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Criminals Turn to Buying Citizenship

November 14, 1999

ROSEAU, Dominica (AP) _ In a rapidly globalizing world, some Caribbean islands are discovering a new business: selling ``economic citizenships.″

For about $50,000, a legal passport _ under a new name, perhaps _ can be had in as little as three weeks.

The government of Dominica advertises its ``economic citizenship program″ as a ``passport to paradise″ _ a not inaccurate description of the lush, mountainous island dotted with waterfalls, hot springs and black volcanic beaches.

But critics, led by Washington, say it is a racket that attracts criminals, be they corrupt officials from the former Soviet Union or tax evaders from the United States.

``Offshore financial centers and ‘economic citizenships’ granted by some Caribbean nations are being exploited by international criminals to conceal their identities and their illicit financial gains,″ said Emilia Puma, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Barbados, which is responsible for relations with states in the eastern Caribbean. ``These nations become safe havens for fugitives.″

The Caribbeans argue the citizenship programs bring in capital at a time when their fragile economies are being battered by globalization, especially a successful U.S. challenge to Europe’s preferential terms for Caribbean bananas _ Dominica’s biggest source of foreign income.

In a report in March, the U.S. State Department for the first time cited economic citizenship as an impediment to fighting international crime. It said Dominica had reportedly sold citizenships to up to 300 Russians, ``increasing suspicions of Russian money-laundering″ on the island.

Dominica’s finance minister, Julius Timothy, said the government has stopped granting citizenship to Russians.

But he defended selling a citizenship this year to Christopher Skase, Australia’s most wanted fugitive, who sought to avoid extradition from Spain by becoming a citizen of this former British colony.

Skase fled to Spain eight years ago after the collapse of his Qintex media, hotel and resort empire left him with corporate debts of almost $1 billion. He reportedly carried $6.5 million in cash, art and antiques.

In an interview, Timothy insisted Skase ``isn’t a criminal _ he’s a fugitive.″

It’s impossible to say how many people have taken advantage of the Caribbean citizenship programs, because not all cases are done openly.

Dominica officially has about 1,000 economic citizens, with fewer than 100 actually living on the island, Timothy said. But he admitted that more may have been issued by renegade officials like an ex-police officer caught in Canada with dozens of blank passports.

Grenada, farther south, says it has 250 economic citizens.

Timothy said the Caribbean states got the idea from countries like the United States, Canada, Ireland and Australia, which offer ``investor visas.″

``It’s the same thing,″ said Timothy. ``Only we ask for $50,000 and the Americans for a million.″

American officials say that applicants for U.S. citizenship are carefully screened and that the United States does not offer instant citizenship.

The U.S. program applies to approved people who invest $1 million in a business employing at least 10 people or $500,000 in designated economically depressed areas. In two years, the investor can apply for permanent residence, and then must wait five more years to apply for citizenship.

``It gives foreign investors the opportunity to earn an immigrant visa by putting their own capital at risk and creating jobs in the United States,″ said Russell Bergeron, a spokesman for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Dominica was one of the first countries in the Caribbean to invite economic citizens in 1992, targeting people in Asia at a time when Hong Kong residents were nervous about the British colony’s impending handover to China in 1997.

Today, St. Kitts and Nevis, Grenada and Belize all have citizenship programs. Experts say passports also are available from other Caribbean countries, including the Dominican Republic and Antigua and Barbuda.

While a Dominican citizenship costs $50,000, St. Kitts’ goes for $200,000.

Few of the economic citizens who live in Dominica _ most from China and Taiwan _ would agree to an interview.

One identified himself as Victor _ ``a new name to match my new country″ _ and said he was a 32-year-old construction engineer from China. He would not answer questions about how a young engineer in communist China could save $100,000 to buy Dominican citizenship for his family.

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