Last month, Haiti’s National Bureau of Election Disputes issued a decision that sent shockwaves through the country’s political class, ruling current First Lady Sophia Martelly ineligible to contest a Senate seat in this year’s elections. The first lady, who was born in New York, was unable to show proof that she had renounced her American citizenship, and this disqualified her from seeking elected office in Haiti.
Although the high profile of the interested party attracted increased attention, Martelly is far from the first Caribbean political aspirant for whom a second passport became a political liability. Indeed she’s not even the first in her family: her husband, President Michel Martelly was the subject of a Senate inquiry investigating whether he himself had ever held a US passport.
Haiti is just the latest Caribbean country to experience a political drama centred around dual citizenship. Below is a review of recent controversies and policy debates surrounding the ability of dual citizens to hold political office from across the Caribbean
Limits on the ability of elected officials to hold dual citizenship vary across the Caribbean. At one extreme are Suriname and Cuba, which do not even recognise dual citizenship for any of their citizens. Similarly, The Bahamas doesn’t allow anyone over the age of 21 to maintain dual citizenship. At the other end of the spectrum is Barbados, where the previous Prime Minister, David Thompson, was born in the UK and was never required to surrender his British passport. The rest of the Caribbean countries fall somewhere in between, with most limiting, at least officially, the political involvement of dual citizens.
Last year in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Senator Camillo Gonsalves, who is also the country’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Foreign Trade and Information Technology, was compelled to release an open letter in response to rumours that he still held dual citizenship, and was thus disqualified from being a Senator. Gonsalves announced that he had renounced his US citizenship before his appointment, but insisted that even is he had not done so, he would not be disqualified from serving.
In Dominica, Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit was taken to court by the political opposition, who alleged that his dual citizenship with France put him in breach of the country’s electoral code. In 2012, the Dominican High Court ruled that Skeritt had not actively sought to obtain French citizenship (it was obtained by his Guadeloupean mother), and was thus not disqualified, a decision that was upheld in 2013 by the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court of Appeal. A similar case was also brought against Education Minister Peter St Jean, with the same result.
Meanwhile, in the run-up to elections in Trinidad and Tobago this year, the Opposition People’s National Movement removed Ken Dalchand from its candidate list because of his American passport. Political parties in T&T have been very vigilant about screening out dual citizens ever since a court case in 2001 that saw two MPs with dual citizenships stripped of their seats.
Jamaica is only a few years removed from a series of controversies which saw seven MPs, spanning both main parties, forced to resign their seats. The unseated MPs were allowed to re-contest their former seats, only if they renounced their second citizenships.
In Belize, an attempt to amend the Constitution to allow dual citizens to run for office was defeated in 2010, but the issue continues to resurface and Prime Minister Dean Barrow has suggested a new amendment with several modifications might be proposed in the future.
Interestingly, some British Overseas Territories are more permissive of dual citizens’ political involvement than are many sovereign Commonwealth nations. For example, in 2013, the Grand Court of the Cayman Islands rejected a petition against Tara Rivers, the territory’s Education and Employment Minister, who is also a US citizen. The court ruled that, since Rivers was entitled to US citizenship at birth, she had not sworn allegiance to a foreign power, even though she voluntary renewed her US passport.
Whilst Caribbean countries are not alone in restricting dual citizens from holding elected office (Germany, for example, doesn’t recognise dual nationality, and Australia doesn’t allow dual citizens in Parliament) these laws have a much more pronounced effect in the Caribbean for a simple reason:
For small countries with diasporas that are comparatively large relative to the total population, restrictions against dual citizens impact a much larger percentage of the nation’s citizenry. World Bank figures for Suriname and Jamaica put the “Stock of emigrants as percentage of population” for the two countries at 39% and 36.1% respectively. And for smaller Caribbean countries, the proportion of emigrants living abroad is often higher still: For Grenada it’s 65.5%.
Contrast this with Egypt – another country that bans dual citizens from running for office – where the percentage is only 4.4%.
Although not all Caribbean emigrants will obtain a second passport from the country where they reside, many will, meaning a significant share of the citizenry is effectively cut off from the country’s political life.
The issue is further complicated in some countries by the ambiguity of the relevant electoral laws. Many Caribbean countries have provisions in their constitutions which prohibit the holding of office by persons who owe “allegiance, obedience or adherence” to a foreign government; yet, as the cases above demonstrate,these terms can be, and indeed have been interpreted in different ways by different courts.
Until laws are either clarified — to delineate exactly what constitutes a foreign “allegiance, obedience or adherence” and who is therefore disqualified from office — or else reformed to allow dual citizens to contest elections, it seems certain that this issue will continue to stir up political dramas in more Caribbean countries.