ST. GEORGE'S, Grenada (AP) -- Grenada announced Wednesday that it intends to revive a program that will essentially allow investors from across the globe to buy citizenship on the sparsely-populated Caribbean island known for its beaches and spice-scented forests.
The strategy is part of a growing trend in the Caribbean to drum up much-needed revenue on tiny islands struggling with massive public debt. The nearby islands of Dominica and St. Kitts & Nevis allow investors to secure local citizenship in return for a healthy contribution or real estate investment. Cash-strapped Antigua & Barbuda is planning on launching its own program this year.
The Grenada "government will soon introduce a citizenship-by-investment program. Such programs have existed for a long time in many developed and developing countries," said Governor General Carlyle Glean during his ceremonial speech at the Wednesday opening of Parliament.
"Investor visa" or citizenship programs are offered by many nations, including the U.S. and Britain. But the Caribbean countries offer a very fast path to citizenship at a very low cost and the whole process, including background checks, can take as little as 90 days in St. Kitts. Plus, there's no need to ever live on the islands, or even visit.
Grenada's program will require approval by the legislature, which is controlled by the ruling New National Party of newly re-elected Prime Minister Keith Mitchell. Glean said the government is "committed to bring appropriate legislation to Parliament for this program within its first year in office." In the meantime, officials will review other nations' citizenship-by-investment programs and decide the best way forward.
Mitchell, whose party won all of the island's 15 constituencies after trouncing the former ruling party in February elections, had previously hinted that he planned to revive a citizenship-for-cash program that was suspended after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks due to fears that local passports could mistakenly be sold to terrorists.
For about three years before it was suspended in October 2001, Grenada sold passports to investors for roughly $40,000. But Grenadian authorities quickly said the practice was too risky after the deadly attacks in the U.S. At that time, Grenada had also been placed on an international blacklist of countries considered uncooperative in fighting money laundering. It was removed from the blacklist in 2002.
Bernard Wiltshire, a former Dominica attorney general who is a prominent critic of the Caribbean's economic citizenship programs, said he was disappointed in Grenada's decision and believed Caribbean leaders who opt to sell citizenship had run out of decent ideas.
"The present crop of Caribbean leaders is among the most unimaginative group of leaders in the world," Wiltshire said Wednesday. "What they are doing with these citizenship programs at the moment is going to prepare the ground for great problems later on with our larger, powerful neighbors. And this is apart from the fact they are endangering, in my view, the long-term security and safety of the Caribbean islands."
Various critics say the revenue-boosting programs have security risks. While there are no known cases of terrorists using the islands' programs, experts say that's a possibility with many visa arrangements anywhere.
James Smith, an economist who is researching immigration issues for the nonprofit RAND Corporation, said the Caribbean programs may eventually undermine the integrity of national passports if there are significant problems.
"I suspect that one unintended consequence to the Caribbean countries down the line if there is trouble is that the Caribbean passports would get devalued in the sense that visa requirements for all those who hold the passports would become more stringent," he said in an email.
St. Kitts & Nevis' citizenship-by-investment program has been operational since 1984 and a national passport provides visa-free travel to 139 countries, including all of the European Union. A foreigner can qualify with a $250,000 donation or with a real estate investment of $400,000. Antigua is hoping to emulate St. Kitts' flourishing program. Meanwhile, Dominica's passport offers travel without a visa to more than 50 countries and costs $100,000.
Linda Straker reported from St. George's, Grenada; David McFadden reported from Kingston, Jamaica.