The following is a press statement issued by the Leader of the Progressive Liberal Party at a press conference held at the PLP’s National Headquarters on 23rd June 2021. The Leader called for full disclosure from the Government about where the money for the travel visa is going. He said millions of dollars are being collected and it is not going to the consolidated fund, instead it appears to be going into the pockets of a company owned in part by the FNM’s campaign coordinator Dr. Nigel Lewis:
Everyone knows we are a nation in crisis.
It’s clear to me that as we get back on our feet, as we rebuild our economy, we should aim for much more than just recovery. Recovery implies going back to the way things were. But we have an opportunity to not just recover but to transform, to really change how things are done here. We can do more than make our economy more diversified and more resilient – we can make it more inclusive.
Yesterday, I spent some time with Project Y’s Top Millennials – a group of outstanding Bahamians, aged 20 to 40. They are entrepreneurs, educators, philanthropists, and more – and they are ready to innovate and to contribute to this country. We have to do whatever it takes to keep them – and their fellow millennials — here in The Bahamas, because they are going to be crucial partners in building this new, dynamic economy.
They don’t want special favours – they want a level playing field. They want to know that if they build something special, the opportunities will follow.
We cannot succeed as a country if people feel locked out, if they feel like things are not on the level.
The current government came to power promising that it would be “the people’s time”. But they started their term by raising VAT — while cutting taxes for their inner circle, the wealthy and the well-connected.
This is the pattern that was in place well before the pandemic began –tax breaks for FNM insiders, a Post Office contract for a Cabinet member that they can’t and won’t disclose (despite their promise to do so), a cover-up on Oban, deception on Dorian.
By the time COVID arrived, they were experts at inside dealing. Everyone else saw COVID as a health and economic crisis; they saw COVID as an opportunity to help their rich friends get richer.
Transparency International warned soon after the start of the pandemic that corrupt governments would use the COVID emergency as an opportunity to spend funds without oversight and accountability.
And that’s exactly what has happened here: Hundreds of millions in pandemic-related spending – yet the government has not disclosed the details of those contracts. Who was paid how much? You know what they’re hiding must be bad – because they’re breaking the law to keep those details hidden. Hundreds of millions – that’s your money, borrowed from you and your children and your grandchildren, at sky-high interest rates. Hundreds of millions– with their donors and inner circle right in the middle of all that spending.
Then there’s the money made from testing. Since October, we have urged the government to subsidize clinics and hospitals to provide free COVID testing to Bahamians concerned they’ve been exposed to the virus. They have refused, although testing is recognized as a crucial tool for slowing and stopping virus outbreaks. They refused, even though other countries in the region have provided free testing for their citizens. They refused, even though testing is better for the economy than lockdowns. They refused, even though the cost of testing has been a significant burden to Bahamians, especially as thousands were losing their jobs and their businesses. Now you tell me, who profited from their refusal to make testing free? Who close to the Prime Minister profited from high-priced COVID tests? Follow the money, and you’ll see why they didn’t make testing free, when they had no trouble finding money for nonsense like those sidewalks.
And now we have the travel visa scam. This is a corrupt scheme that has unfolded right in front of us. But thiefin’ in plain daylight doesn’t make it less of a crime.
What we have here is the FNM government using their Emergency Powers to create a whole new funding stream for corruption.
They are helping FNM insiders, including their top campaign official, profit from the pandemic.
And these profits are at the expense of the people.
The whole thing was suspicious from the start. They had months to prepare for the second reopening of our borders, after the first reopening failed and led to thousands of cases and new lockdowns. Did they use the lead-up time to create a reasonable and efficient system for screening travellers? No, they didn’t.
Think back to those months. Many, if not most Bahamians are having a hard time paying bills, just scraping by. Thousands of Bahamian businesses are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. The economy is cratering, debts are piling up, and we need visitors to start returning.
Given how badly Bahamian families and businesses were struggling, you’d think a priority would have been keeping costs as low as possible for Bahamians. Given how urgently we needed tourists to return in large numbers, you’d think their goals would have included staying competitive with other tourism destinations in the region, so as not to make it significantly more expensive to travel here. (Visa fees can really add up for families).
In other words, they should have been looking for ways to encourage and support both domestic and international travel, while still providing effective screening for COVID.
That’s what a government who cared about our economic recovery would have done – but that’s not what this government did.
Instead – decision #1 — they created an unnecessary travel visa.
Keep in mind that other countries in our region – from Barbados to Jamaica to Turks and Caicos and on and on – did not do the same. In those countries and in others, you need to present a negative PCR test. But no travel visa. No extra payment.
That leads us to decision #2 – to not go through the usual procurement process to choose the digital payments company.
Then there’s decision #3 – to choose a new company, one associated with the FNM’s Campaign Chairman, while at the same time, decision #4–keeping other new digital payments companies from competing.
And then decision #5–to allow this private company to keep the money collected from the fees for the travel visa.
That’s right. Nearly twenty million dollars collected so far, during the current fiscal year – and not a single dollar of that has come back to the national treasury. Nearly twenty million, right into the bank account of a specially-chosen, hand-picked private company.
Now, because they have nothing but contempt for the Bahamian people, they have asked us to believe that all of the money collected has gone to cover costs, like the 5th day antigen test. Of course, that can’t be true — not when the price of the visa has changed and bounced around so frequently. That can’t be true, when such a high percentage of travellers never complete that 5th day antigen test. That can’t be true, when the health visa doesn’t even cover the cost of that test for fully vaccinated travellers. So, the math doesn’t add up, which is why they’ve never supplied the numbers.
Maybe this FNM Cabinet has become so distant from the people that they don’t know this, but for months, Bahamians have been boiling mad about being charged to travel between our islands or to return from the United States. The government imposed the equivalent of a tax without being honest about it – and then the money didn’t even go to The Bahamas – it went into the hands of a brand-new private company that just happens to be associated with FNM insiders.
Remember, not only did the FNM government hand over an extremely valuable contract to a new company with no track record, they protected this company from competition. Kanoo could charge any price they like, and not suffer consequences if their service was poor.
Did the government sign an actual contract with Kanoo, or did they just discuss the deal over drinks at campaign headquarters, laughing all the way to the bank?
If they signed a contract, now would be a good time to share it with the Bahamian people.
What’s the length of the contract – for just how long has the government guaranteed to Kanoo this cosy arrangement? In their latest budget, they make projections for revenue from the travel visas next year and the year after that, too. How do they justify a travel visa in 2023, especially when we don’t even need one now?
The whole thing is sickening. At the height of the second wave, when businesses were getting locked down and Bahamians were getting locked up, Minnis was making sure his people were profiting from the pandemic.
I like to think of myself as an optimistic man. But it’s hard to be hopeful that the government is going to do the right thing, which – for starters – would mean putting everything on the table, coming clean. Instead, they are going to squeal and complain and try to confuse things. They’re going to hide behind excuses and lawyers and their fake outrage.
But no one’s going to buy any of it.
Because Bahamians know what time it is. They know that when they could least afford it, they were forced to pay for an unnecessary travel visa. And they know their money ended up in a private bank account. And they know it’s still happening now, as we speak. But not for long. Not for long.