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Indebted Caribbean tax havens look to tax foreign investors

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“This is coming from the same pressure that is affecting other governments around the world: the need to raise revenue,” says Bruce Zagaris, a Washington-based lawyer who has advised Caribbean governments on tax matters. “Small countries, like those in the Caribbean, are more limited in the ability to raise revenue. In many, such as the Bahamas and Cayman Islands, there is no income tax.”

Places like St. Kitts & Nevis and Barbados are among the world’s most indebted governments, with debt-to-gross domestic product ratios of 151 percent and 118 percent, respectively, according to International Monetary Fund (IMF) data. Much-maligned Greece’s debt is only slightly higher at 161 percent, according to the European commission.  

Raising taxes is never easy or popular. But taxes are generally so low or nonexistent in the Caribbean that raising them comes only in dire straits.

“In the Bahamas, we’re approaching a debt ratio of 50 percent, which is not as high as some other places in the Caribbean, but it’s too high for us,” says a high-ranking member of the Bahamas Ministry of Finance whose name was withheld because he is not authorized to speak on the record. “So we have to increase the level of tax we collect to balance it out.”

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