Dominica crisis update: Prime Minister Skerrit struggling for political survival

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By GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs

Dominica’s Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit, seemingly beset by scandals and protests began, on the weekend of Feb. 11-12, to implement his decisive — or perhaps desperate — moves toward consolidating total power in the Caribbean island Commonwealth.

But it may be too late to save his government, giving the mounting public demands for him to resign.

Dominica’s Prime Minister Roosevelt in China Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit concluded a deal in China with the ASCG firm to construct an airport.

The result could have significant ramifications for the position of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the Caribbean, which had been using Dominica as a major springboard for international operations, particularly geared at penetration of the United States. Prime Minister Skerrit had, without consulting Parliament, switched Dominica’s diplomatic relations from the Republic of China (ROC: Taiwan) to the PRC in 2004, a process which also saw the start of a series of overlapping crises for the Dominica Government.

Premier Skerrit’s actions seemed to be modeled on the approach of Turkish Pres. Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan’s actions of July 15, 2016, with a fake coup attempt followed by a suppression of all opposition. And President Erdoğan’s operation itself seemed to be modeled on Adolf Hitler’s Reichstag fire putsch of Feb. 27, 1933.

Related:   Unrest roils Dominica after reports reveal government’s collusion with China, Iran, Feb. 8

Mr. Skerrit’s growing suppression of domestic rivalry in Dominica was, however, matched by a commensurate decline in international credibility and access as information and allegations about corruption began to gain notoriety as a result of both the protest movements and the arrests of numerous Skerrit acquaintances around the world.

Arrests of opposition politicians had already begun, and then, on Feb. 12, of opposition member of Parliament Dr Thomson Fontaine (UWP: United Workers Party), a former senior International Monetary Fund (IMF) economist. Dr Fontaine was arrested by the Police Special Services Unit (SSU) as he left radio station Q95 in Roseau, the capital, after he had made criticisms of Prime Minister Skerrit’s appointment of alleged money launderers as ambassadors of Dominica.

A major street protest erupted outside Police headquarters while Dr Fontaine was being questioned, and, after several hours, he was released and asked to return at 09.00 hrs next day. He was then carried through the streets of Roseau by his supporters. He voluntarily returned to Police headquarters on Feb. 13, and was told that there would be no charges against him.

Skerrit had labeled the peaceful demonstration on Feb. 7, as an attempted coup d’etat against his Government, and subsequently has promoted claims that the opposition had planned to launch a seizure of the Prime Minister’s office during the demonstrations, but that this had been thwarted by police action. No evidence supported the Prime Minister’s contention, and there was evidence that his own supporters had begun a burning and looting spree after the street protest march. But the allegation was sufficient for Skerrit to initiate the arrests, with UWP leader Linton Lennox now slated for arrest. He was reported, on Feb. 12, to have gone into hiding outside Roseau.

Skerrit had called for a rally by his own supporters to confront the demonstration of Feb. 7, but only a handful of people came out to support him.

Despite the attempts to suppress the protests, the opposition movement has, however, gained momentum, with allegations of a range of corrupt activities by the Prime Minister and a number of his ministers and officials, widely linked to the Citizenship by Investment (CBI) program. It was now becoming clear that the Prime Minister was also linked to a number of construction schemes arranged with Chinese (PRC) investors but never completed. Local Dominican sources said that these — as with similar schemes elsewhere in the Caribbean — were investment scams, unrelated to the PRC Government actions in the region.

Skerrit’s lawyer, Anthony Astaphan, denied — in a written statement to GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs — on Feb. 12, that the Prime Minister had amassed an illegal fortune, or that he lived a lavish lifestyle when traveling internationally, which he did constantly. Skerrit’s salary as Prime Minister, Minister for Finance, Foreign Affairs & Information Technology is EC$8,000 (US$2,963) a month, and yet he reportedly owns significant properties in and outside of Dominica, mostly through proxies.

Mr. Astaphan noted, in an email to GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs on Feb. 12: “I am not sure where you got the information from that the Prime Minister has millions stashed away. The opposition party has been making this allegation for years. They have also alleged he owns an apartment it in the USA. To date not a shred of evidence, despite the Prime Minister’s multiple denials, have even been produced. You also spoke of the Prime Minister’s life style. What lifestyle were you referring to? These are extraordinary allegations which have been made against the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister has denied these allegations ad nauseum.”

It is significant that this Service did not say that Skerrit had “millions stashed away”, but there is ample evidence that he controlled property in the U.S., as well as Lilac Villas in Barbados, five houses in St. Kitts, and other properties. His U.S. property — a substantial condominium in Long Island City, New York — was reportedly owned in the name of his wife, Melissa Poponne Skerrit. Other properties, reportedly in New York and New Jersey, were owned in the names of other associates. Indeed, even his lawyer, Astaphan, was described by one source close to Skerrit as having fronted for the Prime Minister on property acquisitions. Astaphan is at the forefront of denying all allegations against the Prime Minister, but has not answered specific questions put to him. [This Service has a list of property addresses, allegedly controlled by Skerrit, apart from his alleged benefit from property transactions in Dominica involving PRC-based investors.]

As to “lifestyle”, Skerrit has been photographed at functions with a range of associates — including several holders of Dominican diplomatic passports now under arrest or indictment — around the world, and often at functions with large numbers of young women.

Skerrit has also worked to ensure that his party has been re-elected consistently since 2004, even to the point where his party — the Dominica Labor Party (DLP) — has chartered airliners to fly U.S.-resident Dominicans back to their country of origin to vote, and then rewarded the voters.

Despite the allegedly high regard in which Prime Minister Skerrit was supposedly held in the Caribbean and despite the political connections of his lawyer, Astaphan, who is married to the daughter of former Antigua Prime Minister Sir Lester Bird, no Caribbean leader has spoken out in defense of Skerrit since the crisis began.

Astaphan, who had attempted to pressure Gregory Copley, the President of the International Strategic Studies Association (ISSA) which produces the GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs reports, to change this Service’s reporting on the Dominica crisis, went on Government-controlled radio on Feb. 12-13, to denounce the reporting of this Service, saying that Copley was being paid by the Dominican opposition.

Copley responded: “This is typical of the kind of behavior we have seen from Astaphan, acting on Mr Skerrit’s behalf. He refuses to answer direct questions. He lies and obfuscates, and produces no evidence to counter hard facts. Neither I, nor the Association or our services, have taken any money or favors from the Dominican opposition, or, indeed, anyone in any Caribbean political or business community. And Astaphan knows that he is just throwing out desperate statements to avert a mounting political crisis. This is an ‘eleventh hour’ type of reaction; it is evidence that the Government has run out of plans and resources to face the protests.”

Astaphan himself maintains his residence in the U.S.: at 649 Conservation Drive, Weston, Florida 33327-2468. And he told GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs that his client, Skerrit, had no properties in the U.S., and yet Mrs Skerrit was, on Feb. 13, expected to arrive at their New York property at 475 48th Avenue, Apartment 2502, Long Island City, NY, apparently with her two children, Dmitry Roosevelt Skerrit (born Nov. 27, 2013), and Isabella Cherry-Ann Skerrit (born on Oct. 29, 2016). The Prime Minister married Melissa Skerrit on May 11, 2013. [Mr Skerrit also had one son, Malik, with Yvette Laurent.]

Astaphan was believed to be behind a number of disinformation operations designed to discredit the U.S.-based opposition movement. This included reports being published on the internet by a Dominican based in the U.S. Virgin Islands with doctored photographs of several opposition figures with a photo shopped image of them carrying a sign saying “We stand against Dominica”; the original of the photograph, in the possession of GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs, shows the placard bearing the title of “Dominicans for the Defense of Democracy”.

Meanwhile, in Dominica, Thomas Letang, the general secretary of the Dominica Public Service Union (DPSU), on Feb. 10, came out in support of an earlier call for a commission of enquiry into the various scandals which had erupted in the Commonwealth based on the sale of passports. The Government had expressly rejected and condemned the call for such a commission of enquiry. As well, the “catch and release” — twice — of Dr. Fontaine by the Police indicated the divisions within the Police as a whole, especially since it was known that the Commissioner had been given an ultimatum by the Prime Minister to arrest the opposition politicians or lose his job.

The question by Feb. 13, was whether there was a mechanism in place to effect a transfer of power from the Skerrit government, given that the President of Dominica, Charles Savarin, of the Dominica Labour Party (DLP), was appointed on Oct. 2, 2013, by the Parliament controlled by his political mentor, Prime Minister Skerrit, leader of the DLP. It was unlikely that President Savarin would voluntarily call for Parliament to be prorogued and new elections called, although such a move was constitutionally feasible in the Commonwealth of Dominica.

As it stood by Feb. 13, Prime Minister Skerrit’s only remaining option was to refuse to leave office, given that he could not mobilize any public or regional support. But the final act which could cause a breakdown in his posture was likely to be if the Police force and the civil service refused the orders of his government.