The High Price of ‘Citizenship by Investment’ in the Caribbean

In a bid to receive more foreign direct investment (FDI), an increasing number of Caribbean countries are launching citizenship-by-investment programs (CIP) that allow foreign nationals to essentially pay …

Antigua & Barbuda’s new citizenship by investment program will help raise FDI from BRIC countries, South Africa and Eastern Europe, says Dr. McChesney Emanuel.

In a bid to receive more foreign direct investment (FDI), an increasing number of Caribbean countries are launching citizenship-by-investment programs (CIP) that allow foreign nationals to essentially pay for passports and the travel and tax perks that come with them. St. Kitts & Nevis and Dominica are home to long-standing CIPs, while Grenada and Antigua & Barbuda have recently launched new programs and St. Lucia is now considering doing the same.

Outside of the Caribbean, countries such as Belize, Brazil, Cyprus, Ireland, Malta and Panama all run CIPs, while Australia, Belgium, Portugal, Singapore, Spain the UK and the US offer temporary residence permits or “golden visas” granted to wealthy individuals in return for investment. Applicants can often receive permanent residency through such schemes by sustaining their investment through a period of two to five years, but the aforementioned Caribbean nations typically offer cheaper and almost immediate routes to full citizenship in exchange for a one-off investment. In St. Kitts & Nevis, for example, the entire process, including background checks, takes as little as 90 days.

Most countries withhold official data regarding the number of people who have become citizens through CIPs or the amount of FDI recouped, but Henley and Partners estimate that such schemes generate US$2 billion a year worldwide. Unsurprisingly, cash-strapped Caribbean countries that are often overly reliant on tourism have been quick to take notice.

Perks of Dual Citizenship

Aside from the right to work, vote and own property in their adopted country, CIPs can also enhance applicants’ rights to visa-free travel and provide access to financial opportunities and tax havens. Such schemes have proven particularly popular with people of Chinese, Russia and Middle Eastern origin, who may be seeking to escape political or economic turmoil in their native countries or simply do away with the frustrating time delays and complications they encounter when seeking to enter western countries for legitimate business reasons.

However, as they have become more common, CIPs have come under increasing scrutiny in recent years. Concerns have been raised about a lack of transparency and accountability, with critics contending that greater regulation and more stringent checks are necessary in order to prevent abuses of the system. Grenada, Belize, and Ireland have all suspended CIPs in the past after revelations of these programs’ misuse, while the U.S. government – which has grown concerned that individuals and businesses can use such programs to evade economic sanctions – has reportedly established a new inter-agency task force alongside the British authorities in order to investigate any allegations of sanctions-busting.

St. Lucia Mulls a CIP

Earlier this year the St. Lucian government appointed a task force to assess the pros and cons of establishing a CIP. The task force will submit a report by December 1 determining if – and under which circumstances – citizenship should be offered in return for financial investment. “Our intention is to broaden the scope of incentives offered to investors to make St Lucia more attractive as an investment location,” said Governor General Pearlette Louisy, while Prime Minister Kenny Anthony told reporters that the program would help the country overcome ongoing economic troubles. Such an initiative could attract “the brightest and wealthiest people” to St. Lucia, noted Allen Chastanet, leader of the opposition United Workers Party (UWP). Ultimately, the pros and cons of the CIPs run in four of St. Lucia’s Caribbean neighbors will likely be central to the debate over whether to adopt such a program.

St. Kitts & Nevis

The dual-island nation of St. Kitts and Nevis is home to the world’s oldest CIP, founded in 1984. There are two means of gaining citizenship: making a non-refundable US$250,000 donation to the St. Kitts & Nevis Sugar Industry Diversification Foundation, a public charity, or investing a minimum of US$400,000 in real estate on the islands.Around 3,000 to 5,000 of St. Kitts & Nevis’ 45,000 nationals are thought to have gained citizenship through the scheme.Approval takes about three months and provides a wealth of benefits, including citizenship for life, a valid passport, visa-free travel to 139 countries and certain tax exemptions.

However, the program was singled out by the U.S. Treasury in May for facilitating financial crime. The Treasury warned that “illicit actors are abusing this program to acquire SKN (St. Kitts & Nevis) citizenship in order to mask their identity and geographic background for the purpose of evading U.S. or international sanctions or engaging in other financial crime.” The Treasury specifically warned that several Iranian nationals designated by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) had obtained passports issued through the program, despite the St. Kitts and Nevis government suspending Iranians from participating in the scheme in December 2011, shortly after Iranian students had stormed the British Embassy in Tehran. Iranians had previously been a major source of applicants.

Antigua & Barbuda

Another dual-island nation, Antigua & Barbuda introduced a CIP modeled on that of St. Kitts & Nevis late last year. The economic requirements are almost identical: a US$250,000 investment in a national development fund, a US$400,000 real estate investment or US$1.5 million in a government-approved business. In return, investors receive a passport that entitles them to visa-free travel to over 115 countries, including the UK, France and Canada. “If you look at St. Kitts they’ve been doing quite well over the last 20 years and the main reason for that is that they have a citizenship for investment program,” Dr. McChesney Emanuel, of the board of management of the Antigua and Barbuda Investment Authority (ABIA), told Nearshore Americas.

“Traditionally we’ve got a lot of foreign direct investment from North America and Europe. However because of the financial crisis of the last four of five years and because of the growth we’ve seen in Brazil, Russia, India and China, and in other big markets like South Africa and some of the Eastern European countries, we believe that these are emerging markets are places that we should be looking to support our FDI inflows,” Emanuel added. The advantages of citizenship, such as visa-free travel, hold greater appeal for natives of these countries than they would for North Americans or Europeans, and the local authorities are convinced that the program will “bolster the country’s competitiveness in terms of attracting foreign direct investment,” Emanuel said.

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Grenada

Once home to one of the world’s most controversial CIPs, Grenada used to charge investors just US$40,000 for citizenship. However, the program was scrapped shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks due to fears that local passports could mistakenly be sold to terrorists, crooks or conmen. The program was also linked to allegations of government corruption and Grenada was placed on an international blacklist of countries considered uncooperative in fighting money laundering. It was removed from the blacklist after closing its CIP in 2002.

Grenada reintroduced a CIP last year, but application is now by invitation only. “The mission of the Citizenship-by-Investment program is to strengthen Grenada by creating economic growth through inward investment, leading to the creation of sustainable new long new employment opportunities for Grenadians, training of the workforce and the broadening of skills; at the same time preserving the prestige, honour and value of Grenadian citizenship through a strict invitation and vetting process,” the government website states. Interested parties can contact Authorised Marketing Agents to find out if they are eligible. They must then submit to a background check which can take a number of weeks, depending on factors such as their existing citizenship, business and professional interests and previous places of residence.

Benefits of Grenadian citizenship include visa-free travel to over 110 countries, including the UK.The E2 treaty ‘Investor Visa’ for Grenada citizens also allows successful applicants to operate a substantial business in the United States and reside therein. Applicants are required to make a real estate investment of US$500,000 in Grenada’s Mount Cinnamon resort or the Port Louis maritime village. Such investments entitle them to financial advantages related to income tax and capital gains tax. Moreover, in comparison with other CIPs in the Caribbean, a higher percentage of the total cash outlay is invested in property instead of being expended in non-recoverable costs.

Dominica

The tiny Caribbean island of Dominica is by far the world’s cheapest place to buy citizenship. Its CIP has proven so popular that an estimated 3,000 of its 71,000 inhabitants acquired citizenship by investment. In return for an investment of US$100,000, plus some additional fees, applicants will receive passports for this Commonwealth nation – which provide citizens with special privileges in the UK and facilitate visa-free travel to over 50 countries –dual citizenship and a largely tax-free existence.  Applicants must pass an in-person interview on the island, but experts warn that because the interview committee meets only once a month it can take anywhere from five to 14 months to receive a Dominican passport.

Like Grenada’s CIP, Dominica’s program has encountered some international resistance. Canada imposed visa requirements on Dominica citizens a decade ago after complaining that suspected criminals had used island passports, while in 2010 the UK said it was considering introducing visa requirements for Dominicans. This prompted the island to review its 20-year-old CIP, although it never publicly released the results of its review and the UK ultimately took no action.

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