ST JOHN’S –– Expressions of anxiety, shock, anger and frustration were expressed yesterday as news broke that citizens of Antigua & Barbuda will require visas to travel to Canada as of 5:30 a.m. today. And like many residents, the main opposition United Progressive Party (UPP) has already blamed the Gaston Browne administration for the negative development.
Scores of residents who spoke out directly on OBSERVER Media Group’s social media platforms or on their own profiles, condemned the government for ignoring the warning signs as they said the new requirement has been long in coming due to numerous scandals with the Citizenship by Investment Programme (CIP) which was started in 2013 during the UPP regime.
Kimshaw Charles commented on our Facebook page, “More hardship for poor people by the hands of the greedy” while Valda Casimir wrote, “Join the line with St Kitts and Dominica. [That’s] what happens when our governments want to sell our [passports]. England will be next”, then Patrick Crawford said, “I am not surprised, it was only a matter of time” and another person commented, “This came from the last Syrian scandal.”
Political Leader of the UPP Harold Lovell agreed that the scandals forced the Canadian authorities to act with such swiftness, and added that the ruling Antigua Barbuda Labour Party (ABLP) mismanaged the CIP from the time it got into office in June 2014.
“This problem is a problem created by the reckless management of the Citizenship by Investment Programme. We have warned them about it and I will say now that immediate steps must be taken to bring the [Citizenship by Investment] Unit (CIU) in full control; control whereby we immediately look to see all those persons who are holding diplomatic passports for Antigua & Barbuda,” he urged.
Lovell pointed out that the CIU has lost two Chief Executive Officers who left abruptly and this in itself is questionable because at least one of them accused the government of trying to dictate and manipulate the body.
He then cautioned, “We need to make sure we go back to the original plan of publishing the names of persons who are granted citizenship . . . and we need to recognise that the Canadians have acted and we cannot allow the Europeans to now require that Antiguans and Barbudans require visas to enter Europe because that will be the next step.”
Lovell said no one should blame the CIU managers since, according to him, they were side-lined by the government when they took decisions or were advised not to grant citizenship to certain CIP applicants.
He said the primary purpose for the UPP embarking on CIP was to stimulate economic investment which would have created jobs for locals, as opposed to simply “selling” passports.
Prime Minister Gaston Browne on the other hand said he would not blame the development on the UPP for introducing the CIP since it is something he too has supported from the onset and further, he noted it was the only available option to raise money to take the country out of debt and to meet its financial obligations.
Browne said losing visa-free access was a risk the country knew it was taking when it embarked on implementing the CIP.
He said, “As the new government, I don’t know that we could give up $150 million a year in order to maintain that visa free access.”
The prime minister noted it was an aberration that Antigua & Barbuda enjoyed visa free access to Canada since, out of the 14 CARICOM nations, only the Bahamas and Barbados continue to have that luxury.
Canada has long removed such access to all other countries within the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) and PM Browne said he does not expect this visa-free fallout to negatively impact the CIP.
He premised the conclusion on the fact that Dominica, which also has a citizenship by investment programme, has been making twice as much money as Antigua from the programme without visa-free access to Canada.
He also confirmed a meeting with Canadian officials, which many of his colleagues denied over the weekend when OBSERVER media first heard of the development and began making enquiries.
“So, we met with them last week and the good thing about it is they have been working with us to make sure there is no fallout for individuals who are about to travel. They will go at the top of the pack to make sure they get the necessary visa requirements,” he said.
The prime minister revealed he has actually been having talks with recently elected Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, and his predecessor Stephen Harper, for the past three years, in an effort to delay the end to visa free travel for locals going to Canada.
He said that unlike what obtains for visas for the United States, Canada has been more generous.
This was confirmed in a statement from the Communications Branch, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, which indicated, “Canada continues to welcome visitors from Antigua and Barbuda. Most approved visa applicants will receive a multiple-entry visa, which allows travellers to visit Canada as many times as they want, for up to ten years. For each visit, travellers can stay for up to six months.”
The prime minister said his administration has “done its best” in trying to preserve the relationship with Canada. And, he said if the CIP becomes inviable in the future, it would be discontinued and efforts would be made to get the Canadians to remove the requirement for visas for Antiguans and Barbudans.
He also added that he would not be surprised if the UK or Europe decide to take the same stance and “we just have to take it one day at a time”.