The Bay of Secrets - From the Economics of Money Laundering to a Better Dominica
By Gabriel J. Christian, Esquire
As the clanging of the school bell at the Roseau Mixed Infant School rang out, the six- seven- and eight-year-old students poured out of their classrooms onto Cork Street. It was 3 pm on a Friday in 1969; as we ran up Cork Street, hung a right on Bath Road, passing the shiny fire engines of the Fire Brigade and the stout cut-stone walls of the Royal Dominica Police Force Headquarters, we called the "fort." Quickly now, some with brown Sebo tennis shoes and others with dusty rubber sandals we called "toeless," we turn left on Valley Road. In the distance, we see long lines of Dominicans gathering to enter the stately Dominica Botanic Gardens. It is Expo 1969, and our island's bounty and other Windward islands, such as Grenada, are on display. There are stalls with fattened goats, sheep, and calves. Heaps of oranges and grapefruits are daintily arranged, and students throng the Grenada booth, a two-story affair designed to resemble a nutmeg. The fragrance of spices and the hubbub of the industry is electric, and delighted by the cornucopia of sound, sights, and food arrayed in all their majesty; we scatter about seeking samples on display.
This is the Dominica that I knew. An island with self-government attained under Premier Edward Oliver LeBlanc in 1967 and our people self-confident that we could strive, produce and thrive. There was no secret about what made our economy hum. It was the craft workers of the blind workshop making hampers and trays. There were our farmers producing their bananas, plantains, and citrus. Our intrepid hucksters were braving the choppy waters of the Guadeloupe and Martinique channels or selling their fruits and vegetables to islanders with less fertile soil. The garments industry of Ma Baba. Sunstyle and Buy Trinee came online later.
In those days, L. Rose and Company made the famous lime juice cordial at their Bath Estate works, and there were rum distilleries at Belfast, Machoucherie, River Estate, and more. Not forgetting the Coca-Cola plant on Valley Road, the Ju-C soft drink plant next to the citrus boxing plant off the Goodwill School Savannah, and KB Cola in Pound.
With such industries in those days, the Government could derive tax income from paying its way, supplemented by loans or grants. Such inland revenue could be monitored by a public service dutifully at its tasks. Those with that charge could oversee aid or grant funds. The working man and woman, or captain of commerce, could bank at Barclays Bank, Royal Bank of Canada, or the many credit unions around the island. Dominica's National Commercial and Development Bank was not yet born, but you get the picture.
We were well on our way, though imperfect, and yet to overcome the disabilities of a colonial economy. Yet we were striving for a time of more significant income by dint of honest labour. Income could be analysed within the parameters of government audits honestly performed, tax paid, and revenue assessed. The courts worked, and those who committed "bobol" or other thievery, were fired from their jobs or jailed – not promoted, elected to office, or feted as seems so familiar in Dominica today.
Our Economy Today
Today our national economy is a shipwreck stuck on the shoals of that perverse new culture of secrecy in governance I characterise as a "bay of secrets."
The Chinese grant funds that build a hospital or road do not recycle within our economy as that country deems it fit to have most of the work done by their workers and contractors. We understand that the Chinese favour the closed grant loop that prospers their economy. But why the secrecy concerning public contracting? Why are we departing from the practice of transparency in tendering on public sector contracts? What about Government's compliance with our Procurement Act and Finance Act?
Secrecy also shrouds the whole passport sales-based economy. What of the money from Dominica passport sales? Well, that too is caught within that shipwreck marooned in the bay of secrets, with no commission of inquiry held to examine its entrails for all to see.
Indeed, while levying a lawsuit, one of Dominica's mysterious foreign-born ambassadors demanded his share of the passport sales money. In his pleadings, he revealed his fear that his portion of the money would disappear into the "Dominica Bank in Switzerland." Is there a "Dominica Bank in Switzerland?" Dominica's Minister of Finance would know about such a bank or whether monies owed to Dominica are kept overseas in offshore accounts. Tell us, Mr. Finance Minister. Tell us the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
The Minister of Finance can also tell us the following:
What agriculture and industry exist in Dominica to employ ordinary citizens so they can accumulate savings in local financial institutions?
Is it true that Government doles out cash directly to supporters and not through the Government of Dominica Department of Social Welfare?
Is it true that the Government of Dominica Audit Department's findings have not resulted in one criminal prosecution for breach of the law?
Is it true that the four billion dollars of passport monies are held in offshore accounts?
Is the billion-dollar airport project indeed given to a foreign concern without competitive bidding?
Is it true that international sanctions threaten the local banks due to concerns that Dominica is now considered a risky money laundering haven?
Why is the Government of Dominica not interested in a commission of inquiry into allegations that the passport sales programme is mired in money laundering?
Are the monies that fund the Government of Dominica Housing Revolution lodged in local banks?
Dominicans have a right to get answers to all the above questions. Absent such answers, and corrective actions, our financial system will collapse.
No More Secrecy
We should no longer allow the Government to operate shrouded in secrecy. However, where money laundering becomes commonplace in any economy, it destroys the rule of law. Regular commercial banks are rendered useless or sidelined. Financial transactions are layered to cover up the true origin of funds. The standard banking system, with checks and balances, diminishes in importance. Cash changes hands without any regulatory oversight. Indeed, the apparatus of the state is hollowed out by enablers of crime, and regular commerce suffers. Such suffering is occasioned by those who avoid taxes and have access to dirty money. The money laundering economy taints all it touches. It corrupts the police and civil service, creating an economy ruled by shadowy figures and gangsters. The disappearance of international banks in recent times is a warning sign.
Forty-four years ago, in 1978, we embarked on political independence from Britain to seek and do better. Forty-four years later, the ship of state operates in the dark, stuck on the rocks in the Bay of Secrets. May our hopes for honest, accountable, and transparent governance be realised before the ship of state sinks into that sea of inequity. To be swallowed up by such a sea of inequity is the fate of irresponsible nations and people lacking commitment to honest, productive, and patriotic duty. Where we do solemn duty to better Dominica, we shall enter the bay of bountiful beauty and better and leave behind the horrid days of the bay of secrets. All is not lost. There is much we can do where we honestly harness our native talent and trust each other by working together. In so doing, we can revive our agriculture and industry. Indeed, we can rejuvenate our beloved homeland.
We must have an open, transparent, and productive economy worthy of our native intelligence.
Our history teaches that we can do better than we are doing now.
On December 27, 2001 - twenty-one years ago this year - we gathered Dominicans at home and abroad to build Dominica. Hundreds of Dominican artists, scientists, workers, farmers and other professionals met at Brooklyn Marriott for the first-ever Dominica Diaspora in the Development Process Symposium. The Rosie Douglas Foundation and the Dominica Academy of Arts & Sciences organised the gathering. We believed that it was the duty of Dominicans to build Dominica. One proposal from that Dominica Diaspora development summit was founding a Dominica International Bank of Commerce and Finance. The idea was that the thousands of Dominicans overseas could deposit a portion of their foreign exchange income into such a bank.
Such an effort would require something other than fly-by-night pirates, mysterious ambassadors, or passport sales. It would be strictly Dominicans, and friends of Dominica, doing for self and earning/nation-building while doing so. With 50,000 Dominicans and their descendants overseas, if we got 10% of that overseas population to join at USD 10,000 in one year, we could raise USD 50 million. Those funds would be invested into information technology, tourism, light industry, water industry, agriculture, fisheries and advanced science-based enterprises. The host for our first meeting was Dr. Sherman Severin, the eminent Dominica-born mathematician/physicist. He hosted the DIBFC working group at his home on Bainbridge Island outside Seattle, Washington, on September 9-10, 2001. That group included economist Dr. Thomson Fontaine, attorney Alick Lawrence and former National Bank Manager Lambert Lewis. Despite our best efforts, Dominica's Government never gave us a license. After much delay, they said the application was lost. Dr. Severin, a scientist who worked on advanced materials for Boeing and was involved in the base materials from which the Intel Chip evolved, has since died. What a missed opportunity! Yet, the viability of such a bank remains. Where we can focus on wise cooperation among our people at home and abroad and not merely view the Diaspora as a platform for cheap electioneering, we can advance such worthy initiatives as DIBFC. It is by such efforts we shall rise.
Let us earnestly turn towards each other and not seek to devour each other like ravenous wolves. Enough with the jailings of opposition leaders, a perverse new culture of gun-slinging, bogus charges, and government secrecy. Let us build anew.
The choice is ours to make.