The Great Wall of China at the Passport Office

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By D. Gisele Isaac

The Great Wall of China, listed among the new “Seven Wonders of the World,” is an object lesson for us in Antigua and Barbuda. Not because some people are looking to the Chinese to establish such monuments here, but because that great architectural feat was pretty much an exercise in futility.  Like the recall of the machine-readable passports and their replacement with an E-version of the same….

The Great Wall was built by successive Chinese rulers, ostensibly to consolidate and protect their territory and keep out invading tribes.  On the face of it, this was a good idea.  But history records China as having been invaded many times – because people simply rode around the wall and attacked from another angle and, more tellingly, because the guards accepted bribes to open the gates…

The government announced, the other day, that the shelf life of our – well, I really should say “your” – passport will be up at year end, and that New Year’s Day 2020 will see the E-passport becoming the only officially recognized travel document.  No reason was given for what many consider a sudden change (not to mention an unwelcome expense), except to say that the new kid on the passport block features an embedded chip carrying all kinds of data on the holder.

My questions, however, are: So what?  What will the addition prove? What bad thing will it prevent from happening? And, what has happened to prompt this abrupt switch-over?

While the prime minister has responded in his usual canine fashion to the latest accusations of two bloggers, who have been warning this country about its fast-and-loose ways of dispensing passports, the fact is such claims have also come from other quarters, from other and more credible people.  Evidence proves that our passport – which amounts to our national identity – has turned up in the hands of some characters of dubious pedigree, the latest allegedly being a Syrian called Mohamad Ayad Ghazal.

Last year’s online story about Cambridge Analytica and Henley & Partners was not written by Monte Friesner or Kenneth Rijock.  The story about the alleged accountant of India’s most wanted criminal, who was arrested in London and reported as having an Antigua and Barbuda passport, was not written by the United Progressive Party.  The article about the young Canadian, Alexandre Cazes, a big-time operator on the “dark Web” who was found dead in a prison cell in Thailand, and a confirmed holder of our passport, was not written by me.

There is nothing “political” in the concern of right-thinking people who must use their Antigua and Barbuda passports to travel for business, attend their children’s graduations, seek higher education or medical treatment, or simply enjoy a vacation abroad.  There is nothing “political” about our citizens who reside lawfully in the United States being unable to cross the border into Canada without a visa to “validate” their Antigua and Barbuda passports.  These realities are not “political.” We are afraid they are diabolical.

Who among us has been abroad (whether living in another man’s country or visiting), spotted an Antigua and Barbuda flag imprinted on a tee-shirt or on a bumper sticker, and not felt an emotional rush of homesickness?  Who has heard our anthem played in a foreign place and not had his chest swell with pride, or a tear prick her eye?  Is our passport any less a symbol of our nationality or of our “us-ness?” Then do we not have the right – the obligation, I daresay – to inquire of those whose responsibility it is to guard this national treasure: What the heck is going on?

By the prime minister’s own admission, all kinda people – YIDA; Fancy Bridge/Ocean Jewels (or whatever dey name); Sweet Homes developers in Ajman, UAE; and various agents here and there – are mixed up in the business of selling our passports, at times for sums that defy arithmetic – like the 120 documents for $200k each for a grand total of $15m.  And by the Police’s admission, there was a racket in passports being operated – not run, not likely – by a senior police officer in his home country, St. Vincent.

The bug in the programme, or the bee in our bonnets, therefore, is this: Why does the Citizenship by Investment Unit keep behaving like something fishy is not going on when it is clear for everybody else to see and smell?  So, the CIU did not issue this or that passport and has no knowledge of Mr. Crook applying for one.  So, it boasts about its multi-layered and resilient due-diligence processes.  What turns on that when hard evidence is showing that there are other means of obtaining the document? 

In the latest instance, the Ghazal document was not issued by the CIU, but it was issued for 10 years!!  The permanent secretary in the Passport Office told us, last year, that all was accounted for, nothing amiss, in her domain.  So we have to assume that this travel document, naming Ghazal as a citizen of this country, went through the normal protocols.  Yet who, during the seven years required for citizenship, has ever seen that man in these 170 square miles? Who has shopped alongside him in the supermarket, bumped into him at the gym, or spied him in a posh restaurant having dinner with his family and friends on his birthday?

Who is in charge of this ship, People?  Who is playing so fast and loose with this thing we hold so dear?

The Gaston Browne Administration went to Parliament during its first term in office and enacted the Statutory Corporations (Amendment) Bill.  Why? Because it wanted the authority to pick people up from here, in the government service, and put them down there when they needed a man or woman to make certain things happen.  Or to remove them when certain things were not happening.  And yet, the Minister of Foreign Affairs comes to tell us that the Cabinet could find no lawful reason to prevent a woman charged in connection with the passport ring in St. Vincent from returning to her employment with the very Passport Office from whence documents went missing…

I guess we are a dotish-looking public.  Makes me wonder, Minister Chet Greene, whether the passport/citizenship of wanted-man-economic-envoy Alex Nain Saab Moran has been revoked, as you declared, or whether he is just waiting to be issued his E-passport, as well…

And so, I return to the Great Wall of China and its similarity to the Passport Office of Antigua and Barbuda, and I ask: Who is safe when the traitors and the guards are one and the same?

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