Remember Grenada? No, it’s not a car, and it’s not a syrup made from pomegranates. Perhaps vague memories come to mind? A breezy, tropical island..American medical students..commies running rampant. That’s it – the rescue mission! Whatever happened to that place?
After briefly rocketing into the media spotlight in the early 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan labeled the tiny Caribbean island a dire threat, Grenada has plummeted from the news horizon like a stricken SCUD missile.
Press treatment of the country is typical of the media’s approach to the Third World. The guidelines are simple. Rule No. 1: Third World nations are largely ignored until the White House, almost always for reasons of national security, puts one on the map. Rule No. 2: Once the perceived national security threat fades, the country in question falls back into irrelevance and obscurity.
At a panel discussion hosted by the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center last March, Robert MacNeil of the “MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour” endorsed this approach to foreign news. The president, he said, “is like the chief passenger on the cruise ship. When he goes to the rail and points at something, that’s interesting for the rest of the passengers.” Editors generally agree that it makes sense to follow the president’s lead, though they say the press also pursues foreign stories on its own.
The exceptions to the chief passenger rule are the whimsical “letter from” style stories on the curious natives, such as the dispatches filed earlier this year on the aspirations of navy officials in land-locked Bolivia, or the traditional “time appears to have bypassed the remote backlands of [fill-in-the-blank], where residents still churn their own butter.” However, barring presidential finger-pointing, a Third World nation is likely to receive U.S. media attention only if it is the site of a natural disaster, a civil war, massacre or some other major act of violence; if its leader visits Washington; or if it refuses to pay its debts to U.S. banks.
I wrote that back in 1993 for American Journalism Review, and nothing’s really changed much since. If the U.S. government takes an interest in the Caribbean, the press tags along (i.e. briefly following Hurricane Irma), otherwise it’s off the country’s news radar (especially once you get to the small islands that lie east of Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.
So what’s been going on over there? Well, over the past few decades much of the region has fallen deeper into misery. High-end tourism generates a bit of income, with very little trickle down for the impoverished natives. But the islands are desperate to raise cash and the emerging boom industry has become selling diplomatic and economic passports.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, countries are slashing prices, so you can pick up citizenship at bargain rates. The problem is that there doesn’t appear to be much vetting of applicants — in some countries you can buy your passport abroad without ever stepping foot in your new home nation — so it appears that passports have been purchased by corrupt foreign government officials, business officials, criminals and terrorists.
The great advantage of a Caribbean passport is that most of them allow you to travel to dozens of countries without a visa, so once you’ve got one you can trot the globe freely, making then highly attractive to shady businessman and foreign officials. The names of recipients are generally not released, so there’s usually no way to know who’s getting the passports but there have reportedly been a number of buyers from Russia, China, the Middle East and the United States. They can be purchased by making a contribution directly to the government or by investing in real estate above a certain (generally quite low) threshold.
Consider Grenada, where Keith Mitchell was just reelected as prime minister and has held power 17 of the last 23 years. It introduced its citizenship by investment program in 2013 and, according to this story, just dropped the price by 25 percent, to $150,000. “Within the last year, the number of applicants for Grenada’s investment citizenship has skyrocketed by 300%, while the rejection rate was at an all-time low of just 8%,” the story said. “In the first half of 2017, 449 persons have becоme nationals of Grenada.”
Antigua and Barbuda, where prime minister Gaston Browne appears set to win reelection in a few days, also has a thriving passport sales program, which has been hit with charges of corruption. Originally the government was supposed to releasee the names of the people who bought passports but that practice was stopped. Now it just makes available the number of total passports sold and what countries buyers come from.
With an Antigua passport, you can travel to more than 100 countries visa free. The website for the law firm of Henley & Partners, one of a number of well connected firms and players that broker passport sales, recently announced a special by which a family of 4 can all get visas in exchange for a $100,000.contribution to the National Development Fund. You don’t need to go to the country to get a passport nor own a residence there, and can reportedly renew it by spending five days there over a period of the next five years.
Here’s an excerpt from a 60 Minutes program last year which looked at the Caribbean programs, one of the few media outlets that has examined them:
[Programs are] multiplying across the Caribbean…Dominica, Grenada, St. Lucia, and Antigua are all competing with St. Kitts now for customers and badly needed cash.
Gaston Browne: So what are we supposed to do? Sit back and do nothing? You tell me.
Gaston Browne, the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, says the revenue from its four-year-old program has kept the government from defaulting on its international loans and has turned the economy around. Antigua also claims to have among the strictest programs in the Caribbean. You actually have to show up here to get citizenship, albeit very briefly.
Gaston Browne: Our law provides them to spend at least five days here.
Steve Kroft: That sounds like a vacation.
Gaston Browne: Yes. I understand. But however, we have made sure that at least there must be some face-to-face contact so we know who these people are.
Steve Kroft: For five days.
Gaston Browne: Minimum.
Steve Kroft: What kinda people are you looking for?
Gaston Browne: We’re lookin’ for high net worth individuals. People who are established business people. Who are well-known. And to make sure that we get the crème de la crème.
If so, they are recruiting them in some odd places. Last summer, Antigua announced it was opening an embassy in Baghdad hoping to sell passports to Iraqis. It didn’t work out. But it’s doing better next door in Syria after hiring a relative of President Bashar Al-Assad to represent them….
Prime Minister Browne told us instability breeds opportunity. Besides Syria, Antigua has sold citizenship to Iranians, Libyans, Pakistanis, and the people who brought condos in this half-built complex in the desert outside Dubai, 7,300 miles away from Antigua. Its website advertised, “Buy a villa in the UAE and get citizenship of Antigua.”
As stated above, Antigua doesn’t release the names of passport buyers but the local press has reported that a Chinese businessman named Xiao Jianhua — who has been described as ” a kind of banker to the [Chinese] ruling class” — obtained a large number of passports after investing in the West Indies Oil Company, a historically corrupt firm long owned by a Swiss financier named Bruce Rappaport (deceased since 2010).
What’s especially curious is that no one knows where Xiao is. He was picked up by Chinese authorities during a visit to Hong Kong over a year ago and hasn’t been seen since. Another wealthy Chinese businessman reportedly received Antigua passports after promising to make massive investments in the country — originally announced right before the previous election won by Browne and used to good PR advantage — including a resort project. The investor’s company was also given its own Special Economic Zone, where it has extraordinary power to run its operations unfettered.
Overall, more than half of applicants for Antigua passports have come from China, according to this story, and the program reportedly brings in about 25 percent of the government’s budget.
Dominica is also heavily implicated in the passport sales program, but it has allegedly sold diplomatic passports (as opposed to economic passports, or the citizenship by investment programs in most of the countries). Among those who have been found with Dominica passports are a suspected Italian money launderer and a former Nigerian oil minister implicated in a bribery scandal.
I asked a former U.S. official why Washington hasn’t done much about the passport sales scandals. This person, who spoke off the record, said that it’s basically U.S. policy to ignore problems in the Caribbean, and to turn a blind eye to corruption, for fear of creating instability in a friendly region and because the U.S. has received so much political cooperation from local leaders in Caribbean that it let’s a lot of things slide.
U.S. law enforcement had found multiple cases of Caribbean political figures carrying large sums of cash into Miami but were directly told not to make arrests in those cases. Instead, this person said, officials were told to inform the figures not to do it again but otherwise take no action.