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Prime Minister of the British Virgin Islands rejects direct government from London

Acting Prime Minister of the British Virgin Islands Natalio Wheatley has rejected as ‘unacceptable’ the reimposition of direct rule from London, sparking a confrontation with the UK over the central recommendation of an official inquiry into the corruption and maladministration in the Caribbean tax haven. .

The investigative report was released on Friday and found “appalling” failings in BVI governance and a “high likelihood” that serious corruption had occurred. His main recommendation, “made with a heavy heart”, was to partially suspend the islands’ constitution and impose direct government by the crown-appointed governor for up to two years.

But Wheatley, who took over as acting prime minister after elected Island leader Andrew Fahie was arrested last Thursday on charges of drug trafficking and money laundering in Miami, said “the direct regime would undermine any progress that our people have achieved over the generations”.

“We strongly believe that the people of the Virgin Islands are capable of working together with the UK to implement the agreed recommendations of the [inquiry] report,” Wheatley said in a Facebook broadcast Saturday night. “We are preparing proposals to this end.”

His hardline stance – more a hint that protests against direct rule were planned – set the stage for a difficult meeting on Monday with visiting Foreign Secretary Amanda Milling, who had rushed to the BVI after the arrest of Fahie to discuss how to implement the recommendations of the survey. .

A British Overseas Territory of 30,000 people in the Eastern Caribbean, the BVI is a preferred tax haven for more than 370,000 front companies holding over $1.5 billion in assets for individuals and businesses around the world entire. In recent years, according to law enforcement officials, the archipelago has also become a preferred route for cocaine trafficking from South America to the United States.

The inquiry, led by former Court of Appeal judge Sir Gary Hickinbottom, focused on governance and did not examine in detail alleged collusion between the island’s top officials and drug traffickers. He found many instances of large expenditures of public money without proper scrutiny and concluded that the people of the BVI had been “very badly served” by their elected government.

The islands’ 2007 constitution codified a hybrid form of administration, similar to some other British Caribbean territories, under which a London-appointed governor looks after defence, security and policing, while A locally elected government manages all other matters, including the budget.

Fahie’s arrest last week during a sting operation at a Miami airport by undercover US agents, along with BVI Ports Director Oleanvine Maynard, has been investigated separately from the Drug Enforcement Administration. This was unrelated to the Hickinbottom inquiry but prompted the UK government to act quickly on the commission’s recommendations.

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office declined to comment on Sunday, but referred to remarks by Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who said Friday that Fahie’s arrest “underscores the need for action urgent”. She added that the inquiry report “shows clearly that substantial legislative and constitutional change is required to restore the standards of governance to which the people of the British Virgin Islands are entitled”.

But Wheatley, a first-time lawmaker from one of the islands’ leading political families, said he had the full support of the Virgin Islands’ ruling party to permanently succeed Fahie as prime minister and to s to oppose the direct regime. The main opposition BVI party also rejected the idea.

With elected lawmakers firmly opposed to direct rule and the wider Caribbean region increasingly critical of Britain and its imperial history, London must now decide to ignore the wishes of the islanders or to allow the elected government, which has been so heavily criticized for mismanagement by the inquiry, to try to reform itself.