Gaston Browne on Economic Citizenship

It is well known that for the past few years, I have been advocating the establishment of an economic citizen programme as a means to attract investments to our country.

Economic citizenship has been practiced by a few countries, some of whom, including Grenada and Belize, sold citizenship widely and unwisely in the past and have had to revoke their programmes. What is practiced widely by most states is permanent resident by investment.

These permanent resident programmes, to include the United States of America’s permanent resident by visa (EB-5 Visa), eventually lead to citizenship.

Presently, there are two countries in the Caribbean, namely St Kitts & Nevis and Dominica, who offer economic citizenship. The programme in Dominica, until recently, was not properly regulated and was embroiled in controversy over the cheap, opportunistic sale of passports for US$20K to all and sundry.

St Kitts, on the other hand, since 1984, has operated a well respected, international citizenship by investment programme which has yielded significant revenues and investments to include the EC billion-dollar Marriott Resort.

St Kitts boasts the cleanliness of its 28-year-old programme, which has accepted fewer than 500 applicants in total, without any abuses.

Incidentally, Antigua & Barbuda, without such a programme, has had more passport abuses, evidencing that such abuse is not a function of economic citizenship, but more a function of corrupt officials, and that abuses could be reduced or eliminated by a well-regulated programme.

The articulations that we will only attract criminals with international criminal intent or to evade taxes, is nothing more than scaremongering tactics. There are many bona-fide investors who would be interested in such a programme.

Alternate citizenship can be an asset for international tax planning, safety and security, as well as a protective shield for individuals who live in volatile, unsafe countries.

The programme should be designed to attract bona-fide investors: seeking to reside in a peaceful country with an attractive tax regime; investors from countries that are ostracised; and investors, like Americans, who conduct business in countries in which they are despised and are susceptible to acts of terrorism.

Citizens of wealthy countries who are desirous of escaping exorbitant taxes imposed by greedy governments, and wealthy citizens of countries with repressive regimes will also find economic citizenship very attractive. Economic citizenship could also provide wealthy individuals with increased banking and investment privacy and wealth preservation. This augurs well for our offshore financial services’ wealth management product.

As the representative of one of the hardest-hit and poorest constituencies in our country, I am deeply concerned about the welfare of our country. Recognising that we have lost almost 20 percent of GDP during the past 3.5 years and that we are collectively poorer, I suggested to the UPP Government (via my Budget Parliamentary Debate) the implementation of the economic citizenship programme three years ago.

The UPP Government was vigorously opposed to the concept at that time, but a few years later seem to have changed its position.

It may be out of a failure to expand the economy and attract foreign direct investment which has forced the UPP Government, which initially scoffed at this proposal, to examine the merit(s) of the programme. The reality is, we are collectively poorer, and poverty breeds crime.

Therefore, doing nothing is not an option, and to be overly cautious and watch our economy die a slow death is equally unattractive.

There is a very appropriate cliché – “nothing ventured nothing gained” – that comes to mind. The time has come for us to step out and take some bold initiatives to move our country forward. Antigua & Barbuda has the potential to become the tourism and financial services centre of the Caribbean, but this will not happen in a totally risk averse environment or one of policy paralysis.

Whereas we must guard against recklessness, we must also become more entrepreneurial with our governance of the country by developing sustainable competitive advantage over our regional competitors. We have become so laisez faire, leaving our development up to chance that our regional competitors who were once light years behind us, are now outperforming us.

A few years ago, I raised the concept of economic citizenship with my colleagues and this eventually led to a meeting and a subsequent undertaking to Henley & Partners, the firm that manages a number of these programmes, including the St Kitts Investment by Citizenship programme, to introduce the programme here in Antigua.
This undertaking was given to Henley & Partners by me, the Hon Lester Bird, and another senior Parliamentarian. Since then, I have been advocating the benefits of such a programme. I do accept that there may be some adverse risks, which in my mind, hardly outweigh the risks associated with increased poverty and crime, should we do nothing and/or the risks which are presently associated with internet gambling which conflicts directly with US laws.

I envisaged this programme operating similar to the St Kitts programme, which has operated successfully for the past 28 years without any accusations of attracting criminals or terrorists. As a nation state, we have the right to set the parameters for citizen by naturalization.

Presently, residency of seven years is the requirement to become a citizen and today more than half the population comprise of citizens through naturalization and their off springs. This country was built on immigrant labour, but truth be told, there are many immigrants who become citizens, whose contribution to the development of our country would be pale compared to the prospective contributions of these economic citizens. Economic citizenship would contribute to the expansion of the professional and economic scope of our country.

The programme should be well regulated, with at least two firms of international repute that would conduct the necessary due diligence investigation on these prospective investors to ensure that they are bona fide investors, and not criminals or terrorists as some may speculate. The proposed programme should target wealthy individuals committed to investment and/or job creation and set between US$300 – 500K.

In addition, the programme should be operated in a most transparent manner with a bi-partisan parliamentary oversight committee, with regular audits, say half yearly, by a reputable accounting firm. A copy of the audit should be sent routinely to our major trading partners to include the US, UK, and Canada, to allay any fears about the integrity of the programme. Even before implementation, our Government should engage these governments and alert them of their intention to introduce the economic citizenship programme to get some reaction from these countries on the proposed introduction.

In full anticipation of the ALP introducing such a programme, I have exercised my discretion and have discussed the programme with several ambassadors including the UK ambassador to the region to determine the impact of such a programme on our visa free, Schengen access into Europe. I have been assured by all these diplomats, that a properly regulated programme without any security risks would not be a problem for these Governments.

I believe that a well-regulated, high-end economic citizen programme will assist in enhancing our prospects of attracting more foreign direct investments and a larger skills pool. We already have a pool of wealthy individuals at the Mill Reef Club and Jumby Bay who would be elated to become citizens.

Citizenship will give them ease of entry and exit and, for all intended purposes, what is, in fact, their “second home” in our country, and will encourage then to make an even greater contribution to the development of our country.

One may ask the question, why not a permanent resident programme? Practically every wealthy nation, including the United States and Canada, has a permanent resident programme which has rendered our own permanent resident programme ineffective. Why would someone invest in a poor country for permanent resident when they can get residency in a wealthy country?

In fact, Antigua & Barbuda’s permanent resident programme, which has been on the books for over two decades, has not attracted a single investor of note to date. Only a small cadre of countries, to include St Kitts and Dominica, offers economic citizenship, and I am of the view that Antigua & Barbuda has more to offer than these countries and could therefore outperform them. Incidentally, Austria also has its own citizenship programme.

One of the impediments to this programme is personal income tax, which will be a disincentive for those who could want to use their citizenship and residency here as a benefit to reduce their tax liability. This could be easily resolved by repealing the Personal Income Tax Act. The compensatory income would come from the tens or perhaps hundreds of millions that this programme would attract. This would also bring substantial relief to the middle class that has been burdened with the PIT.

Such a programme, properly regulated and integrated with our tourism product, investment, offshore financial services products, and diplomacy, represents a paradigm shift from the traditional approach in attracting investors. Citizenship, in this case, should be seen as an incentive for the economic contribution made to improve the living standards of our people.

Previous Antiguan governments were successful in offering cheap land at a peppercorn rate as an incentive to investors. Today, there is little beach property to leverage for beach resorts. The stark reality is, if there is little to leverage, to include generous concessions and cheap land, to reduce the variability of risks for investments in a small country with a contracting economy and little profit potential – then we will not be very successful in attracting large investment projects.

Antigua & Barbuda once had a flourishing residential tourism sector which has been destroyed by the frustrations of obtaining time in the country, obtaining a land holding license, and further by the reintroduction of the Personal Income Tax (PIT), in which many of these existing and potential residents would have been captured.

In addition to the hassle free travel in and out of the country and the ease of developing real estate, these investors, depending on their country of origin, would enjoy access to over 100 countries utilizing our passport.

Perhaps the greatest difficulty with this programme is overcoming the nationalistic sentiments about our passports and the sale of land to expatriates. To overcome these sentiments will require greater explanation without the political rhetoric that quite often distorts the real facts. Further, a compromised solution could be the introduction of an economic citizenship programme to expire in say 10 years, with a cap on the number of citizenships to be granted.

The issue of land ownership by expatriates is not something we could escape if we are to attract foreign capital to grow and develop. We should be comforted though that: “gravel cannot travel,” and that ownership is transient.

In other words, an expatriate, through his investment, may own a property today but simultaneously, that expatriate is building the domestic capital formation to empower some local in the future to own the property. This was seen when the late Elpert Winter, of Food City, as an indigenous Antiguan, was able to purchase both Dews and Bryson’s supermarkets, which were previously owned by expatriates.

We must allow ideas and diversity of views to contend. As the saying goes, if we all think alike, then we are not thinking. So let the debate continue:

If according to my political leader, the Hon Lester Bird, the executive of the Antigua Labour Party has not made any determination on this issue, then I have every right to continue to share my insights on this issue with the public since I am not infringing any policy directive of the party.

Furthermore, even if the executive of the party was to adopt the thinking of the Hon Lester Bird and others, who may be genuinely or opportunistically (not the right time), opposed to this programme, that does not preclude me from articulating my views.

This is a not a fundamental philosophical position of the ALP, but a policy position which can change at any time, and even though my position may not have the support of the majority of the party’s executive at this time, that does not preclude me from having a different opinion.

We must allow ideas and diversity of views to contend. The reality is, I have always treated with this issue responsibly and have always demonstrated full respect for differing opinions. I have no fight or any quarrel with those who see this issue differently. It is a waste of time and energy for anyone, including any political leader, to attempt to accentuate a difference of opinion on a policy issue into a political chasm for their own exploitation.

Once again, I must stress the fact that my constituency, in particular, is home to many of the low-income wage earners in this country. As a result of this, it is they who feel the pain and ravages brought on by a failing economy most. It is they who suffer the hardest with unemployment coupled with rising cost of living and the attendant increase in crime.

I have a fiduciary responsibility as their representative to do all in my power to alleviate their pain and suffering. I deem the economic citizenship programme an opportunity for the government, if the receipts are used wisely, to bring some relief to Antiguans and Barbudans in general, and by extension to my constituents in particular.

In closing, I wish to caution our people against “scorch earth” opposition to every investment initiative for fleeting partisan political gains. When it comes to the development of our country, it must be Antigua & Barbuda first. We should also be very wary of those political scavengers who seek power at all costs, even to the detriment of the state.