Tuesday, June 19, 2012

A parliament of fools (Cayman politics)

The big event on our local political calendar next month is the referendum on single-member constituencies. Largely, it’s a waste of time and effort. Our unpopular ruling party (UDP) is against the proposal on the grounds that single-members might cost it the next election; our almost-as-unpopular opposition party (PPM) is begging for a YES vote for the identical reason.

Until now, only our two smallest settlements have elected one MLA each – East End and North Side. Cayman Brac elects two, Bodden Town three, George Town four, and West Bay four. Overseas readers will be amused to know that Cayman’s 15,000 voters elect a mini-parliament of fifteen MLAs – AND that we are soon to get three more, thanks to 1) local lobbying by political cronies anxious to jump on the gravy train and 2) cowardly appeasement by our colonial masters in London.

If one of the additional seats is allotted to each of the largest three electorates, and if the single-member referendum fails, the voters of West Bay and George Town will be invited to tick up to five names each in next May’s general election.

At a time when the rest of the world is cutting back on government bureaucracies, Cayman will add three or four or five new departments, fully staffed and office’d at an annual cost of several million dollars in salaries, family pensions, family medical expenses, family credit cards and family travelling expenses local and international. Government’s annual Budgets are in deficit already, so the money will all be borrowed, and the loans be repaid out of future Public Revenue. If there is enough of it.

One of my early childhood friends and schoolmates later represented 100,000 voters in the Australian Parliament, in an electorate of almost 300,000 square miles. Every two or three years he campaigned the length and breadth of an area slightly larger than Texas, seventy times the size of Jamaica and three thousand times the size of Cayman. (The electorate was Maranoa; check it out on Wikipedia, in case I got my figures wrong.) Yet Caymanians reckon they need eighteen elected representatives in their one hundred square miles and 15,000 voters. Sigh. What a joke.

Our MLAs divide themselves into two teams of bloodline-Caymanian chums and cronies drawn from a tiny gene-pool. Personal popularity is everything; there are no policy-differences at all. Both teams indulge freely in anti-expat rhetoric. Back in 2003, pressured by Britain to reduce the backlog of citizenship applications, the ruling team of the day in effect signed blank certificates and scattered them like confetti to expats deserving and undeserving. The anti-expat lobby reacted with fury, so the rulers introduced a seven-year residency limit for working expats. Alas! Too little, too late.

The Lobby swung its support to the other team, which, in power in 2005, back-dated the “rollover” period and implemented an ethnic-cleansing exercise of thousands of expat domestic workers domiciled here for up to twenty-five years. Alas! Too much, too late.

There were just enough new expat citizens to vote their benefactors back in, in 2009. The open question now is whether the same factors will be in play next year. Will the irresponsible governance of the slightly-less anti-expat gang be forgiven by the beneficiaries of the confetti-scattering of 2003, or will the latter hold their noses and vote for the gang supported by Cayman's xenophobes?

Unless a large number of independent candidates emerge, courageous enough to defy the anti-expat Lobby, Cayman will enter yet another four-year period of irresponsible governance. God help us, then!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Locking the doors and windows (crime in Cayman)

When Cayman’s criminal gangs first began to get out of hand, we began locking all the doors and ground-floor windows when we left the house, and at night. Later, we locked them when we were home upstairs. Later still, we locked the upstairs windows, too, at night. We promised ourselves that if burglar-bars ever became necessary it would be time to leave Cayman. We couldn’t see ourselves living behind barred windows. What kind of life would that be?

And yet, now, today, here we are living behind barred windows and double-locked doors. We got used to it. But what will we have to do next, to protect ourselves and our property? No cutlasses or kitchen-knives, I think. We’re not skilled in their use. The average home-invader, fresh from his gang’s self-defence training, would take five seconds to disarm me of my weapon – and would be all the more angry for my disrespect. There is no advantage in making an invader angry. It doesn’t seem to do any good anywhere else in the world.

(When I started on my travels with Linda in the Near and Middle East as a young man, I used to carry a knife in a sheath on my belt, thinking it might be a disincentive to prospective muggers. A fellow traveller told me that in the areas I was headed for a knife was more of a provocation, and that if my skills in a knife-fight were inferior to a challenger’s I could end up dead. That made sense. Thereafter, my protection was a rolled umbrella with a rough-edged point. Umbrellas aren’t threatening, and they’re useful walking-sticks. And, I did once brandish it while chasing a mugger who had snatched Linda’s handbag; I didn’t catch him, but he dropped the bag!)

There is an ongoing debate in Cayman over whether residents should be licensed to keep guns at home. Or maybe just citizens. Or citizens with clean Police records. Or citizens vouched for by our local politicians. Oh, but whoa! That’s how political gangs begin, isn’t it? Huh. I would trust myself to choose wisely, and those of my friends wise enough to trust me; but nobody else. Some gun- advocates want four-dollars-an-hour security-guards to be armed, in order to discourage robberies of shops and banks. If that ever comes into law, the very least the guards should do is hold up their employers for more money. Four dollars an hour is less than a Minimum Wage would be if we had a Minimum Wage.

What about policemen? Some policemen are armed already, though we don’t see them waving pistols around in public. Given the frequency with which police officers are involved in traffic accidents, they might be less dangerous with guns than with cars, or cellphones. That woman police officer who drove straight through the Elgin Avenue roundabout the other week, presumably while texting – would she have been any more dangerous if she’d been loading her gun while driving? Surely not.

As for armed householders – well, unless we’re going to be walking around the house with loaded guns stuck in our waistbands (and the workplace, and the supermarket, and the restaurant), and sleeping with them under our pillows, what protection will they provide? All a bad man has to do is point his gun at you through your barred window and say, “Open the door by the count of three or I’ll kill you. One, two, three.” Once inside he steals your guns and ammo and sits with you while his colleague takes your debit-card down to the ATM.

Of course that would only happen once or twice, before all the expats put their families onto planes to somewhere else. Maybe the victim’s neighbours would form a vigilante posse and search every place the invader might be hiding. But how many of them would be seen off by other armed householders? Many many, that’s how many. Ridiculous.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

“No Income Tax in Cayman”

As we know, who live here, Cayman has a relatively high international profile. Among Offshore tax-havens we are certainly in the top ten most-recognised, and in some categories in the top five. Financial scandals keep our name alive everywhere – in newspapers, novels and movies, in comic strips and late-night talk-shows. Cruise-ship tourists wear T-shirts that read “I have a secret bank account in the Cayman Islands.”

In my early days here, my mother once passed on a warning from a friend of hers, that Gordon had better keep his wits about him, among all the crooks over in Cayman. The friend was a big wheel in Lloyd’s of London, and when that scandal broke in the late 1980s he found himself among a whole bunch of crooks over in London – well-bred and well-spoken, but crooks by any standard. As for Cayman’s clients: most big-time crooks have the sense to lose themselves in big-city crowds, rather than stick out like sore thumbs in small-town communities like ours.

Most of the world’s professional politicians have secret accounts in one Offshore haven or another, and we get our proportional allocation. But we don’t elect those politicians, or license their lawyers, and we don’t register any bank whose parent company isn’t already registered somewhere else. Barclays, Morgan Stanley, Deutsche Bank, Santander, Bank of Tokyo, Bank of China... not many of those are owned by Caymanian fishermen or taxi-drivers – or our bankers or accountants, come to that.

Outside the world of Offshore business, though, our tax-regime is not well known. Last month, as an idle exercise, I posted four very short (100-300 words) articles in the Cayman Islands sections of four international forums that I subscribe to. Three of the essays were titled “No Income Tax in Cayman” or similar and, the other, “Britain’s favourite tax haven”. Each post received as many hits in a week or ten days as any of my other posts had received in six weeks! (Those other posts were on topics such as Working in Cayman, Retiring in Cayman, and Doing Business in Cayman.) The numbers weren’t high, since Cayman’s sections are not frequented nearly as much as other places. But our absence of Income Tax sparked the interest of casual visitors.

We forget how lucky we are, much of the time. We also forget to honour the people and companies who set up the tax-haven back in the late 1960s, including (yes, this is true!) the British Government and its Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO). All of the promoters did it for their own selfish reasons, but selfish reasons are what drive most economic development. Once established, the tax-haven has been kept alive for the best part of fifty years, by expat professionals, FCO clerks, and local politicians – all acting selfishly while benefitting every resident of Cayman.

The runaway success of our tax-haven brought so much money into government’s coffers that a tax on wages has never been genuinely needed. Yes, our local rulers (politicians and Civil Servants) have spent Public Revenue like drunken sailors, and have borrowed to fund their extravagances. They would like to tax wages, and the FCO has strongly urged that they do; but they are well aware of what happened the last and only time that was tried. That attempt, by our Cabinet-equivalent in 1987, was routed by a ferocious outcry from voters mobilised by our Chamber of Commerce, of all people. We should honour them, too, whose efforts have kept any kind of tax on individual remuneration at bay for 25 years, and counting.

It is the Chamber of Commerce that has also kept Cayman free of any kind of tax on business profits. Government’s bureaucracy plays merry hell with the private sector’s productivity and profitability, but there is a line in the sand that it dare not cross.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Stoned in Alexandria (T 9 - CZ & Egypt 1965)

(The ninth of my travellers’ tales, from March 1965)

We had talked our way out of Egypt with slightly forged currency-exchange slips (see the January 2012 post T-4) and out of Bulgaria with non-exportable local currency notes (March, T-6), and those successes must have gone to my head. But asking Czech border guards to let us cross into East Germany without an entry visa seemed reasonable enough on the face of it; a couple of months later the same sort of trick got us out of East Germany at Checkpoint Charlie (December 2011, T-1).

But this first time, two things worked against us. First, one of the guards spoke fluent English; second, we had way too much time to spare. Live and learn, I know, but the learning isn’t always much fun. I walked into the border-post with quiet confidence, and was carried out (figuratively speaking) like one of Muhammad Ali’s bum-of-the-month victims.

The English-speaking guard was friendly but disbelieving. “We can’t let you through without a visa. And we can’t issue you one. You will have to go back to Prague and get one from the East German Consulate there.” “Well, I’m terribly sorry,” I grovelled. “I thought we could get one here. It’s too late for Prague. The consulate will be closed for the weekend, and our visa for Czechoslovakia expires at midnight tonight. So, can you let us through, please?”

“No, I’m afraid I can’t," he chuckled. "You certainly can’t stay in this country with an expired visa. You can’t get to West Germany from here [I forget why], so what you have to do is drive to Vienna and buy a visa there. There's no other option.” I pulled out my map and measured the distance to Austria. “But it’s 200 kilometres away,” I said. “We’ll never make it in time!” He smiled and checked his watch. “Oh, I’m sure you will,” he said, “if you start right now...” Ugh! I had just enough sense to know that I was beaten – and I had no time to spare.

In the end, we made the Austrian border with twenty minutes to spare, after a nuisance delay by soldiers at a roadblock a few miles out. Westerners speeding towards the border a bit before midnight? Highly, highly, suspicious. In those days it was not unknown for young Westerners to try to smuggle refugees out in their cars. Even VW Beetles had enough room for somebody small and thin, buried under clothing in the front luggage area. Machine guns pointed at us from two feet away conveyed a clear message.

They checked every inch of the car while I explained the innocence of our mission to young conscripts who spoke and understood only Czech. For a shy farm boy brought up in a world without hand gestures, I had learned how helpful they were. In later years, my mother used to beg me to stop waving my arms around when explaining something.

Looking back, the Communist Menace was probably always exaggerated, just as the Islamic Menace is today. Linda and I travelled by car through every Communist-run nation in Europe except Albania. We hitched and bussed through nine Moslem nations plus the Turkish enclaves in Cyprus. Only on one single occasion on our travels did we feel genuinely threatened.

On that occasion, we got lost in a residential labyrinth in a poor area, and an impromptu gang of youngsters in Alexandria, Egypt began throwing stones at us. We represented the European invaders of 1956, to the uneducated stone-throwers - just as today, innocent Afghan wedding parties represent the bombers of the Twin Towers, to uneducated Americans.

An older boy happened upon the scene and led us to safety. And if he hadn’t come along, somebody else would have done. Egyptian cities are very crowded places. The mother of one of the kids would have slapped some sense into them, I expect. We weren’t ever in mortal danger, though it was a bit scary. Served us right for intruding, really. We had pushed our luck, which is always a mistake.