Unpacking Expo 2020

Whether for missions, sports, cultural displays, high-level talks, or any number of reasons, governments facilitate travel for their officials, other citizens and representatives to foreign countries. This is routine.

Though the COVID-19 pandemic closed borders and halted much of what would be normal trips funded by the government and various private interests, foreign trips are nothing new and should be nothing sensational.

On Friday, Prime Minister Philip Brave Davis and his wife, Ann Marie, Minister of Foreign Affairs Fred Mitchell and Minister of Youth, Sports and Culture Mario Bowleg departed for Dubai to participate in Expo 2020, a six-month event delayed by the pandemic until October 2021.

Police Commissioner Paul Rolle was also on the trip, announcing plans to tour the security exhibits at the expo and meet with law enforcement officials to gain a greater understanding of how police operate in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

The Royal Bahamas Police Force Band also went along to perform at The Bahamas pavilion at the expo.

There were rumblings when Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) Press Secretary Clint Watson went on the trip, not apparently in his capacity as press secretary, but as leader of local Gospel choir Shaback.

Then a cavalcade of videos and social media posts of Bahamians taunting their countrymen about being home while they basked in the luxury of Dubai at the expense of Bahamian taxpayers made the rounds, creating an uproar.

Several Progressive Liberal Party supporters who were apparently left behind, took to social media to air their grievances.

Free National Movement (FNM) supporters and others of no particular political persuasion began questioning why taxpayer dollars were funding the trip and questioned the selection of performers.

The OPM released a statement claiming the government budgeted up to $1 million for the trip with an additional $3.5 million coming from the UAE as well as half a million dollars coming from the private sector.

The release further claimed that the Minnis administration budgeted $1.7 million for Expo 2020.

When questioned, former Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis said his government did not allocate any funds specifically for Expo 2020, stating, “My government was not prepared to sponsor a feel-good trip or vacation for anybody.”

He said his government’s view was that if the Ministry of Tourism thought the trip was necessary, then the Ministry of Tourism should fund it from its own budget, which, of course, is funded by taxpayer dollars.

We question why if this “feel-good” trip just “came up”, the former prime minister accepted a $100,000 donation from Aliv to fund the trip on October 28, 2019.

On his official Twitter account, the prime minister said that day, “The funds will go toward #TheBahamas Pavillion that will showcase the country’s resilience in the wake of Hurricane Dorian.”

We also wonder why then-Deputy Prime Minister Peter Turnquest accepted $200,000 from Gonet Bank & Trust to help fund the “feel-good” Expo 2020 on October 10, 2019.

At the time, Turnquest said, “This is a part of the world that we have not historically pursued aggressively, so we are happy for this opportunity to expose not only our natural elements of sun, sand and sea but also our products and services.”

Regardless of the shared intentions of funding Expo 2020 by successive administrations since 2016, the FNM on Sunday demanded to know the cost of the trip and an itemized list of who attended and why.

True to form, Mitchell, the country’s chief diplomat, responded undiplomatically by describing such calls as coming from “idle FNM trolls and propagandists and…FNM politicians who can’t tell the truth if it slaps them in the face”.

To be clear, every government has a duty of care to explain why it is funding trips and who is representing the Bahamian people on such trips – with successive governments often failing to answer requests to disclose the same.

However, there is no need for such political theater surrounding this trip.

So petty has the discourse become that the police commissioner took to Twitter to “set the record straight”.

“…The Bahamas government did not pay for my trip to Dubai and did not give me any per diem,” the commissioner said.

If that is the case, then the government of The Bahamas is in dereliction of its duty to our constitutionally appointed chief law enforcement officer.

If the people did not pay for his trip, who did?

The statements emanating from so many, over a trip that should not be so controversial, leave several questions to be answered. We plan to further unpack this issue in this space.

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