A sea change in the Caribbean – Arthur goes

Introduction

In a dramatic message, one of Barbados’ most successful prime ministers and perhaps a driving force behind the Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME), was told unequivocally by voters this week – time for a change. Despite an enviable record of achievement over the last thirteen years, Prime Minister Owen Arthur’s Barbados Labour Party lost overwhelmingly to the Democratic Labour Party in what Guyanese journalist Dr Rickey Singh referred to as the mother of all elections.

A television journalist who comes from Arthur’s constituency on a post-elections panel discussion broadcast across the Caribbean was visibly emotional as she expressed a mixture of shock and disappointment at the loss of a Prime Minister who had won respect and admiration from his fellow Barbadians, the Caribbean people and their leaders and the international community as a straight-talking, competent leader.

Arthur championed not only the case for his country but the cause of CARICOM, and came to the defence of Guyanese after some popular anti-Guyanese rhetoric from that country’s press. His government’s loss at the polls – he himself won his constituency by a margin of two to one – at the very least will impact on the progress of the CSME and it places a huge responsibility and opportunity on the other regional leaders to keep the momentum going.

Courage

Perhaps it was his years in Jamaica where as an economist and a committed Caribbean nationalist, he worked in Economic Planning with the Michael Manley government and as Director of the Jamaica Bauxite Institute in the late eighties before returning to Barbados where he practised his trade as an economist, later turning his attention to politics. At home he is credited with having saved the Barbados dollar from devaluation against the wishes of many, including the international financial institutions and critics. They argued that with Barbados inflation running above the rate in the US, it was foolhardy to retain theoretical parity with the US dollar. It was that act of courage, defiance and the national pride in the ‘strength’ of the Barbados dollar (US$1 = B$2) that won him such admiration from his people. Equally importantly he ensured that the economy did not falter in the wake of 9/11 when the fear of flying gripped Americans and threatened the tourism sector – one of the pillars of the country’s economy. His defence of the Barbados dollar might have appeared like grass-roots economics, but the economy performed so well that unemployment reduced from over 20% in 1994 to 7% in 2007.

During that time the standard of living and the quality of life in Barbados have improved continuously and that country tops all the other Caribbean countries in the United Nations Human Development Index. For a small country with not a great amount of natural resources Barbados annoys its critics with the efficiency with which it operates, and significantly successive governments have managed to cultivate among Barbadians a consensus on national values and aspirations.

Legacy

The substantial progress made with the CSME is no doubt part of former Prime Minister Arthur’s legacy – removing restrictions on the movement of people, businesses and capital around the Caribbean. It is not the fault of Mr Arthur or President Jagdeo or indeed that hobby-horse Caricom that some of the region’s businesspersons are still reluctant to capitalize on the opportunities offered by the single market. The Trinidad business community has had no such reservations, and their operations are now evident across the region in several sectors, including finance and banking, (Republic Bank and RBTT), manufacturing and distribution (Trinidad Cement, Carib Beer, soft drinks, biscuits) and hospitality (Christian Mouttet and Issa Nicholas).

In the professions and services sector, there are a growing number of accountants and lawyers straddling borders, as are advertising agencies, architects and other service providers, and the Caribbean showed how it could perform as a unit in the hosting of Cricket World Cup 2007.

The CCJ

Perhaps the most important regional achievement of Mr Arthur, however, was to persuade his country and its legal profession to join the Caribbean Court of Justice, making it only the second country along with Guyana to make the regional court its highest court. The significance of that situation is underlined given that Barbados is perhaps the most pro-British member of Caricom and not many would have bet against cutting the ties with the Privy Council. Jamaica whose own Gleaner in 1901 (yes, 1901) had called for a regional court to replace the Privy Council, St Lucia under Dr Kenny Anthony and St Vincent under Dr Ralph Gonsalves are all yet to make that crucial commitment to the Caribbean and its jurisprudence.

The new man

Ironically, having campaigned on a platform for change, the new Prime Minister, David Thompson, may demonstrate a change of emphasis but hardly one of direction. Barbadians are notoriously conservative, and even when socialism was the wave of the Caribbean, that country regarded its socialists as a mere fringe element.

It is early days yet, and Mr Thompson will have to do some stocktaking before he can take any action.

He will be more fortunate than many politicians in other countries in that he is likely to find cash in the treasury, investors at the door and the expectations of a people who have placed their trust in him over a popular leader with an enviable record. It is hard to believe that Thompson’s party gave themselves more than a modest chance in the elections, and they may therefore have to do some quick thinking and planning before taking office on Monday.

Thompson has however signalled as his immediate priority the cost of living, an issue which challenges every Caribbean leader and which not too long ago brought his predecessor to Guyana along with counterparts from other countries with the objective of exploring ways to cut the cost of living. Very little has since been heard of that initiative and Thompson gave no hint whether he would pursue that option.

With an eye on the social conditions of his people Thompson has identified affordable housing and the improvement of health care and health facilities as some of his more immediate priorities.

It may therefore be some time before he turns his attention to Caricom affairs.

Brief honeymoon

His honeymoon may not be a bed of roses as the consequence of the slowdown in the US and other economies from which most of the country’s tourists come will pose quite a challenge. His party’s manifesto contained a pledge to cut taxes and further reduce unemployment and there is the expectation among Barbadians that these would be done within the first hundred days.

The towering image of Arthur overshadowed Thompson at home and most certainly in the region, whose writers must now be hunting for biographical information on the new leader and evidence of his views and commitment on regional issues.

Thompson does, however, have some political pedigree and he must know that Barbados and its economy have some synergy with the region which provides both visitors to and investments in his country.

Relationships, however, are a mutual affair and the more seasoned leaders would need to extend to Thompson the same kind of respect they accorded his predecessor. They will need to give him the space to find his place at his own pace and resist the temptation to tell him how to do his job.

With Arthur no longer at the head table, there is a huge responsibility and opportunity for President Jagdeo the other economist, who has responsibility in Caricom for agriculture with its implications for the cost of living. That should enable him to strike a resonating chord with Thompson.

At the time of writing, the main Trinidad newspapers had not shown any great interest in the Barbados elections, with neither of the major papers giving any front-page coverage to the results in its next day issue.

It is true that the results would have come in close to midnight, on Tuesday night, but are we serious when the region’s top selling newspapers use reports by the BBC and the Associated Press as their coverage?

Did our regional newspapers not consider the Barbados elections important or significant enough to send their reporters to cover the elections?

PSC and VAT

Introduction

The statement made by Chairman of the Private Sector Commission (PSC) in a letter published in the Sunday Stabroek of December 30, 2007 “reiterating” the position of the PSC that it wanted the government to continue the present and unjustifiable 16% VAT rate and to apply it to reforming (reducing?) income and corporate taxes has shocked not only the general public but even members of the business body for its insensitivity to the plight of scores of thousands of Guyanese. No one would argue against the need to lower the harsh rate of personal tax even after the 20% increase in the personal allowance announced by the President for 2008. But to ask that those either off or at the bottom rung of the economic ladder and consumers currently reeling from a rate of inflation not seen in this country for over a decade should finance those fortunate to own shares in companies, either shows how little the captains of industry care about their workers – let alone those too old or unable or ill to find employment or because for example they have to look after close family – or how little they appreciate the workings of the economy.

Tax rates and thresholds are only relevant to those who earn or declare taxable income. Even when the threshold was $28,000 per month, a large number of employed persons both in the state and private sectors earned less than that amount. The increase in the threshold and lowering of the tax rates would therefore bring no relief to them, nor to those who are unemployed, nor those who have just been awarded an increase in pensions taking them to $6,000 per month. Nor those in receipt of public assistance of $4,500 per month, among whom are single parents and persons medically unfit to work. Is it the considered view of the PSC that out of these princely sums, these fifty thousand persons – to use the President’s numbers – should continue to pay VAT at 16% on the flour they use, cooked foods at working class restaurants or baby foods, which the PSC now asks to be used to pay for lower rates of corporate tax and income tax for those earning relatively so much more than them?

Private sector rhetoric

Mr. Correia’s letter in which he subordinates the “increase in the cost of living [which is] on the mindset of most Guyanese at this point in time” to the country being “better positioned for economic expansion than ever before” is better suited to political rhetoric than practical reality. How could someone holding such an exalted position not be aware that for seven consecutive years from 1991 to 1997 growth rates never fell below 5.1% and the average annual growth was 7.1%? Instead of expressing concern about excessive taxation he enthuses about the “impressive” collection of taxes – a statement that even the tax collecting agency has not made.

Mr. Correia’s letter was prompted by an editorial in the Stabroek Business of 28.12.07 which questioned whether the PSC’s silence on issues having a direct bearing on businesses might have been due to a fear of reprisal or victimisation. His defence of the silence as reflecting a cautious and more mature approach to engaging the political administration raises the further question as to when the PSC came to this recognition. Was it when the President put aside his script at the 2006 GUYEXPO to lambaste Correia (as immature?) for raising the most dominant issue at the time, which was followed by an absence of contact between the PSC and the Government for several months? Since it is clearly not immature to robustly advance the cause of one’s constituents, is Correia in fact admitting that, that would be unacceptable to the Government or that the obligation to act maturely rests on one side only?

Tough questions

My concern about the lack of depth in Mr. Correia’s letter which I understand was issued with little or no consultation with members is heightened by his assertion that the PSC’s Technical Bulletin contained their analysis of the performance of the economy for the first six months. Even the Bulletin itself admits that much of its data “was drawn from the Mid-Year Report 2007 which was recently released by the Ministry of Finance”. There was absolutely no analysis and the Bulletin was essentially a rehash of the Mid-year report issued by the Ministry of Finance, tables and all.

While the Statement issued by the PSC after the meeting with the Minister in December stated that he “provided an update on recent developments in the economy and on the outlook for the remainder of the year (there were twelve days left of the year), and responded to a number of questions asked by the PSC delegation”, neither the PSC nor its Chairman would volunteer whether the meeting at which the PSC was represented by its insiders asked a single searching question of the Minister, such as why the Minister did not give the latest information on VAT collections or why his mid-year report was not presented within the statutory timeframe. Is it now part of the more mature approach not to ask why the Statistics Bureau suddenly stopped publishing monthly Consumer Price Index figures since July when the year-to-date (January-July) price change was a whopping 13.8%? Or why the Bank of Guyana has not issued its half-year report as it had done for the past several years?

Why the secrecy?

Instead of allowing the repetition of statements in circulation about the publication of important information on the economy, the private sector and indeed all who are interested in the economy need reassurance that the Ministry of Finance has not given any instructions to the Bank of Guyana (which ought to enjoy considerable independence) and the Statistics Bureau (which falls within the portfolio of the Minister of Finance) to delay the publication of information vital to understanding the economy. Regrettably, the PSC does not help its image by its failure to make available to its members or the public a copy of the letter it delivered to the Minister prior to the December meeting, raising suspicion that this was part of an agreement with the Minister.

In fact the tendency by the Government to make announcements not based on the technical work done by professionals but on what might be considered politically acceptable or wishful thinking is assuming dangerous proportions. Is it realistic to expect a Bank of Guyana which has been reluctant to demonstrate its independence to publish a half-year report that contradicts in any significant way the one sent out by the Minister?

And more troubling is the President’s announcement at his first press conference for 2008 that the inflation rate at year end was 13.9%. Sitting with the President was the Minister of Finance who came into the Government as a technocrat and who had only some weeks before announced a 12.2% inflation for the half-year, a level which according to the Statistics Bureau increased by about 1 percentage point in July, taking it to over 13%. Would the Minister or the Statistics Bureau tell the President that neither time nor inflation has stood still since the end of July? The President’s statement can create a huge problem for the Head of the Statistics Bureau Lennox Benjamin if the results of the professional work of the stats Bureau were to come up with numbers that are significantly different from those announced by the President.

Obsequiousness

It goes without saying that the PSC and its leadership ought to be mature but for them to overlook key issues in order to be accepted as engaging the political administration would betray a sad obsequiousness. Tax rates are indeed a critical issue but what the PSC seems to be unaware of is the extent of the difference between nominal rates and effective rates of tax paid by companies and the self-employed.

Some time ago I surprised a key policy formulator with data that showed that the effective rate paid by a particular sector was just half of the 45% nominal rate, a situation which is unlikely to be an aberration or unique to that sector. Then there is the extensive regime of tax holidays under the Income Tax (In Aid of Industry) Act, particularly since the amendment to that Act in 2003 or the several tax and other concessions that are given to a wide range of companies which are exploiting our natural resources for doing us the favour of paying our nationals wages that are well below international average. And can we ignore that huge body of taxpayers who continue to cheat the system and resent any attempts to bring them into the net?

Mr. Correia may not be aware that Guyana has an extremely attractive regime of export allowances which is probably a breach of the WTO Rules and which has long since been abolished by some regional countries including Trinidad and Tobago. Or he may be conveniently ignoring the fact that our tax laws treat unearned income and capital gains more favourably than the income earned by employed persons. And that under former President Desmond Hoyte the estates of those who spent their lives evading taxes were relieved of any death taxes, while removing such pro-poor allowances like child allowances and mortgage interest.

It is unlikely that the PSC would be interested in reversing the anti-poor, pro-rich nature of the tax laws but should the Government and labour not be interested in at least drawing attention that it cries out for action? What the PSC should be interested in however, even at the risk of being considered immature, is to hold the Government to its commitment to make VAT revenue neutral and point out the inconsistency of the Government’s position on this commitment. Surely the PSC cannot forget the President’s words at the GUYEXPO 2006 when he said “We said from the very beginning that VAT should be revenue neutral, we’re not looking to increase the collection of taxes, increase [taxes or] the tax base with the introduction of this tax.” Now that the money has poured in by more than even critics had predicted, the tune has changed to “VAT is revenue neutral but the increased collection was mainly attributed to the expansion of the tax base“. (Italics in this paragraph mine).

Conclusion

Of course, the commitment that VAT would be revenue-neutral was made to the country at large and it is the entire country that should insist on the Government honouring that commitment. But the PNC-R now hardly pretends to be an effective opposition and the labour movement is struggling for its existence, let alone its independence leaving a few individuals, Red Thread, the consumer group led by Eileen Cox and political leader CN Sharma to raise their voices against the harsher elements of the VAT.

If the PSC wants to reiterate anything it should be to demand meaningful tax reform and proper expenditure management. If it does not do so urgently it will find or indeed is already finding – to borrow from Murphy – that expenditure expands to meet the revenue collected from VAT and other taxes.

An underlying failure of the PSC over the years is partly the result of the serious conflicts facing its leaders as they seek simultaneously to further the interests of their often private businesses and the wider interests of their constituents. Unless private sector organisations change the rules of disclosure of their company’s interests in matters with the Government while ostensibly negotiating with it, give their CEOs a more leading role in advocacy (remember Pat Thompson?), promote more openness and transparency and strengthen the quality of their leadership, they will continue to find that they can only engage the government on its terms, and those will seldom coincide with the interests of the PSC’s constituents.

Wanted: Charities and NGO legislation

Introduction

As civil society in Guyana has taken – or rather been given – an increasing role in public-spirited tasks such as fighting floods, AIDS, poverty and discrimination – perceived and real – providing legal aid or cheap meals for the poor, those civil society organisations seeking to formalise and institutionalise themselves face more than the usual challenges of resource limitation and fundraising. Despite the fact that many of these organisations are in fact doing or complementing the work of the state, they come up with one formidable hurdle which could be so easily removed by the state. The sad fact is that there is no legislative enabling environment for the promotion of civil society, while the tax laws effectively discourage giving and fundraising through creative business initiatives. Just consider how the tax laws would treat a not-for-profit entity that decides to carry on a business to raise funds to be used exclusively in financing its charitable work. The laws will treat the surplus on the business in the same way as it would any for-profit organisation, while disallowing the expenditure on the charitable activity as not being “wholly and exclusively incurred in the production of income”!

By contrast, countries ranging from Azerbaijan and Afghanistan to Malta, Mexico, Uzbekistan, Venezuela and Zimbabwe have either enacted or advanced legislation to facilitate that type of entity known by such names as non-governmental or not-for-profit organisations. Guyana therefore lags behind all these countries in NGO/civil society legislation which for all practical purposes is simply non-existent, although the reality is less clear, certainly more confusing and does not lend itself to simple determination.

State of uncertainty

The Civil Law Act of Guyana passed in 1916 provides that the law relating to charities shall be the law of England. The problem is that the charities law of England has changed beyond recognition since 1916, and indeed, as recently as 2006 the House of Commons consolidated and updated the law into the Charities Act 2006. That act defines charities by reference to the provision of benefits to the public over some thirteen purposes, including the arts, education, health, animal welfare, sports, environmental protection and the promotion of human rights, and makes comprehensive provisions for such charities. It is unlikely that anyone would suggest that English charity law would now apply in Guyana, but that itself is a strong reason for our own National Assembly to fill this yawning gap in our legislation.

One of the results of this failure is the perennial question that often confronts the person considering the establishment of a not-for-profit organisation – whether to go the route of the Companies Act 1991 or the Friendly Societies Act Cap 36:04 of the Laws of Guyana. For the benefit of all those persons called on to make the decision, this column compares in a simple straightforward way these two principal pieces of legislation for their suitability as the appropriate vehicle to carry out their business as NGOs. Another vehicle, the Co-operative Societies Act, is excluded, since only societies for the economic advancement of their members may be established under that act.

Friendly Societies Act

Companies Act 1991

1. Scope

Limited to the types of society specified, or extended by Minister

Generally unlimited

2. Regulator

Registrar of Friendly Societies

Registrar of Companies

3. Minimum Fees to Registrar

$1,000

Approximately $30,000

4. Role of Minister in establishment

May limit the application of the Act

None

5. Minimum number

Seven

One

6. Age limitation

Under 16 not allowed

Anyone can be a member but an incorporator must be at least 18

7. In case of refusal to register

Appeal to Minister

No provision

8. Legal Status

Body Corporate

Body corporate

9. Whether branches are permitted

Yes

Yes

10. Constitution

Must contain provisions relating to matters in Third Schedule of the Act

Must meet the requirements of the Companies Act but otherwise may contain any other provision

11. Audit

Must submit accounts to Registrar for audit or other person appointed to audit

Audit by person holding a practicing certificate from the Institutes of Chartered Accountants of Guyana

12. Reserve Fund

Mandatory

No requirement

13. Investment of surplus funds

Government or Post Office Savings Bank or Commonwealth Government or Land + Buildings

No restriction

14. Ability to Enter into Contracts

Yes

Yes

15. Loans

Must be out of separate funds established by contribution

Subject to rules set out in the Companies Act 1991

16. Taxation on Income

Automatic exemption under the Corporation Tax Act

Fully taxable unless expressly waived in a Tax Act or subsidiary legislation

An unsatisfactory winner

It would seem that there is a compelling case for organisations whose objectives fall within the Friendly Societies Act to register under that act rather than the Companies Act.

It is true that there have been far more complaints about the administration of the Friendly Societies Act compared with the Companies Act and that there is considerable scope for ministerial intervention under the Friendly Societies Act, but it is also true that there has been little evidence of any minister acting unreasonably under the act, rendering any fear baseless.

This however is not a reason for our legislature to continue to ignore the need for specific charities and related legislation that takes account of the increasing role and contribution of such organisations in the social sector in Guyana.

Such legislation ought to take account not only of the entity in its role as provider of charitable services and as a recipient of donations but also of the contributors – individuals and corporate – to such organisations.

For example, individuals who no doubt represent a significant element of total contributions can claim no deduction for any donations made for any charitable or public purpose.

On the other hand, companies are allowed to deduct donations under Deeds of Covenant and those made to the Government of Guyana for public purposes or to any prescribed organisation of a national or international character.

The retention of the status quo represents an insensitivity that is clearly undesirable and counterproductive.

Next week: The Private Sector Commission’s amazing position on the Value-Added Tax.

If, as we are told, there has been no promise of a casino licence to anyone there should be more time for debate

I distinguish Mr Al Creighton from his former UG colleague Dr Desrey Fox, Prime Minister Sam Hinds, Home Affairs Minister Clement Rohee, Health Minister Dr Leslie Ramsammy and Mr Odinga Lumumba all of whom have suddenly discovered casino gambling as a development strategy for Guyana. Mr. Creighton in his letter captioned “The same debate took place in other Caribbean countries where casino gambling was introduced” (2007.01.13) took the academic’s approach of grading the pronouncements of those opposed to casino gambling and then said yes, but even those with merit are flawed. On the other hand Dr. Fox and Messrs Rohee and Lumumba targeted the Christian community in a manner that inevitably raised the question whether they were playing only the religion card.

While Mr. Creighton accepts the critics’ concerns about the dangers of casino gambling, those on the Government side can see only jobs and investments. Indeed, Dr. Ramsammy makes bold to state that casino gambling is ‘not a sham for money laundering’, ignoring the evidence gathered by one of the world’s leading accounting firms Ernst & Young which puts the amount of money laundered annually by criminal networks at US$1 trillion dollars, with casinos being one of the easiest and therefore preferred options. Trinidad and Tobago is no doubt among Dr. Ramsammy’s ‘hundred countries’ in which casino gambling is legal. That country permits casino-style gambling in members’ clubs only and which, depending on how you count them, number about forty, several offering no more than a few pin-ball machines in backstreets without even telephone numbers. The number of ‘10,000 direct jobs’ provided by casinos in Trinidad and Tobago is plain wrong.

But what is particularly striking about Dr Ramsammy’s paper is that in the same paragraph in which he referred to my S/N letter of January 7, 2007, he assures the nation that ‘casino gambling is also not being permitted because of any accommodation of any particular person or group.’ The French say it cutely: ‘He who excuses himself accuses himself’.

Why was that assurance necessary? Knowing Mr. Creighton as I do I am sure that he would be concerned that someone who is facing a serious charge of fuel smuggling is being financed partly by taxpayers’ money and that he would be interested as we all are in knowing the nature and value of concessions the government has granted that person. And would Dr Ramsammy tell us whether any space has been set aside for casino gambling in Buddy’s International Hotel.

It is hard to believe that, in the words of Dr Ramsammy, the Government has ‘studied the experiences of other countries, some in our own region of the Caribbean.’ If it had, then it would be aware that in the Budget Speech reported in the Trinidad Express of October 5, 2006, Prime Minister Manning vowed to eliminate casino-type establishments in his country. The ‘industry’ in Suriname is under the strong influence of the Ukrainian Mafia while in Venezuela, the owner of the Casino de Venezia told the court that the hotel was frequented by a group of Italians associated with the Italian Camorra, known for its Mafia connections. In South Korea several public officials including a minister of the Government have been guilty of accepting bribes in connection with the granting of licences to sell gambling machines while in the Philippines a close ally of President Arroya owns the Metrowall Mall in which an illegal casino was recently opened and which is associated with the assassination of a previous owner. And Cyprus admits to contemplating casino gambling because ‘it is the lesser of two evils’. Is that the kind of globalisation and development this country favours? Mr. Creighton, whose writing and contribution to Guyana is unmatched by any of his colleagues at the University of Guyana, dismisses the arguments against casino gambling as emotional. He demonstrates more faith than most Guyanese that the government would ‘do the right things’ to mitigate the adverse consequences of casino gambling and its attendant evils. His research would have alerted him to the fact that the state that hosts the gambling capital of the world Las Vegas, has the second highest rate of homelessness in the US, twice the national average and that even developed countries like the USA and the UK can barely regulate their gambling industry.

Mr Creighton whose field is the arts, might not even be aware that while the government bowed to international pressure and passed legislation in 2000 to prevent money laundering, the legislation was not brought into effect even as the illegal narco-trade, fuel smuggling, tax evasion and money laundering took root in the country and along with other elements of the underground economy now account for some 40% of the economy. Simultaneously, the Government has ignored warnings that the non-bank cambios do much, much more than change money for the person who may not have access to the commercial banks or who care simply about a better rate.

As an intellectual and commentator, does Mr Creighton accept PM Hinds’ argument that those who oppose casino gambling should vote out the PPP/C in 2011 as an informed position on what democracy means? It is not emotions that drive the concern that the constitutional provision on consultation is being ignored or that the President has reneged on his publicly stated commitment to consult with the population. How many of those who favour casino gambling have read the draft casino gambling legislation and are aware that Guyanese would be welcome in these new beacons of development? If Dr Ramsammy had read the Bill which he supports and promotes he would not have said that ‘only visitors would be able to take advantage of this new activity’. In fact any registered guest can enter the casino and all you have to do is pretend to pay for the registration and in return you are given tokens often of a higher value so as to entice you into the place. If as we are assured there has been no promise to any person or group, and if, as Dr. Ramsammy points out, the government has encouraged the debate (which encouragement must have gone undetected by most Guyanese), then only good can come from allowing further time to an informed debate beyond the letter columns, mainly in the Stabroek News, or the rantings of the uninformed in the National Assembly.

That would be my recommendation and I ask Mr. Creighton to support this.

Casinos are widely favoured by drug interests as potential laundries

Any decision to introduce casino gambling in Guyana requires at a minimum a complete and thorough examination of its moral, economic and social implications. The leaders of the various religious communities in Guyana including Pandit Reepu Daman Persaud of the Guyana Hindu Dharmic Sabha, the Central Islamic Organisation of Guyana and Bishop Alleyne of the Catholic Church have unanimously expressed their opposition to casino gambling.

The concerns of these gentlemen cannot be dismissed as the encroachment of religion into matters political. The views expressed reflect the values and opinions of large segments of the population with whom the religious leaders interact as often as weekly and certainly more regularly than politicians. They have as much of a stake and interest in the type of society we shape and bequeath as any politician. The views therefore ought to be seriously considered in any national debate.

Even those who advocate gambling acknowledge its great social cost. Indeed in many countries there are facilities to address the question of gambling addiction and only recently the US found it necessary to ban internet gambling partly as a result of an expose on the effect on students as well as legal implications. So often careers have been destroyed, families broken and valuable economic potential wasted because so many seek the elusive dream of a fortune. One only has to look at the number of actual winners to those engaged in gambling to understand how loaded the dice is against the bettor.

It is true that many countries including some of the most pious theocracies have a double standard when it comes to gambling and some even have state gambling on the pretext that these are more fairly run! These seldom change the ratio of winners to losers and even when gambling is run by the state it amounts to no more than a form of taxation, since it goes into the coffers of the state. Readers are of course familiar with the Lotto and how those proceeds are divvied up.

But the operation of casinos takes gambling to a different level and it is not surprising that even in the gambling capitals of the world, it is one of if not the most regulated activity. Indeed in some places they are deemed financial institutions for reporting purposes under money laundering laws and law enforcement officers and other regulators are present in casinos to manage crime and to ensure that no illegality is perpetrated.

That Guyana is proposing entry into this minefield raises questions well beyond the moral and religious and speaks to the type of society we wish to create. Few doubt that significant sectors and activities are already criminalized and as we scan the landscape on which casinos are being proposed, this is what we see:

1. Significant segments of our economy are dominated by unethical business practices, financed by unexplained funds and thrive on tax evasion.

2. There is great fear of even mentioning the names of certain individuals and businesses which extends beyond the fear of libel to fear of being harmed by agents of those who consider themselves as beyond question.

3. We have had recent experiences of officially sanctioned phantoms who according to a prominent citizen are now spawning baby phantoms.

4. The level and quality of regulatory enforcement in banking, the non-bank cambios, insurance and corporate and securities are at best merely superficial and ineffective.

5. Our police force is struggling to shed an image of incompetence and corruption, of questionable leadership and has been the subject of much study and recommendations but no action.

6. Public sector wages including those of the police are so low that bribery and corruption are an accepted fact.

7. A highly deficient court system that is seen by many as compromised, inept and unable to deliver justice. Not a single successful prosecution has been brought against any major personality before the courts.

8. A political culture characterized by poor governance, little accountability and increasingly seen as compromised by shady interests.

In the context of this environment, I draw attention to some of the dangers of casino gambling from actual examples in states/countries where casinos operate.

1. The Maryland Attorney General Curran’s Executive Summary On Casino Gambling is quoted as saying: “Known mob figures frequent casinos to gamble and launder money, and organized crime families attempt continually to infiltrate ancillary industries and to capitalize on an increased market for drugs, illegal gambling, and other ills.”

2. Dexter Temple, a confessed former drug dealer told the Des Moines Register that “Iowa drug dealers have pinpointed casinos as ideal places to quietly launder the large bills they earn selling methamphetamine, cocaine or other illegal drugs.” He noted that “When you think about it, you’ve got some money in your pocket or you’re making money off drugs, it’d be a good place to go and hit a jackpot and have some ‘legitimate’ money.”

3. The New York/New Jersey High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) estimates that drug traffickers launder between $4 billion and $8 billion annually in the New York/Northern New Jersey metropolitan area. A report out of that state body notes that the gaming industry in the United States remains vulnerable to drug money laundering and identifies as one of the techniques used to launder drug proceeds through casinos, the structuring of cash purchases of casino chips or tokens to avoid reporting requirements and subsequently redeeming the chips for cheques drawn on, or wire transfers from, casino bank accounts.

4. Corruption can also involve casino employees and operators and one former Bally’s (a top Las Vegas Casino) casino host was convicted after pleading guilty to charges of money laundering and helping to wash drug-trafficking proceeds. One such case surfaced from a sting operation in which the operator allowed a ‘customer’ to use fake identifications to launder more than $400,000 of drug money. In fact one host in that case admitted that his job as a host was to help high-rollers who wanted to gamble.

5. Nevada, which can claim to be the gambling capital of the world, has one of the largest FBI offices in the USA because of crime linked to gambling.

6. Following a cocaine and marijuana bust some years ago, Peter Djinis, associate director of the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network in the US, known as FinCEN, reported that casinos are easy targets for criminals seeking ways to disguise origins of money.

7. U.S. Representative Frank Wolf (R) of Virginia lamented in a letter to President Bush that ‘Casino gambling … is now coming to cities and even small towns across America and bringing with it all its social ills, like higher crime and suicide rates, increased personal bankruptcies, and the breakup of families.’

8. The US DEA reports that Canadian drug traffickers are laundering illicit cash and clandestinely shipping shady money to the Caribbean and South America, again using casinos to launder their proceeds by the standard technique of purchasing and surrendering chips or opening an account at the gambling establishment.

9. In 2004, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported law enforcement officials as saying that loan sharking, money laundering and other criminal activities have become a reality inside Ontario’s legalized casinos.

10. In 2005, the Conservative Party Leader in the UK Michael Howard stepped up his attack on the Government over money laundering concessions for casino operators.

11. The (Scottish) Sunday Herald quotes Jeffrey Robinson, the UK Gaming Regulator Chief and a leading authority on money laundering as warning that Britain must take action to prevent suffering the same fate as the US, where, he says, casinos are still viewed by organised crime groups as “giant Laundromats”.

12. In the Caribbean Aruba has been named in “The Drug Trade in the Caribbean: A Threat Assessment” as playing a significant role as an offshore centre for drug-related money laundering while Trinidad and Tobago, not an important regional or offshore financial centre, has been used by drug traffickers to launder money using overvalued purchase prices, real estate, casinos, stockbrokers, insurance companies, and other non-financial establishments.

13. The argument that casino gambling will promote tourism and economic development is best answered by Attorneys Guy Martin, Don Baur and Jena MacLean, Perkins Coie, LLP of the USA who told a gathering of the International Municipal Lawyers’ Association in 2003 that ‘for every dollar a community collects from gambling taxes, it must spend three dollars to cover new expenses, including police, infrastructure repairs, social welfare and counseling services.’

I am not at all convinced of the reasons for rushing into law casino gambling, or why President Jagdeo believes that genuine tourists as opposed to those merely looking for a laundry service would prefer Guyana to other established gambling locations, or why he would wish to alienate large segments of the Guyana population to favour casinos which benefit only a few. The fact that this was not part of the manifesto that the PPP/C offered the populace in a covenant for their votes makes the case for an informed debate inescapable. It is not something that should be taken by Guyanese as a done deal.

Given the potential for casino gambling of a further criminalised economy shunned by serious investors, this is a defining issue which imposes on all Guyanese a historic duty to contribute to the debate. As Abraham Lincoln said ‘To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men’ (and women).