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Ex-premier flies free as a bird in Rio
It’s Carnival Friday in Rio, you’re free as a bird. Nice? More so if you are Michael Misick, former premier of the Turks and Caicos Islands, let loose that day after two months in jail. Misick was arrested at Rio’s Santos Dumont airport on December 7, by Brazilian police acting on a Red Notice from Interpol. He seemed surprised. Britain’s extradition treaty with Brazil was extended to cover the Turks and Caicos Islands only in September last year.
A full, formal extradition request followed on January 28, well ahead of the 60-day deadline. Oddly, it did not reach the courtroom in time for a February 8 hearing, so Misick was released on bail. That came as a surprise to the Attorney General back home on Grand Turk, who embarrassingly first denied the news, then confirmed it hours later.
The former premier left his homeland under a cloud. He spent time in the Dominican Republic before travelling to Brazil in November 2011, where he asked unsuccessfully for political asylum. Dry, infertile, and named after the Turks Head cactus, the Turks and Caicos Islands are twice the area of Tobago, but have a smaller population. They were one of Britain’s least-prized colonial possessions, governed from Jamaica until 1959. An impoverished population scratched a living from sea salt, small-scale farming, and fisheries.
Today, the islands are one of the Caribbean’s five remaining UK Overseas Territories. An elected Premier and Cabinet share power uneasily with a British-appointed Governor whose reserve powers include a right to veto legislation. Britain was derided 30 years ago for building an international airport on the island of Providenciales, then unknown and under-populated, to attract a Club Méd resort. It was a huge success.
The islands now attract as many tourists as Antigua. Financial services are another money-spinner. Rich professionals and low-income migrants from Haiti have moved in. The Belongers—locals who have the right to vote—are just 7,377 of the 31,000-strong population. State-owned land was magicked from useless scrub to hot beachfront property. Belongers were able to buy at below market value, and sell to overseas developers. Small island politics, quirky and polarised, brought bitter feuds and fierce loyalties.
A Commission of Enquiry under Sir Robin Auld, a member of England’s Privy Council, investigated alleged wrongdoing in 2008-09. He concluded “there is a high probability of systemic corruption.” He wrote of the “Hollywood lifestyle” of Misick and his (now ex-) wife, American actress LisaRaye McCoy-Misick, who took shopping trips to Dubai and Los Angeles in a leased Gulfstream jet.
The islands’ Premier, Cabinet and elected assembly were suspended. The Governor ruled, with a hand-picked advisory council. A Special Investigation and Prosecution Team (SIPT), led by an energetic British lawyer, Helen Garlick, set to work. Five former ministers were charged with corruption.
Lawyers this month reported recovery of US$16.6 million and land worth US$100 million. After a close study of US$1.65 million in wire transfers to Misick family legal and real estate firms, the Sandals resort group has, without admitting any wrongdoing, agreed a payment of US$12 million and released potential evidence to SIPT and the US authorities.
The constitution was restored last year. In elections on November 9, Misick’s Progressive National Party (PNP) won a narrow majority. Next week’s Caricom meeting in Haiti is expected to restore the Turks and Caicos’ associate status, suspended in 2009. But all is not sweetness and light. The Governor complains that Cabinet discussions and private e-mails have been leaked to the media. The deputy premier complains loudly about her salary, a mere US$130,000 (TT$830,000) a year.
And a tax row is brewing. Britain last year legislated for a VAT, to run from April 1 this year. But on February 1, the PNP joined its bitter rival the People’s Democratic Movement in the House of Assembly to repeal the VAT legislation. Britain says the tax will go ahead, unless local politicians find a “credible” alternative.
The Governor can refuse to sign the repeal—but the finance minister, Michael Misick’s brother Washington, says he will refuse to collect the tax. “The Governor can cancel my ministry.” he says “They can use their prosecutorial powers against me. I do not care.”
New judicial procedures allow trial without jury. Michael Misick argues that these are unfair, and denies wrongdoing. He says he is being persecuted because he wants independence for his homeland—though he did not, while in office, campaign to break from Britain. There is no emotional link with London. Lifestyles are Caribbean or North American. Supermarkets cash greenback US dollars, not pounds. But Britain confers some practical benefits.
A US$260 million loan guarantee has moved interest on the islands’ debt from around ten per cent closer to two per cent. A British passport has its uses—not least for travel to the USA. The “mother country” would happily pull out if islanders voted for independence. So far, they have not. Michael Misick, meanwhile, remains free as a bird, and probably in Rio.