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Caribbean Citizenship Programmes: US media takes another critical look !

NEW YORK, USA — One year after the infamous CBS 60 Minutes piece “Passports for Sale” in January 2017, on Saturday it was NBC’s turn in a report entitled “Hurricane-hit countries slash cost of citizenship-by-investment programs”.

NBC noted that Caribbean nations ravaged by recent hurricanes are selling citizenships at dramatically discounted prices in an effort to raise emergency funds, sparking concerns that the programmes may be vulnerable to abuse.

The report pointed to past scandals involving Iranian-born individuals buying St Kitts and Nevis citizenship to evade sanctions and invest in the US, which highlight the potential vulnerabilities of the citizenship-by-investment programmes.

In 2014, St Kitts and Nevis was pressured into revoking thousands of passports after it was revealed that there was no mention of place of birth or whether the holder had changed their name on the documents — meaning applicants would have the chance to effectively create a new identity.

In February of that year, the US Department of Treasury sanctioned three Iranian nationals for evading US sanctions. All three held St Kitts and Nevis passports.

Three months later, the US issued an official warning to financial institutions that foreign “illicit actors” had obtained St Kitts and Nevis passports to evade American sanctions.

The statement said it believed that several Iranian nationals had been issued a St. Kitts and Nevis passport despite government assurances that all Iranian nationals were suspended from participating in the program.

By November, Canada had revoked St Kitts and Nevis citizens’ right to visa-free travel to the country. And the following month, St. Kitts and Nevis recalled all passports issued without the key information included.

According to NBC, some experts worry that the pressing need to pay for hurricane-relief efforts could make authorities more inclined to approve would-be citizens and result in laxer vetting practices.

“It’s fairly clear these programs are being exploited by all sorts of people with something to hide whether that be tax evaders, terror finance operatives, drug cartels or corrupt oligarchs, you name it,” said Emanuele Ottolenghi, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a right-leaning Washington, DC-based think tank. “You need cash in hand and it’s a pretty straightforward process, which doesn’t take that long.”

In September, St Kitts and Nevis set up a controversial “hurricane relief fund” that allows foreigners to contribute $150,000 in exchange for citizenship. The option, which is open until the end of March, is $100,000 cheaper than the country’s previously lowest-priced citizenship-by-investment offer.

Antigua and Barbuda then followed suit, halving its programme’s basic contribution from $200,000 to $100,000 for applicants up to and including a family of four — the most common unit.

Sir Ronald Sanders, Antigua and Barbuda’s ambassador to the US, criticized St Kitts and Nevis’ decision to cut the cost of citizenship, claiming his country had little choice but to follow suit.

“We’re depriving ourselves of revenue,” Sanders said, noting that citizenship-by-investment accounts for some 20 percent of Antigua and Barbuda’s GDP. “Dropping prices doesn’t necessarily mean you get more applicants; that’s the gamble that St Kitts took.”

Grenada also lowered the price of one its routes to citizenship, according to Henley and Partners, a consultancy firm that specializes in citizenship and residency-by-investment.

Saint Lucia and Dominica’s single-applicant investment costs both remained at $100,000.

Peter Vincent, a former Department of Homeland Security official, warned that strong background checks carried out on behalf of the Caribbean countries were essential in preventing criminals from obfuscating their true identities and obtaining passports, which could potentially allow them to use as travel documents to get to the United States.

Vincent said that during his time working for the Department of Justice in Colombia he knew that narco-traffickers and members of the FARC guerrilla group were “actively and aggressively” trying to obtain Caribbean passports to evade the law.

“The move to lower prices will undoubtedly decrease the amount of money available to conduct proper due diligence,” Vincent said.

Ottolenghi agreed that the cheaper costs raised questions: “There is a risk they will cut corners when there is less margin for revenue, potentially spending less on due diligence and investigating each case, making citizenship available to more people who shouldn’t have it.”

However, Caribbean islands and citizenship consultancy firms have dismissed concerns that the standard of background checks will slip as prices fall, pointing to the fact that there are separate due diligence fees on top of the base cost of citizenship.

“There’s been a big shift recently on the amount of emphasis they [countries] put on due diligence,” said Paul Williams, CEO of La Vida Golden Visas, a citizenship-by-investment consultancy firm.

Williams said he thought vetting was tougher than ever before in the industry.

Sanders said Antigua and Barbuda “strictly adhered” to its vetting system, which consisted of four stages, though he cautioned that there was always a chance that someone of “doubtful character” could slip through.

He added that it wasn’t in any country’s interest to sell citizenship to undesirable applicants because it could jeopardize visa-free travel arrangements with other countries — a key selling point of the citizenship program.

“If they were given to people of dubious quality or a criminal nature then the entire programme is brought into question,” he said.

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