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Stanford makes worldwide mas

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Millions of people all over the world – in Trinidad and Tobago, Rio, Dominica, Europe – were this week enjoying their annual Carnival celebrations, “playing mas” as we say in the Caribbean. But perhaps an even greater number of the world’s citizens were far from deriving enjoyment from being the unwitting victims of a different kind of “mas” being played by international financier Allen Stanford.{{more}} If one uses the carnival analogy, one would recall the” traditional robbers” of “ole mas” fame with the revelers all dressed up in disguise.

Sir Allen Stanford at last got his wish, to be the focus of world-wide attention, if not quite in the manner that he may have most desired. The man who spent the last two decades and more seeking international attention finally achieved just that, being the centre of a global scandal which rivalled that of the Bernie Madoff’s $50 billion heist and left many a tearful eye and torn-out hair in its wake. The empire of the high-flying, flamboyant Texan/Antiguan came crashing to earth with the revelations of charges of civil and criminal fraud, money laundering, and even investigations about possible links to lethal narco-traffickers.

In Britain, Stanford’s latest scene of operations, the mass media is having a field day. The sheer scope of Stanford’s activities and apparent daring is really mind-boggling, if media reports are to be believed. In turn, we in the Caribbean, who so warmly welcomed the baron, are all busy trying to find who is to blame for this latest blot on our reputation. It goes far beyond cricket or Antigua, Stanford’s host nation, for the Caribbean itself has had to wage a protracted battle to justify our right to attract offshore banking activities. Our successful rebuff of money-laundering accusations may well be undermined by the revelations of the “Stanford affair”.

Several aspects of this sordid affair are worth examining if we are to learn anything from the Stanford experience. First is the degree to which we are susceptible to the lure of money. The more Stanford splurged “his” millions, (it may turn out, rather, to be the investments of millions of people), the more we drowned out the warning sounds and ignored the flashing red lights. For over a decade, ever since his initial foray into Montserrat, there were signs that “all that glitters….” Having beat a hasty retreat from that island, Stanford found a most willing host in neighbouring Antigua. Indeed such was his welcome there that he became virtually king. Antigua’s airport is named after its national hero Vere Cornwall Bird, but as soon as one steps out of its boundaries, it is Allen Stanford, not V.C. Bird, who confronts you. No wonder, the government of Antigua recommended him to Queen Elizabeth for a knighthood, giving the wily Texan the aura of respectability he so obviously craved.

Investors in countries far and wide, lured by quick returns, found their way into Stanford’s web. The chaos left behind and the mad scramble to try and recover investments are the result. It is as if no one stopped to ask: “isn’t this too good to be true?” “How could Stanford be offering such high returns on investments when the money markets are all contracting?” Perhaps they were all taken in by Stanford’s charm, another warning signal for us. This man knew how to ‘work the system’. He carefully cultivated the air of a super-successful financier. In addition, he craftily sought social respectability by sponsoring the “right” events and hob-nobbing with royalty and some of the big names of sport and the entertainment world. The millions spent on sport endeared him to us all, crowning it with the $20 million twenty-20 match in Antigua last November. He seemed to be able to do no wrong and had just about everybody eating out of his hands, and even cricketers’ wives rocking on his lap! Should we not reflect? Cynically, even some of those that seemed to benefit from his largesse appear to have been caught in his trap. There are media reports that some of the cricketing millionaires from the Twenty20 may have re-invested their money with Stanford.

Another skillful area of operation of Sir Allen is in the time-tested area of political donations. You only have to go to Antigua in the height of election campaigning to hear who got what. In fact, when the current Antiguan prime Minister made critical remarks about Stanford publicly, you could hear the rest of the Caribbean, with notable exceptions, saying “If they don’t want him, let him come here”. When our Prime Minister Gonsalves took on Stanford in his quest to rule our skies, his own people, and many others in the Caribbean were of the opinion that he should “shut up and leave Stanford alone.” Who’s laughing now? In the face of allegations that Stanford may have used his fleet of planes for murky activities, just think of free skies over the Caribbean! Heaven help us all!

Stanford did not confine himself to the small fish in Caribbean waters either. His project was far more grand than that. The US media claims that his companies spent some US$4.8 million on lobbying politicians in the US Congress between 1999 and 2008. Both Democrats and Republicans were recipients. Very big names are on the list. The 2001 Inaugural Committee of George Bush got a donation of $100,000, the Obama campaign reputedly received $31,750 (there have been reports that this donation has been returned), McCain ($28,000), Clinton ($6,900), Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and Bill Richardson are among the heavyweights mentioned. The guy knew what he was doing!

This brings us to the most frightening part of the allegations. It apparently is not just financial fraud and the Securities and Exchange Commission on Stanford’s trail. Reports are that the FBI and the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) are investigating him for possible links with international drug-traffickers, including money-laundering. Most worryingly, the allegations against Stanford link him to one of the most violent gangs in the narcotics world. Since the Montserrat days, Stanford’s Guardian International Bank was suspected of money-laundering on behalf of the notorious Medellin/Cali cliques controlled by the murderous Pablo Escobar and the Orejuela brothers. Now it is another equally vicious gang, the Mexican Gulf Cartel, responsible for over 7,000 murders in Mexico, around whom the investigations are being based. US intelligence sources have told the media that one of Stanford’s private jets was searched and cheques and cash linking him with the Gulf Cartel were found. Investigations are continuing.

This is not just a romantic story. For a region as vulnerable as the Caribbean; it is a most worrying one. We have been caught time and again by all kinds of briefcase wielding crooks posing as international investors. One only has to create the impression of wealth or respectability and we drop our guard. Just imagine if we had handed the Caribbean-cricket, air travel, government-over to Stanford’s “wisdom and financial acumen”? Where would we be today? What damage has been done to the integrity of our well-respected banking system in the Eastern Caribbean? It is hoped that timely action by the ECCCB may protect our precious EC dollar. What of all the efforts expended to safeguard our reputation as a “clean haven for offshore financial services”?

We must learn and avoid being so gullible or greedy in the future.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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