By Sam Duncombe
Thirty years of advocating for this country’s long-term welfare has taught me one abiding, unalterable truth: Bahamian satire writes itself. Over and over again, successive governments have breathed life into the old adage, “you can’t make this stuff up.”
I opened the paper last week to see an incensed Minister D’Aguillar warning the American co-owner of the Compass Point resort not to “bully” the Bahamian government. The businessman, it seems, had reached a tipping point somewhere along the protracted, meandering, treacherous, arbitrary and capricious road to nowhere that we call our business licensing “system.” He had the audacity to complain. I mean, really!
Frequent The Nassau Guardian OpEd contributor, “Front Porch,” was quick to leap to the defense of government, despite the fact that The Bahamas ranks 119 out of 190 countries in the 2019 Ease of Doing Business Index. Some of the countries with higher rankings include The West Bank and Gaza, Malawi and Papua New Guinea. Could it be the owner of Compass Point might be legitimately fed up?
Compass Point employs sixty real-life, flesh-and-blood Bahamians. You can go to the resort and actually see them. The resort serves living, breathing, verifiable long-stay visitors to The Bahamas. You know, the kind that our minister of tourism says spend 20 to 25 times more than cruise ship tourists.
But, no ear for Compass Point. No sir, not even the opportunity to suggest changes to existing laws and practices that might make doing business in The Bahamas a little easier and a little more attractive to foreign investors.
Let’s compare government’s attitude towards Compass Point to government’s attitude towards the proposed Disney cruise port at Lighthouse Point. Not once did anyone in government accuse Disney of bullying, even when Disney — on the eve of government’s yes or no decision about Lighthouse Point — threatened to pack up and go away if the project was not approved.
No one accused Disney of bullying when it insisted on the following concessions, which were all granted either expressly or by omission: (1) no taxes of any kind on any form of revenue generated from the project for at least 20 years, (2) no import duties or levies on any materials related to the project, (3) no real property taxes for at least 20 years, (4) no obligation to improve local infrastructure; in fact, the company was given the right to build its own private power, water and sewerage plants; (4) no obligation to ever participate in any revenue-sharing formula; (5) discretionary authority to determine the number of Bahamians hired and a soft target of only 120-150 jobs, despite the fact that the company forecasts up to one million annual visitors; (6) discretionary authority to determine the number of vendors allowed on premises and the type of goods they can sell; (7) monopoly on food service and various other activities; (8) no prohibition against usurious commissions on tour operators; (9) no meaningful contribution to workforce training — $20,000 over five years; and (10) no commitment to a cash-friendly environment, so Disney will be free to use its on-board credit systems to control financial interface between its passengers and local vendors.
Oh, and about all those onerous licensing procedures, the House of Assembly fast-tracks and simplifies everything for Mickey.
No one in government accuses Disney of bullying when the company enjoys enormous profits from its Castaway Cay operation and in return leaves the host nation with relative pennies and crumbs. No one ever describes Disney as arrogant or overbearing when it claims it employs “nearly 150” Bahamians at Castaway Cay, despite the fact that Disney’s own recruitment videos tell a different story. On the contrary, government bends over backwards to assure the same exploitative relationship will continue at Lighthouse Point.
Government doesn’t appear ever to do the math independently, but instead allows itself to be bullied by foreign cruise lines who gin up confidential and proprietary financial projections, which are then further obfuscated by industry association spin doctors. If Minister D’Aguilar is serious about pushing back against bullies, maybe he should take another look at the Lighthouse Point deal.