Black Bay: Who’s pot, who’s kettle?

From left: Prime Minister Kenny Anthony, former Economic Planning minister Ausbert d’Auvergne and Opposition Leader Stephenson King.

Last week a much in demand expert on, well, just about everything, from what passes as our economy to post-election analyses, confirmed my worst fear. Asked why his recent public pronouncements on the VAT had echoed our dumbest politicians, this was his response: “I’ve never claimed to be some kind of oracle.  Before you determine the quality of my answers, better to check the questions.”
Easier said than done. Local TV reporters—unlike their overseas counterparts—seldom permit viewers a glimpse of what they look like or a hint of their sound. Evidently their sole purpose is to deliver to their largely uninformed audience the reaction of the day’s expert to unrecorded questions. With mike conveniently dead, a reporter might say: “We know VAT is inevitable, but do you think Saint Lucians are ready for it?”
Now, bearing in mind the person on the other side of the interviewer’s mike will more than likely be a Saint Lucia Chamber of Commerce economist or a bureaucrat attached either to the finance or commerce ministries (which is what qualifies him as a quotable expert in the first place, nothing more!)—his primary if very private concern will be to avoid any slippages that might possibly be construed as contradictory of the official position. Count on him to say no more than he needs to say in response to questions.
The same applies to private sector representatives, alas dependent, if only psychologically, on official nepotism. And so the safe reaction to the reporter’s unrecorded question might quite likely be: “Yes, I think Saint Lucians are ready!” If perchance the reporter should ask how the expert arrived at his all-important conclusion, the best answer in his circumstances might be: “It was given a lot of publicity by the VAT office last year.” Put it all together and the received expert opinion in effect totals up to: Strictly by virtue of the publicity given the subject last year, Saint Lucians are ready for the government’s implementation of the VAT.
Now, say the reporter had researched his subject in advance of that interview with Mr. Expert. Chances are he might then cagily have asked him to explain why our political directorates sound like echoes of each other when they say: “VAT is inevitable.” Our informed reporter might’ve inquired about when the governments of the ECCU collectively determined the VAT was inevitable. Or he might’ve invited Mr. Expert to underscore precisely what was wrong with the previous system of taxation.
Curious on our behalf, our intrepid reporter might’ve also asked Mr. Expert to illustrate how the VAT had impacted the economies of our sister ECCU territories, what had been the consequences of postponing its adoption, and what might be the fallout from further postponing the presumed inevitable. Which returns us to our starting point.
To the best of my knowledge, nothing like the suggested questions has ever been put to our experts. Or to our prime ministers, present and past, despite that there has been threatening talk of the value-added tax dating back to 2000. At any rate, I have not heard or read anything to suggest otherwise.
My earlier quoted oracular friend, while acknowledging his broadcast responses had shed no new light on the VAT issue, had refused to take blame for misleading fellow countrymen whose faith in him bordered on religious. (I am here reminded of something Norman Mailer said about the impact of reported false facts: “A nation that forms detailed opinions on the basis of detailed fact that is askew from the subtle reality becomes a nation of citizens whose psyches are skewed, item by detailed item, away from any reality.” In short, a nation of citizens gone mad!
The latest calculated distraction from the killer realities of the local economy centers on a blame game that seeks to create similarities between Rochamel and the so-called “Black Bay lands issue,” the successful settlement of which, we’ve been told repeatedly, will require the government to pay to a foreign bank some $58 million dollars. I hasten to add that the blame-game players are from both all sides of the political divide. Their unabashedly salted-to-taste arguments are at once partisan,   bereft of intelligence and nearly always hilarious. Ah, but truth will not be denied.
And so, to remind of the difference between the two controversies: Rochamel centered on the Kenny Anthony government’s controversial guarantee in 1997 of a bank loan to a private hotel company that went bust soon after opening for business.
An official 2009 inquiry into the matter revealed that high level public servants engaged in the office of the minister of finance had been denied the opportunity to contribute to the prime minister’s decisions that finally had cost the people of Saint Lucia multi-millions of dollars—a loss that the commissioners blamed on “maladministration” and a number of “irregularities.” Not even his Cabinet colleagues were familiar with the details of the prime minister’s involvement in what he euphemistically referred to “the hotel formerly known as Hyatt!”
The other issue started in 2005 with the Kenny Anthony government’s decision to sell to a foreign company called Roebuck Properties government-owned real estate at Black Bay, valued at EC$15.5 million. Before the deal could be sealed the 2006 general elections returned the United Workers Party to office, with Sir John Compton as prime minister.
The new government decided not to sell, after all. Instead, lands at Black Bay and Honeymoon Beach were invested in a joint venture with Roebuck Properties for the development of a five-star resort, golf course and marina, in return for shares in the project. Meanwhile Roebuck had purchased additional real estate from private citizens, with a loan from the London bank Kaupthing Singer & Friedlander. As security the bank was granted “a hypothec over all the lands held by Roebuck,” including the government-owned Black Bay property.
The global economic meltdown put paid to the company’s dream project—not to mention the government’s high expectations. Now rendered bankrupt, Roebuck finally received from its bankers a formal demand for payment of all amounts outstanding. With the 2011 general elections impending, the matter was soon reshaped into a political football. The then opposition Labour Party effectively blamed the “recklessly incompetent King government” for the loss of “500 acres of prime agricultural lands.” Typically, the King government offered little in its own defense. It later emerged that barely one month before the elections it had quietly undertaken to buy back all the lands involved in the Roebuck fiasco—for some EC$56 million, a commitment that upon taking office last December the Kenny Anthony government inherited. (It remains conjectural why neither government had chosen to play hardball. After all, whoever might have purchased the lands from the receiver for future development would require a certain amount of, er, governmental cooperation!)
The story is not without its unique twists: Shortly after the 2011 elections, the new prime minister announced on TV his plan to create a special ministry headed by Ausbert d’Auvergne. He had evidently discovered on the campaign trail that d’Auvergne was “absolutely brilliant,” blessed as he was with such talents as Saint Lucia could not possibly allow to go to waste, “especially in these harsh economic times!”
“True,” the prime minister chuckled, d’Auvergne may have committed egregious betrayals during his several years as head of the public service in the time of John Compton, but then so, too, had the prime minister.
Since the people, by returning him to office had demonstrated their forgiveness, why shouldn’t he be similarly forgiving of the sins of d’Auvergne? (Whether or not conveniently, it evidently had not occurred to the prime minister that to forgive d’Auvergne would be yet another betrayal on his
part of the people’s trust.
After all, the same electorate that had forgiven him his sins had also rejected d’Auvergne. He had not been able to save his deposit!)
His hinted at transgressions would fill a book, bearing in mind the revelations of Sir Louis Blom-Cooper’s investigation of official corruption in Saint Lucia in the 1990s, initiated by the Kenny Anthony government shortly after taking office in 1997. There was also the so-called UN Scandal, featuring d’Auvergne and a certain Charles Flemming, and d’Auvergne’s relationship
with an international
cocaine dealer currently serving time in a U.S. state penitentiary, widely criticized by Kenny Anthony following the 2006 general elections. And then there were the several notorious private sector disasters too numerous to mention that left local bank managers crying in their soup!
In all events, as a senator and boss of the National Development Corporation, d’Auvergne had been the King administration’s chief advisor during its negotiations with Roebuck.
He it was who had advised against the sale of the Black Bay lands in favor of investing them in return for preferred shares in the envisaged dream resort.
Of course, it is only fair I should say that to the best of my knowledge clairvoyance was never among d’Auvergne’s acknowledged multiple special talents. It is highly unlikely he had anticipated the economic meltdown that put the kibosh on Roebuck and on thousands of similar projects worldwide. So much for the far-fetched suggestions that he had deliberately misled poor “uneducated” Stephenson King in the political best interests of fellow genius the other Mr K!
Ah, but now there is the good word that the main man behind Roebuck has secured Chinese partners who are eager to rescue the company’s stalled 5-star resort and golf course project.
Alas, I am also informed that the present prime minister is inexplicably determined not to permit the Black Bay story a happy ending!

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