a house, in any house in St Vincent and the Grenadines, are the Bible and the passport….”
I have since re-examined the matter. And, on further analysis, I observe that in the finest mercantilist tradition, we, as a region and as a people are given to the ready disposition of our finest assets to the world for lucre; our beachfront property, our glorious weather, our educated workforce and low tax systems; our natural resources. Our cricketers now sell their talents to various teams in the world’s T20 leagues as they once did to the English counties. In fine, we are a people easily given to the sale of our treasured assets so long as a willing buyer for a sufficient consideration might be found.
Hence, it is understandable that some of our neighbours might be willing to sell citizenship of their jurisdictions, even though it must be noted in contrast that for those who should seek to acquire it by means other than by purchase or investment, it may be a legally complex and constitutionally involved process.
But there do exist those who have, and are willing to expend the money or investment quoted to acquire citizenship of these jurisdictions; an entitlement that will permit them a degree of access to parts of the world that possession of their own national passports could never accomplish for them.
At that level therefore, the sale of citizenship is comprehensible, although it equally brings to mind the notorious remark variously ascribed to Sir Winston Churchill, Mark Twain and George Bernard Shaw and addressed to an indignant female that “we have already established what you are…we are now merely haggling about the price”.
In last Sunday’s issue of the Barbados Advocate, Sir Ronald Sanders manfully defended the practice now being discussed and in her essay published on the Barbados Underground blog, Ms Alicia Nicholls, a trade and development specialist, did the same. One of the main thrusts of both arguments is that the practice is not restricted to these regional jurisdictions only but, indeed, enjoys global popularity, being extant also in some European and North American jurisdictions.
In fact, the regional passport is not ranked as highly desirable globally as some others similarly available –one website notes that purchase of the Austrian passport gives visa-free access to 171 countries, while the Dominican travel document by comparison severely limits the investor to a mere 91. Arguments also focused on the comparative rigour with which relevant applications are vetted and the relatively dire state of most of the regional economies, a phenomenon that has appeared to be almost intractable in recent years, that has driven them to this “desperate” measure.
Sir Ronald stressed this inescapable point. In his weekly column, “Passports: Sale or Saviour”, he wrote, “…all of the Caribbean countries involved with Citizenship by Investment programmes have come to them by necessity. Poor terms of trade, vulnerability to financial downturns in North America and Europe from where most of their tourists come, declining aid, persistent natural disasters and no access to concessional funding have forced them to be creative in raising revenues. They are all faced with fiscal deficits, high debt and an international environment that is unresponsive to their predicament…”
Ms Nicholls’s likewise adverted to this –“once carefully managed, CBI programmes can be tools of development. A prime example is St. Kitts & Nevis, which at one point had been among the world’s most indebted countries, and has seen its economic fortunes turned around”.
To bring the debate closer to home, Barbados, so far as I know, has never indicated an intention to go this commercial route, even though its passport is perhaps the most globally attractive in the region. I recall arriving in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 2003 on a teaching assignment for the International Labour Organization after a 16-hour flight from Amsterdam to see, with equal measures of surprise and pride, that the holders of our passport were listed among those that were exempt from the requirement to obtain an entry visa.
Is it then that by our reluctance so far we are playing, as my late mother would have termed it, “poor-great” or is it that we value our document so highly that, as “scrunting” as we are currently, no amount of money can lure us to make it available to others who are not constitutionally entitled to it? What do you think?
One pertinent issue that seems to have escaped regional discussion, although alluded to by Ms Nicholls, is that of the impact of the CBI programmes on the regional initiative of free travel under the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas, as judicially detailed by the CCJ in the Shanique Myrie case. This is to the effect that every CARICOM national is entitled to a right of free entry into the territory of a Member State and the right to remain there for a period up to six months, unless the national is an undesirable person with in the restricted meaning of that term and subject to certain other procedural guarantees identified in the decision.
Given the nature of this right, interregional comity should at least require a consensus among member states of CARICOM that this entitlement might also be acquired by a stipulated investment in any one of them under CBI.