Congressman McCaul: Antigua Clamoring To Sell Passports To Syrian Refugees, Who Then Make The 'Jump' to the U.S. Virgin Islands (Virgin Islands Free Press)

syria_refugees RESIZE

michael mccaul

         Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas)

ST. JOHN’S, Antigua – When a nation embarks on selling its passports it puts a price on pride of independence.

When greed continues to overwhelm respectability and the price of passports goes wholesale, the concept of citizenship becomes meaningless.

The sale of passports was first introduced to Parliament in late 2009. Gaston Browne, then Member of Parliament and Deputy Leader of the Opposition, proposed that the “official” sale of Antigua & Barbuda passports could provide a rewarding income stream for the failed state.

The ruling party recoiled in righteous indignation.  However, after the requisite objections to his proposal and an appropriate lapse of time for the memory to fade, the party in power presented the idea as its own and proceeded to develop it.  It was given the semi-respectable name of Citizenship by Investment Programme (CIP) and anticipated personal involvement of the applicants in the economy and life of Antigua.  Certain protocols of checks and balances were established and oversight was assigned to a small hand-picked group of individuals in the Office of the Prime Minister.

Initially, the results were modest.  A photo was published on the front page of the local news with Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer handing an Antiguan Passport to the first CIP citizen, a Syrian businessman “with business interests in Dubai”.  Immediately thereafter, it was announced that the names of the new citizens would no longer be released to the public, as that was impeding the sale of passports, but would henceforth be made available only to Members of Cabinet, along with a financial accounting of the program on a six-month basis.  There is no evidence as to whether such reporting took place.

The CIP was run for about a year before the elections of 2014 reversed the status of the two political parties and “crowned” Gaston Browne as the new Prime Minister of Antiguan & Barbuda.

The program immediately went ballistic.  During this last year, it has grown exponentially into a number of sub-services, which have not been brought even into the twilight of Parliamentary debate and continue to surprise the public, as these “options” are inevitably exposed through unfortunate, if not criminal, crises.

These revelations include that there are now at least three different levels of the CIP, and that further “services” can be bought, such as waivers on visas into Antigua, temporary residency status, inclusion of family members at a discounted price and without separate due diligence, and other similar goodies that facilitate travel for the buyer of “easy entry” and do not appear on any official government accounts.

As qualifying requirements become more varied and less stringent, in spite of the Prime Minister’s continued assurance that the U.S. Embassy in Barbados was participating in the vetting of applicants, certain scandals began to surface in the implementation of the scheme.

Among the first questions raised was the Prime Minister’s appointment of Steadroy “Cutie” Benjamin as the country’s Attorney General, Minister of Justice, Minister of Legal Affairs, and Minister in charge of Police, Labor and Immigration.

Following this appointment, the sale of passports was moved from the PM’s office to that of the Minister of Immigration.

This brought up memories of a recent public scandal.  While still in private practice, “Cutie” was involved in a well-publicised case of passport fraud, in which he was paid to certify a forged passport.  Two other individuals involved in the transaction were found guilty, fined and imprisoned for several years each.  Benjamin’s part in the fraud was recognised by the High Court, dismissed by the Court of Appeal, and reinstated by the Privy Council’s judgment that his actions were subject to criminal indictment back in Antigua.

Once returned to Antigua, the matter was dropped, with Cutie continuing to claim “ignorance” and the Director of Public Prosecution asserting that there is not enough evidence to proceed with the case.

That “cleared the way” for the Minister’s appointments.  In fact, there are those on Antigua who believe that is precisely Benjamin’s association with passport fraud that qualified him for his appointment as Minister of Immigration.

The sale of passports has returned to the news with the Prime Minister’s report to Parliament on the success of the Antigua Labour Party’s first year back in office.

Prime Minister Gaston Browne announced that 510 passports have been sold through the much vaunted Citizenship by Investment Programme.

When pressed to confirm the nationalities of these new holders of official Antigua & Barbuda passports, Browne stated 38 were involved, listing amongst others: China 213, Lebanon 58, Iran 33, Russia 25, Egypt 21, Syria 18, Pakistan 14, UK 14, Nigeria 11, Saudi Arabia 9, Italy 7, Canada 7, Kuwait 6, Algeria 6, Iraq 6, Yemen 6, Palestine 5, India 5, Libya 4, Indonesia 4, Vietnam 4, Jordan 3, France 3, Dubai 3, Togo 3, Bangladesh 2, Afghanistan 2, Venezuela 2, Istanbul (Turkey) 2, Ukraine 1, Singapore 1, Uzbekistan 1, Guatemala 1, Austria 1, USA 1, Thailand 1.

Browne then advised that most of the proceeds, from the sale of 416 passports, had gone into the National Development Fund.  Of the remaining passports, 89 were based on the Real Estate option and 5 on the Business option, with a total amount realised of $65.9 million dollars.

He further boasted that for the whole of 2013, the last full year under the United Progressive Party’s administration, the total proceeds generated amounted to $390,000; that in 2014 CIP generated $32.3 million and that the first 5 months of 2015 had already realized $33.1 million dollars.

In further disclosures Browne confirmed that 120 passports had been handed to the principals of Fancy Bridge, a Chinese company, for $200,000 each, in return for investment funds to take over and expand the West Indies Oil Company.  Browne added that Fancy Bridge had been recommended to the Government of Antigua & Barbuda by Xiao Jianhua, an apparent Chinese billionaire, whose mysterious origins and current treatment by the Government are woefully reminiscent of the previous Antiguan benefactor, jailed businessman R. Allen Stanford of St. Croix.

It is not clear what, if any, due diligence had been done and if the passports were issued to named parties or blank.

The latest controversy with the Citizenship by Investment Program has finally gained the attention of the U.S. Congress.

Several weeks ago, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), Chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, called Antigua out as the home of two human trafficking rings, one dealing with Cubans and the other Syrians seeking entry into the U.S., the Congressman also said that Washington will be investigating a “colony” of Syrians that “jumped” from Antigua & Barbuda to the U.S. Virgin Islands.

According to the uncontested local press reports, a total of 53 male Syrians arrived in Antigua between January and April of this year.  A group of 14 left Antigua by boat and tried to enter the U.S. Virgin Islands, where they were intercepted by the Coast Guard.  Others have filed for asylum, while the full number of new arrivals has not been publicly accounted for.

Apparently, the entry of these individuals into Antigua has been facilitated by the sale of visa waivers, included in a larger package of overall costs.  These were no poverty-driven refugees.

In an interview published in The Daily Observer, Lionel “Max” Hurst, the current Antiguan Chief of Staff, assured the public that the Gaston Browne administration took immediate action to ensure the country would not be a transit point for illegal entry into America or any neighbouring state.

He then proceeded to explain that the law enforcement agencies did not move in on the men “sooner” because of the financial burden it would have placed on the state. “You can’t let them starve.  Remember we have to provide them with towels, and sheets, a place to stay and probably some entertainment….”

After a week of front page news announcing the imminent arrival of two U.S. officials from the Homeland Security Department, Cutie Benjamin offered his resignation from the post of Minister of Immigration, temporarily, “in the interest of transparency and good governance.”

The Antiguan opposition party is clamoring for resignation from all ministries held by Benjamin and for an independent overseas legal entity to probe the alleged human smuggling rings.

Finally, on August 26th, Attorney General Steadroy “Cutie” Benjamin was replaced as Minister of Immigration by the Honourable Charles Max Fernandez, now Minister of Foreign Affairs, International Trade and Immigration.

Of course, as head of all the Ministries having to do with the functions and exercise of justice, Benjamin can still control any investigation, but an effective use of what in other countries would be considered conflict of interest, is what passes for smart statesmanship in Antigua & Barbuda.

So it is that Antigua continues on its slippery path, taking pride in the fact that, according to Economist McCarthy Marie, Antigua & Barbuda’s National Investment Fund (aka National Development Fund) offering under the CIP is the most attractive such offering in the OECS, “because it is the cheapest as applicants do not have to spend time in Antigua or build a home.”

Meanwhile, voices are being raised in complaint that some Antiguan citizens applying for U.S. visas have been turned down.

Is it a small trickle of pushback or are consequences finally going to catch up?