HOW Caribbean governments handle foreign investments has always been a matter of interest or concern, especially when they’re out of sync with new national perspectives.
Normally, political parties post investment policies in pre-election manifestos that are followed by investors and their agents, always on the hunt for most-favourable concessions from new governments.
But sweet deals for big projects looking too good to be true often turn sour after elections, especially in cases of regime change and where investors were given most-favoured treatment by losing former-ruling parties.
Take this week’s case of the new (six-month-old) Saint Lucia government revoking several controversial leases awarded to a Canadian company by the previous administration, which effectively barred public access through its property to several popular beaches located at the island’s northern tip.
The ban led to defiant gatherings at the affected beach sites by protesting citizens, who adopted as their theme the regionally popular song by Barbados’ Mighty Gabby named ‘Jack’, slightly adapting its lyrics to say: ‘The beach is mine, I can go there anytime; Doh care what Cabot say, I can go there any day!’
Minister for Physical Development, Stephenson King, on February 2 announced the current Cabinet had rescinded Cabot’s 75-year leases, with saying, “We have examined the factors and have decided that since Cabot owns all the land surrounding those beaches, public access will be restored.”
According to King, “The patrimony of this country must be preserved, protected and respected – and whereas we are fully committed to foreign investment, we believe that those who come to invest here must understand that the nation’s patrimony must be protected and respected…”
Cabot has not yet responded, but the decision was widely welcomed by Saint Lucians, many of who’ve long been up in arms against foreign-owned companies getting 100-year leases, as with another case involving thousands of acres of land in Vieux Fort, the island’s southern-most town.
Government’s enforcement of the lease enjoyed by Desert Star Holdings (DSH) – owned by high-flying Malaysian architect and property tycoon Teo Ah-khing – led to the forced departure of farmers and families who had occupied the state-owned lands for decades, to make way for an elite horse-racing track and plans to forever alter the physical landscape of the island’s entire southern tip, also affecting the Hewanorra International Airport, the town’s sea port and a nearby national hospital under construction.
DSH also promised to build an offshore collection of 26 artificial islands with new high-rise and up-market tourism and gaming activities, attracting the world’s super-rich in ways that would change the country’s entire tourism landscape and make the southern town the virtual new capital city.
Now that the Cabot leases have been rescinded in the public interest, attention is sure to turn to DSH’s 100-year lease agreement with the previous Chastanet government that were never publicised.
The Cabot deal, involving over 300 acres of prime property, was sold by the National Insurance Corporation (NIC) to the Canadian company at prices way below the going market rate, without inviting local developers to bid.
Similarly, the alleged DSH Agreement allegedly contains a penalty clause that makes Saint Lucian taxpayers liable to repay the entire US $2.8 billion the company will seek as damages, if at any time Ah-khinmg — as the sole investor and ‘Master Developer’ — decides it is no longer profitable to pursue.
Ah-khing is also the sole signatory to the escrow account for sale of Saint Lucian passports in Asia through the island’s Citizenship by Investment Programme (CIP), annual amounts of which were never tabled in Parliament during Chastanet’s five years, as required by legislation.
Yet, six months after the July 26, 2021 general elections, a copy of the DSH agreement still hasn’t been produced publicly.
The DSH approach was somewhat like that in Guyana with Barama over two decades ago, when the South Korean investors set as a condition that both Government and Opposition had to support the agreement in the National Assembly, which the post-1992 PPP/C administration, under President Cheddi Jagan, had reluctantly agreed to.
But in Saint Lucia, the DSH behaved as if it didn’t need Opposition MPs’ support, as the Prime Minister and the Cabinet of Ministers were already batting in Khing’s court.
A firm owned by a relative of the former Shah of Iran purchased the private Jalousie Estate between Saint Lucia’s twin-mountain national landmarks — The Pitons – in the 1980s, with talk about constructing an aerial tramway to connect the pitons’ peaks.
This led to strong and long protests that eventually led to the idea being scrapped.
One of the natural results of popular protests against such restrictions on nationals and giveaways of national assets is the increase in popular national consciousness about related issues.
Saint Lucia’s Cabot and DSH experiences can perhaps best be explained to Guyanese by asking that they consider what would happen if the Joe Vieira Park was sold to a foreign firm that decided citizens could no longer go there to fly kites at Easter; or if Guyanese from Essequibo were to be required to show passports on arrival at Parika by ferry, or speedboat.
Big Pharma and Big Oil have developed sophisticated methods and formulae, over centuries and decades, on how to tie poor and developing nations with undeveloped or unexploited natural resources to long-term agreements that that can turn out to be more harmful than helpful to the national interest.
But not all Caribbean governments today give in so easily to demands for concessions that recolonise the Region through new plans with the same old intent of continuing past geopolitical and economic domination in a new age of enlightenment.
The regional gubernatorial landscape has changed in favour of preserving and protecting national assets, preserving national pride and demanding respect for national patrimony, and it’s now for regional institutions already doing so to continue to tailor their policies in ways that prevent or guard against investors only interested in milking the Caribbean as a new Cash Cow in an earthly tropical Milky Way.