Barbuda’s citizens have accused Robert De Niro of conspiring to exploit the still recovering Caribbean island, by participating in backroom deals to change communal land ownership law in favor of wealthy foreign investors and developers.
Earlier this month, with almost no news coverage, and with most Barbudans still displaced by Hurricane Irma, an amendment to the law in question was quietly pushed through the Senate of Antigua and Barbuda. But as news of the amendment trickles out, Barbudans are fighting back, challenging the legality of the amendment to the Barbuda Land Act. And they say the island’s highest-profile investor, De Niro, stands to benefit most from the legislation.
“It’s just a scam to take away the land from the Barbudans so they can give it to people like Robert de Niro,” said Mackenzie Frank, a former senator from the island. “Anyone who has beach land is laughing all the way to the bank.”
To many Americans, the role De Niro played in Barbuda seemed downright heroic. In the weeks following Hurricane Irma’s destructive aftermath, he appeared at the United Nations and on major networks like CNN, pledging to personally help with Barbuda’s reconstruction, while urging governments and international agencies to pony up aid and stand with the “vulnerable.” In interviews, De Niro only briefly mentioned that he had a hotel project in development on the island, but only to justify his ‘compassion’ for the people there.
In 2014, the actor partnered with Australian billionaire investor James Packer to develop an exclusive luxury hotel. They bought a large parcel of beachfront property belonging to an abandoned resort, once frequented by Princess Diana. Attracted to the island’s unspoiled white beaches, shallow turquoise waters, and slow pace, De Niro and Packer unveiled plans to significantly expand the property and rebrand it as “Paradise Found Nobu.”
But there were limits to how large and how lavish their new resort could be. That’s because Barbuda’s unique and democratic collective land ownership structure keeps the pace of development in check. The former slave island is now run as a democratic cooperative, with decisions about land use driven by an elected council, and approvals for major developments going to a popular vote. The Barbuda Land Act is the legislative representation of the islanders’ desire to keep Barbuda a paradise for the people who inhabit it.
For investors with big dreams and deep pockets, the Barbuda Land Act was nothing but an inconvenience. It placed strict limits on the length of their leases, the footprint of their properties, and the infrastructure that could service them. It also required a great deal of democratic engagement with Barbuda’s residents, as opposed to the usual top-down deals De Niro and Packer were accustomed to.
De Niro and Packer have not navigated this legal landscape well, choosing instead to gain exceptions to the Land Act from the Antigua-based government of Prime Minister Gaston Browne, a former banker who consistently casts Barbuda as a “welfare island.” De Niro has found a fierce ally in Browne. Months before the Barbudan approval process could even begin, the prime minister signed a memorandum of agreement with the actor, promising a 198-year lease of 555 acres for just $6.2 million, plus an array of tax benefits. He went further, dubbing De Niro an official “economic envoy” of Antigua and Barbuda.
In short, these radical changes would retroactively enshrine in law a version of what Gaston Browne attempted to do — against the legal objections of many Barbudans — for Paradise Found. De Niro and Packer’s property is specifically named at the end of the amendment, making it abundantly clear that it is covered by these new foreign business-friendly laws.
This approach has not gone over well with many Barbudans, who see it as a railroading of their democratic rules. It’s a conflict that has landed De Niro and Packer in a protracted legal mess, with hundreds of Barbudans signing a petition against their plans for Paradise Found. Members of the political party Barbuda People’s Movement sued the project, arguing that the referendum approving it illegally allowed non-Barbudans to vote and failed to anonymize the ballots.
Despite heavy opposition to the amendment by a vast majority of Barbudans, they have been unable to organize efforts to fight the change. Upwards of 90 percent of the buildings in Barbuda were damaged by Irma, and all residents were evacuated to Antigua.
To this day, Barbuda remains without power or running water. Only around 400 people have returned, in part because the schools have not reopened, leaving families with children stuck in Antigua, many still in temporary shelters. Although a state of emergency expired in October, the military never left. Now many are asking why — despite an outpouring of aid — reconstruction has been so slow.
Those who have objected to the efforts to bypass Barbuda’s democratic process are quick to explain that they do not oppose Paradise Found entirely, nor are they anti-tourism. As council member Kendra Beazer said, “We want that type of development on Barbuda in terms of [De Niro’s] reputation and recognition worldwide. However, he needs to respect the Barbudans and their way of life and work with us.”