An Anti-CSME Conspiracy or Democracy At Work?

First Published: 2005-04-27

A massive political conspiracy has been exposed!

Foreign Minister Fred Mitchell has confirmed that the plotters are engaged in a "coordinated disinformation and propaganda campaign" against the Caribbean Single Market & Economy.

And he was surprised that discussion on the CSME was still ongoing, since the government had already "answered all the questions". So there must be a deliberate attempt to create political fissures where there are none, he charged.

Well, exactly what issue would qualify for a genuine political battle in Mr Mitchell's mind? Perhaps it would be the mundane changes to gender and inheritance rights that the PLP leadership first agreed to and then opposed in a referendum called by the former prime minister? But apparently, membership in a regional union with the power to change our way of doing business does not qualify as a bone of contention.

One senses that Mr Mitchell is fighting to contain himself in an effort to appear ministerial. On the one hand he calls for enlightened discussion, but on the other he accuses those who disagree of being liars and fools. But enough about that; this is not one of those personal attacks.

As we have previously noted, both major parties have been quietly going along with Caricom initiatives to create the CSME since 1989, without really telling us. It was a sort of creeping regionalisation…signing on to agreements that we knew nothing about, but that would have little immediate impact. Just going with the flow.

In return, our politicos and civil servants got to attend lots of regional meetings and enjoy international protocol and VIP treatment. And, with the support of our colleagues down south, we could all feel more secure in our dealings with the great white north.

But since the Foreign Ministry began its "public education" campaign this year, Bahamians have finally begun to focus on what the CSME might actually mean for us. One of the key imponderables of this whole issue is our schizophrenia toward the outside world, which the government has done little to treat.

We want tourism and foreign investment, but take every opportunity to blame foreigners, particularly white ones, for our own shortcomings.

We talk incessantly about meeting competitive threats, but can't be bothered to reconstruct our failing education system.

We recoil from a firestorm over relaxing immigration controls in the financial sector, but say there is no need to be concerned about West Indians setting up businesses here.

We consider Bahamianisation to be our crowning achievement, yet tell voters (who know better) that work permits are now freely available to anyone.

We enthuse over a shared colonial experience with our southern neighbours, but despise the immigrants in our midst.

We declare our grand geopolitical interests, but decline to engage on the one issue that means the most to us – Haitian instability – because it is not glamorous enough.

We pay lip service to globalisation, yet throw up every bureaucratic, racial and political barrier we can to the outside world.

And now, to cap it all off, we are being told that there is nothing to be concerned about with opening up to the wider Caribbean. There is no issue. It is a trivial affair – a dead letter. So why are we so anxious to sign on?

Well, since our prime minister has nothing to say on this matter. Here's what St Lucia Premier Dr Kenny Anthony told his people about the CSME last year:

Free Movement of Goods

Goods produced in the CARICOM region will not be subject to import duties, tariff and quantitative restrictions in any member state. That means our producers and manufacturers will now be able to sell their products more easily in the regional market. Greater penetration of the regional market by Saint Lucian entrepreneurs will lead to greater economic activity here at home.

Free Movement of Capital

Our people will now have the right to move capital from one member state to another, to invest in any member state, to buy shares in companies in any member state without having to obtain permission or having to be subject to restrictive requirements. A wider capital market will now be available for our businessmen to raise funds for investment. In other words, businessmen will be able to raise loans in Barbados or Trinidad & Tobago if better rates of interest are offered in those islands…Our nationals will now have the right to acquire land, and other property in any CARICOM state without the restrictions that currently exist. Nationals of other Caricom states will have similar rights in Saint Lucia.

Free Movement of People

This has already involved the removal of work permits across the region for university graduates and media workers. It will be extended to musicians, sportspersons, artists, other skilled service providers, businessmen, self-employed persons, thereby allowing such persons to be employed in any member state. Procedures are already in place to recognize degrees and certificates. The free movement of persons will, in time, be facilitated by a common travel document that will do away with the current hassles that many CARICOM nationals now encounter when travelling through the region. St. Lucian graduates who are unable to find employment in Saint Lucia can now move freely to another Caricom country in search of employment. Likewise, graduates from other islands will be entitled to seek employment here in St. Lucia. We have to put our dislikes and prejudices aside.

No Discrimination

Under the CSME, we cannot discriminate in favour of our local people. We have to treat Caricom businessmen and companies the same way we treat our businessmen and companies. So, for example, we cannot compel CARICOM companies to obtain a trade licence to do business in Saint Lucia if we do not require Saint Lucian businesses to obtain a trade licence. Likewise, we cannot exempt locally produced or manufactured goods from taxes and charge taxes on CARICOM goods. All domestic and CARICOM products must be treated identically. While these arrangements will present a challenge to our local entrepreneurs to be competitive, opportunities will also abound.

Although our government says it will exempt us temporarily from the free movement of people provision, this is clearly one of the key planks of the agreement and will likely be implemented in the future. The free movement of goods is meaningless to us since we are not producers and don't trade with the Caribbean anyway. And we could effect the free movement of capital overnight by administrative measures alone.

Some spokesmen have criticised the government for not producing an impact study on what CSME membership would mean. All we have are glib assurances that the matter is of no consequence. And the more glib these assurances become, the more we should be inclined to take a contrary view.

One commentator has pointed out that neither the Cayman Islands nor Bermuda intend to join the CSME (although they are currently associate members of Caricom). And they are doing quite well for themselves. What we really need is a vision from our government as to what our future place in the world will be. And it does not necessarily have to lie with the CSME.

According to one Bermuda parliamentarian: "When you join a club, you are held accountable for the actions of that club. The most important foreign policy is economic diplomacy, and we can't afford to send ambiguous messages to those partners where we spend a lot of our business, particularly the US, the UK, and Europe. We cannot afford to subordinate our economic interests to Caricom's."

The position of the FNM in all this is somewhat ambivalent. They allowed the process to go forward during their time in office and still officially support efforts to promote regional integration. However, the opposition's current policy calls for more treaty reservations than Mr Mitchell has proposed – including the free movement of people, services and capital.

Former economic affairs minister Zhivago Laing says the government has already made a secret decision to sign on to the CSME at this summer's Caricom Heads of Government conference. Minister Mitchell says a White Paper will be prepared soon for parliament to approve, and that a referendum is unlikely to be held.

Some argue that the bureaucratic costs alone should be enough to urge caution with respect to the CSME. And the prospect of political and ideological entanglements that we neither want nor can afford should be a further restraint.

Our view is that this issue is of such importance and carries such potential hazards that it requires a genuine national debate, followed by a referendum – in the same way that the European Union countries are voting on their new regional constitution.

That would be the democratic way to handle things.

THE EFFIE KNOWLES LAND GRAB

Recently, we looked at the life and legacy of Effie Knowles, a Florida lawyer of Bahamian descent who died in 1984 at the age of 92.

Although renowned for settling a celebrated land claim against the US government on behalf of the Seminole Indians, Effie's claim to more than 15,000 acres on several Bahamian islands has generated enormous controversy. Some describe It as "the biggest land fraud in our history".

The various properties – on Long Island, Eleuthera, Rum Cay, Andros, and Cat Island, as well as about a dozen prime lots on New Providence – have become a subject of intense dispute amongst attorneys, realtors and developers…involving court cases in both Florida and the Bahamas.

All of this is rich with irony, in view of Effie's efforts over many years to reclaim land taken from the Indians. According to local lawyer Bill Holowesko (who has spent years doing title research), the origin of Effie's 'estate' dates to the 1960s, when Holowesko worked for arch realtor H. G. Christie.

"Effie came into our office one day with a list of properties around the country that she claimed to own," he told Tough Call recently. "She had gone to the registry and simply copied all the crown grants to people in her family tree. This list keeps reappearing"

Effie was born in Florida, but her mother, Julia Dorsett, was born in the Bahamas and went to Key West as a child. There she married an American named William E. Knowles – whose father (James Alexander Knowles II) was born on Long Island in 1839 and moved to Key West.

Effie's father, William, died in 1904 in Key West. But his great great grandfather was James Knowles Sr, a planter who received crown grants on Long Island before he died in 1805.

Effie's maternal grandparents were Laura Nairn and Joseph B Dorsett, a salt raker on Rum Cay. Joseph's grandfather was George Dorsett, who was posted to the Bahamas by the Royal Navy from Charleston, South Carolina and died in 1783 after receiving land grants in the southern islands.

Complex chains of title have been built up from this genealogy. But since neither Effie nor her father were Bahamian, experts say she may well have forfeited any land claims by failing to pay property taxes.

"There is no doubt about the crown grants, but lots of things could have happened along the way," Holowesko said. "I told HG that she didn't own a lot of this land and he never agreed to buy anything."

The fraud charges arise from Effie's conveyance of all her Bahamian properties shortly before her death to two Americans- Raymond and Merril MacDonald. Effie never married, and some say that towards the end of her life, she rewarded the MacDonald father and son team for looking after her.

In 1987, soon after her will was probated, the MacDonalds sold Effie's property to a Bahamian company called Newport Harbour Limited set up by Bill Davis, a former state senator from Arizona, and Nassau lawyer Dawson Roberts. The price was only $180,000 for over 15,000 acres on several islands.

But meanwhile, the MacDonalds, began re-selling the estate. Many of these transactions started out with conveyances for large chunks of land at nominal prices, which the Public Treasury has accepted although realtors say they are gross under-valuations, assuming good title.

For example, just two years ago the MacDonalds conveyed 2000 acres at Rum Cay for $128,000 or $64 per acre. One-acre lots on the water at Rum Cay are selling for $100,000. And this property – together with everything else that Effie Knowles owned in the Bahamas – has apparently already been sold to Newport Harbour.

And the moral of this story? All that glitters is not gold.

The views expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of the Nassau Institute (which has no corporate view), or its Advisers or Directors.

This article was first published in The Tribune on Wednesday, April 27,2005.

The column 'Tough Call' by Larry Smith is published in The Tribune every Wednesday and is reprinted here as a courtesy. Mr. Smith founded and successfully grew an advertising agency over 20 years. Under his direction Media Enterprises diversified into short-run commercial printing and publishing, and is now the largest non-fiction book wholesaler in the Bahamas. He has 30 years experience as a journalist and publicist and has contributed numerous articles and columns to the Bahamian press. A former reporter at the Nassau Guardian, local correspondent for Reuters and editor at the Bahamas News Bureau, he conceived and edited the Bahama Almanac (published 2000 by Media Enterprises), wrote the commentary for Mike Toogood's Portrait of an Archipelago (published 2004 by Macmillan Caribbean), and edited the Bahamas Environmental Handbook (published 2002 by the government). In 2003 he took a year's leave of absence from Media Enterprises to lead a transition management team at the Nassau Guardian after the paper was acquired by local investors. After leaving the Guardian he was contracted by the Tribune as online manager/editor and columnist. He has a degree in political science and journalism from the University of Miami. Mr. Smith can be contacted at: larry@tribunemedia.net

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