By Orville Williams
Leader of the United Progressive Party (UPP) Harold Lovell is blaming political interference from the current administration for the bad publicity that has recently been clouding the country’s Citizenship by Investment Programme (CIP).
The programme was launched in 2013 and allows foreign nationals to acquire Antiguan and Barbudan citizenship by means of substantial investment in the country.
Since then, it has contributed significantly to the economy and is widely viewed as a successful economic tool, but has lately come under the spotlight due to varying controversies.
Most recently, one of the programme’s successful applicants – Indian native Mehul Choksi – has been embroiled in a tense legal standoff with the government, over accusations that he misled the authorities in his CIP application and was actually under investigation by Indian authorities for his involvement in a multi-million-dollar bank scam when his application was approved.
The government has repeatedly denounced his actions and is trying to get his citizenship revoked, but the matter has gathered international interest due to the high-profile nature of the criminal activity he is accused of.
Along with the Choksi issue, earlier this year Antigua and Barbuda’s CIP was one of three such programmes in the Eastern Caribbean identified by the US government as having a “lack of transparency”.
In its Human Rights Report for 2020, the US noted “reports of government corruption by the media and private citizens” as reason for scrutinizing the CIP, leading Prime Minister Gaston Browne to, in turn, accuse the US of trying to “kill” the programme.
The idea of a lack of transparency resonates within the local population as well, as there have been questions asked of the background of some successful applicants and their possible dealings directly with the government.
The UPP leader is one of the more prominent voices to question the activities surrounding the CIP, though he insists that his concerns are not necessarily centred around the people who manage the programme.
“I do not blame, in any way, the people who are employed as administrators and technicians within the CIP. I believe that the political directorate has been overly intrusive and I think that’s part of the problem.
“When the gentleman from Canada was here and he eventually packed up and left, one of the things that he described was the constant interference by the political directorate and he referred to the juvenile temper tantrums thrown by the Prime Minister from time to time.
“I have the greatest respect for the [CIP] administrators…I think they’re doing their best, but I feel that the political directorate has been interfering and that is where the problem is,” Lovell said.
Despite the scrutiny the programme has faced, the Citizenship by Investment Unit (CIU) has defended its operations, maintaining that its due diligence processes are top notch.
In addition, the government has insisted that the recent developments have not done any technical damage to the programme, as there is no evidence that the number of applications have been directly affected as a result.
Lovell, however, believes there needs to be some sort of reform within the programme and has pledged to do just that if his party were to be successful in the next general election.
“The CIP will have to be reviewed, [but] I wouldn’t go so far as to say that we would abolish the programme. What I would say is that some of the results that we’ve seen will require a review – a review in terms of the type of due diligence that is done – and the emphasis, whether [it] is going to be on investment.
“When we put the programme in place, it was always expected that the emphasis was going to be on investment. Therefore, we would take our time and we would try to get people who would bring genuine investment to the country.
“This is a matter that we will certainly have to place under review, because the people of Antigua and Barbuda deserve to have a country that is free from this type of controversy and to not have the name of their native land tarnished in this way.”
Back in 2018, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was quoted as saying his country’s visa requirement could be lifted for countries like Antigua and Barbuda, if significant adjustments were made to their Citizenship by Investment Programmes.
Those comments followed the move by his administration the previous year, to place a visa requirement on Antigua and Barbuda, whose passport-holders previously enjoyed visa-free access to Canada.