By Alexander Britell
Just a few years ago, the Turks and Caicos Islands was in serious trouble. After a UK Commission of Enquiry found evidence of widespread corruption under the government of former Premier Michael Misick, the UK suspended the TCI’s constitution and imposed direct rule. In 2011, Ric Todd took over as Governor, inheriting a seriously struggling economy and a fiscal situation that was in shambles. Today, the Turks and Caicos Islands once again has a democratically elected government, its fiscal situation is on the mend and its economy, after falling nearly 20 percent in 2009, is projected to grow by 3.4 percent. Of course, the impact of the period of direct rule remains; tensions are still high between the elected government and the UK leadership, and the corruption prosecution continues — with Misick fighting his extradition in Brazil and trials still in process. Next month, Todd will be succeeded by new Governor Peter Beckingham. To learn more, Caribbean Journal talked to Todd about his time in the Turks and Caicos.
Where is the Turks and Caicos today compared to when you took over in late 2011?
I think everyone can agree that the Turks and Caicos Islands had been through difficult few years. When I arrived in 2011, I set out that I had three objectives —the first one was I wanted to meet the milestones — that is, to make the changes and reforms necessary so that elections could be held on TCI before the end of 2012. I said I wanted to build the economy and I said I wanted to give honest and transparent, good governance to TCI. I think that we have done all these things. And if we look back to where TCI was in 2009, all that set out in the [Sir Robin] Auld Commission of Enquiry, effectively TCI in 2009 was bankrupt. And now we have an economy which has been growing essentially for three years, essentially, we have a sound fiscal position and we have a lot of inward investment coming in and we have every reason to be optimistic about TCI’s future.
Tourism is by far the territory’s most important economic driver — where does that sector stand today?
I think the tourism sector on TCI has actually been performing pretty well over the last few years. There are several reasons for that – the first one is that the geographic proximity route and the natural beauty which help a lot, but other places have that, too, in the Caribbean. What TCI offers is we do have a pretty high-quality tourism offer. We have a number of very impressive hotels and resorts, they’re very well run, and we also have the advantages of speaking English, we use the dollar, it’s a friendly place, crime is low, it’s safe and all those things taken together I think give us a strong tourism offer. And if we look at the tourism sector, we can see the Interim Administration signed several MoUs — a new private resort, a revival of a failed private resort on West Caicos, new investments by Desarollos Hotels — we actually just started a development called Shore Club, which has been stalled for awhile. So I think you can see there is confidence growing in the tourism sector and more money is coming into it. And I think if we take together the projects in the pipeline, you are looking at something like approaching 1,000 new beds over the next few years. That’s a big jump in the TCI tourism offer.
What’s the biggest challenge for the TCI’s economy going forward?
I think the general state of the economy is pretty good, because we have been growing for the last three years essentially. We had a dreadful fall in the economy in 2009, nearly 20 percent, but we’re set for growth of 3.4 percent in 2013. I would say to you there are many Premiers across the world who would love to be able to say, “my economy is going to grow by 3.4 percent this year.” And tourism does drive that. We do have a financial services sector which is relatively small but it’s sound, and we’re also trying to work on some other things. But, to be honest, we will always be an economy which is dependent on tourism. The challenge for TCI is that it is fragile —it’s fragile ecologically —when you’re standing on TCI, the highest point is only 80 feet above sea level, you’re thinking about tropical storms and hurricanes, you realize how fragile it is. Second, it’s fragile because the tourist dollar can go anywhere in the world. So things can happen on a Caribbean island and the tourism sector loses its attraction.The second thing I think is that TCI needs to be honestly and effectively governed, and it has been well-governed here the last few years under the Interim Administration, and the new elected government is continuing with sound government. And that does give me and, I hope, everyone, confidence in the future. And the investments we’re seeing suggest that people have confidence in TCI’s future.
There have been tensions between the elected government and your office since the return of democratic government. How would you describe that relationship right now?
Well, I think, there was a new constitution put in place on TCI in 2011. And I think what that constitution set out is what I call a balance of power among the constitutional actors. You have the Governor, government, judiciary, attorney general, the civil service, institutions protecting good governance. And in with any constitution, there probably will be, from time to time, tension among the constitutional actors. But that tension is not necessarily a bad thing. Because we know from the past, under the Misick administration, when one of the constitutional actors is able to ride roughshod over all the others, then the country very quickly suffers serious problems. I think if you look overall, you can see very good progress. The government works pretty well, the governor and the Cabinet are effective, and I would say personal relationships among Cabinet members are pretty good. So I wouldn’t overestimate the tension — these things do happen. But they are a natural consequence of a constitution seeks the balance.
What is the progress of the Michael Misick extradition?
Well the situation is that the TCI government has legally and properly sought the extradition of Michael Misick from Brazil. Misick is clearly resisting that extradition, and the timing of when he is returned and whether he is returned is in the hands of the Brazilian authorities.
How would you characterize the progress of the SIPT team established to combat corruption and bring charges relating to the Commission of Enquiry?
Well, as you know, the SIPT essentially started their work in 2010 as a result of the recommendations of the Commission of Enquiry report, and there’s a separate parallel process of civil recovery, which is different from the criminal prosecutions . Now, in fact, the SIPT have worked pretty fast on an extremely complicated set of cases, and they have charged a dozen people with serious offences. The SIPT were ready to start the trial in April of last year. Since that time, the trial has been delayed by a number of motions brought by the defence. Now, the defence are perfectly entitled to bring these motions, it’s how judicial proceedings work, but I want to be clear that the delays in starting the trial are nothing to do with the prosecution.
You visited Haiti last month, a country that has had a rocky relationship with TCI in recent years over the issue of illegal immigration. What did that visit yield? How is the relationship now?
I think there is a very long history of relations between TCI and Haiti. And I think those relations, when I got here, were not as good or as close as they should be. So improving our relationship with Haiti has been an objective of mine all the time I’ve been here. And I’m really pleased that we made a lot of progress with that. And actually the UK opened an Embassy in Haiti earlier this year., so one thing I wanted to have happened, is Haiti now has a Consulate General on TCI. In the last year I’ve hosted the Deputy Foreign Minister of Haiti, the Foreign Minister and the Premier, so the meeting which I made to Haiti last month with the Minster for Border Control and Labour Don-Hue Gardiner, as very much in the context f that relationship, and we here had two objectives. First of all, we wanted to put across to our Haitian partners at the highest level — the president and senior leadership, that it is a real problem for TCI that there is illegal migration from Haiti. We are 31,000 people. Haiti has 10 million. If half of one percent of Haitians come illegally to TCI, the situation is literally unbearable for us. We spend 1 percent of our budget repatriating illegal Haitian immigrants. So we put to President Martelly and his ministerial colleagues that we saw this as a real problem, and we wanted their help in dealing with it. And they absolutely accepted it was s real problem and they want to work with is un it. Second, we said, we feel there’s a lot of potential in Haiti-TCI relations, which has not been fully exploited, partly because the fear of illegal migration has poisoned the atmosphere almost. But I am committed, and we are committed here on TCI to integrating the legal Haitian community into society. And we are also are committed to trying to build human and trade connections between our two countries. So those two points were something that very much accepted by Martelly. We agreed to do an MoU on how we could work together to combat legal migration. The TCI Cabinet has agreed a draft, we’ve now passed that the Haitian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and we’re hoping to finalize that quite soon.
At the end of last year, you announced a plan to convene a commission on independence in TCI. Is independence the best way forward for TCI? Is it simply that it just needs to be decided by the people of Turks and Caicos?
What Cabinet decided was that they would put a motion to the House of Assembly for a constitutional committee that has been set up to guide and lead and focus debate on TCI about TCI’s future, about independence. It seems to me that I’ve said this before, the discussion about TCI’s future is a perfectly proper one to have, and the right place to have that discussion is in the House of Assembly. From the UK point of view, TCI is an Overseas Territory, we value the relationship with TCI, we are very happy for it to continue. But Ministers in the UK have been clear frequently that if the people of TCI express their will clearly for independence, then we will accept that and do everything we can to facilitate the process. Of course, to show how open the UK is, there have been referenda — the UK did one in Gibraltar, one in the Falklands and, indeed, next year we’re having one in Scotland. So the idea that the UK is somehow resisting independence isn’t true — we are happy with the present constitutional position. But if the people of the TCI want independence, then we will not stand in their way.
Looking back on your tenure, what would you consider your biggest success, and what might you have done differently?
Well, I never really like to think of things in terms of my achievements. I think I would say that the time I’ve been here, we collectively have achieved an enormous amount on TCI, reforming the country, modernizing legislation, we put in place a new voting system, new rules on integrity, in politics, in public life, the economy has grown. So all of that taken together is something TCI can be very proud of. If you think about something which, I suppose, everyone thinks about, I’ve learned from TCI what i knew already is you can never communicate enough as a government and i think even if you communicated 25 hours a day 8 days a week, you still wouldn’t be able to do enough of it. That, I think, is a real challenge, on TCI as everywhere.
What advice would you offer to your successor?
I would advise him to do what I have done. I have tried very hard to travel all around the islands. I’ve gone to every one of the so-called Family Islands. I’ve had something like 30 public meetings around the islands, and that chance to travel and see how very different each island is, in geography, in culture, in atmosphere, that’s been a really marvelous thing to do. And I’ve really enjoyed that. And I recommend he do that as well. I also learned to scuba dive on TCI, relatively late in life, and I found that a particular pleasure. It’s a great thing to do — and TCI has got some marvelous diving and I’m pleased to say — I met divers from all over the world on the boat in Grand Turk sand they’re always very complimentary of TCI so I’m very pleased.