House Speaker Halson Moultrie has once again made the news and not for the reasons he would like.
On Friday, Moultrie met with Vice Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress of the People’s Republic of China Dr. Cai Dafeng during a courtesy call at the Senate.
Dr. Dafeng and his 14-member delegation were taken on a tour of the House of Assembly and the Senate.
They met with Moultrie, Deputy Speaker Don Saunders and Chief Clerk of the House David Forbes.
The courtesy call was also to announce a “donation of $500,000 by the Chinese government to The Bahamas for Hurricane Dorian relief aid”.
Speaking to reporters after the meeting, he said he asked the Chinese to consider developing the southeast region of The Bahamas.
Moultrie said, “We see opportunities for the remainder of the archipelago to develop as we restore and redevelop Grand Bahama and Great Abaco so that it could be a greater population distribution and the southeast Bahamas is the port of entry to The Bahamas from the south.
“That is why I gave my personal recommendations to the Chinese that perhaps one of the considerations as we move forward in a joint development of both nations to look at the possibility of developing the southeast Bahamas and making another economic center in the southeast Bahamas so that we can get a better distribution of our population throughout the archipelago. We think that will augur well not only for The Bahamas but for the entire region.
“I also recommended that we should take a look at removing the correctional facilities out of the capital and putting it in one of the remote places in The Bahamas and I suggested Little Inagua of course because that is strategically positioned at the gateway to The Bahamas from the south.
“We seem to have more problems coming from the south with respect to illegal immigration and with respect to poaching of our Bahamian waters. So, we believe that if we put the proper facilities at that gateway we can better protect ourselves and our sovereignty.”
Moultrie is the head of the legislative branch of government.
In his capacity, he controls what happens in the House. He does not speak for the executive. It is, at the very least, inappropriate for the speaker to lobby Chinese diplomats to consider developing portions of The Bahamas.
When he spoke with The Nassau Guardian on Monday, Moultrie stressed that he had expressed a personal view.
“I was simply stating my personal views, and I still maintain my personal views,” he said.
He added, “What was simply said was that, as a person who hails from Great Inagua, I personally believe, and made it clear…that those were my personal views and convictions with respect to the development of the southeast Bahamas.”
Again, the speaker’s comments were made after the Chinese delegation made a call on him — not as a private citizen, but as the speaker.
Anything he says is framed in that context. He was out of line. He was wrong.
We wonder how members of the delegation must have reacted when they were suddenly pulled into a sales pitch by the leader of a branch of government?
The Chinese have carried out several large-scale developments in The Bahamas, and most of the Caribbean, via the Belt and Road Initiative. The airport gateway project, the national stadium, the Abaco port, Baha Mar and now the Pointe are all Chinese developments that have benefitted the country.
The prime minister loves to make the point that he has personal views on the legalization of marijuana for medical use. But he has not, to date, revealed these views. We believe he feels that to express them would be to verbally set policy that his government seems hesitant to move on.
Regardless, it is concerning that the speaker doesn’t seem to grasp this.
“I wasn’t begging the Chinese for anything, and I never suggested that we were turning over the southeast Bahamas or any part of The Bahamas to the Chinese,” Moultrie said.
True. He never did. But his comments should also be framed in the geopolitical context.
China and the United States are involved in a trade war. We have friendly diplomatic relations with both countries.
The U.S. is our closest neighbor.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian, the U.S. assisted The Bahamas tremendously.
If it were not for that country’s resources, many more Bahamians and others who were in Abaco and Grand Bahama may be dead today.
The U.S. Coast Guard was on the ground on Abaco before any other entity. The Royal Bahamas Defence Force was reliant on the U.S. The prime minister’s first glimpse of Abaco was on board a U.S. carrier.
Food, water, generators, toiletries, doctors, volunteers and thousands of other resources poured in from South Florida. It was overwhelming to witness just how much support our country received from the U.S. in our hour of greatest need.
Yet it was framed another way by U.S. Senator for Florida Marco Rubio.
“The conditions on Abaco and Grand Bahama islands are shocking,” he wrote in an opinion in the Miami Herald on September 14.
“Communities look as if they have been flattened by a bomb, not a storm. With 70,000 Bahamians made homeless by the hurricane’s terrible power, the island nation is in urgent need of the kind of logistical assistance that only the U.S. Defense Department can offer. By devoting available military and medical assets to the effort, we have the ability to help our afflicted neighbors and family members and save Bahamian lives.
“I am advocating these measures because directing resources to assist Bahamians is the right thing to do. But there exists an additional imperative on the security national level, as well: if we fail to rise to the occasion, China will step in to seize the moment and exploit the recovery for its own nefarious purposes.”
Rubio has raised the issue of Chinese involvement in The Bahamas several times.
It colors his view of the country and, we believe, that of many officials in Washington.
The speaker should be well aware that any pronouncements he makes will be scrutinized, especially on the international stage.
Further, we have been down this road before.
In 2016, The Nassau Guardian revealed that then Minister of Agriculture V. Alfred Gray authorized Bahamas Ambassador to China Paul Andy Gomez to pursue a $2.1 billion joint venture agri-fisheries initiative with the Chinese.
According to the proposal, China would have provided $2.1 billion of funding, equipment and expertise over 10 years to 100, 50-50 joint venture companies. The companies would have been half Bahamian and half owned by the Chinese government. The deal would have initially included 10,000 acres of Crown land with the option of this increasing to up to 20,000 acres.
Following public furor over the issue, then Prime Minister Perry Christie declared in Parliament that the initiative was a no-go.
Christie said if such a plan came before Cabinet it would be “rejected outright”.
Rubio also raised this issue in 2017, during the Senate hearing for U.S. President Donald Trump’s nominee for ambassador to The Bahamas “Papa” Doug Manchester.
“My last question involves China and fishing rights,” Rubio said.
“Late last year, it was reported that a Bahamian government official had unauthorized talks with China to lease its waters, the waters of The Bahamas for commercial fishing to the Chinese.
“This without a doubt is concerning because Florida shores are in close proximity.
“And while these talks did not yield an agreement, we remain concerned about the potential that Chinese commercial fishing vessels, which Beijing has used as a type of militia in the South China Sea, would be so close to U.S. waters and potentially involve now a dispute with American commercial and recreational fishing interests in what might be international waters, or even Bahamian waters.”
The speaker should be cognizant that courting the Chinese for any major developments will attract unwanted attention from the United States.
To court such a development is also an insult to the people of the southern Bahamas.
Did the speaker consult the MP for Crooked Island, Acklins, Mayaguana, Inagua, Long Cay and Ragged Island? Did he ask the people on those islands if they were open to prisons and detention facilities being moved to their islands?
The speaker really should have raised the issue of climate change to the Chinese.
China, a superpower, is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.
Maybe he should have pointed to that issue, that our country is a paradise in peril.
We contribute next to nothing to greenhouse gas emissions but we, a small island developing state, will continue to see tremendous adverse impact without strong action from developing nations.