Pandora Papers show how wealthy elite hide their fortunes

Retired Haitian businessman Gilbert Bigio

MIAMI — When the Jeffrey Epstein estate needed to sell off assets to compensate victims and cover litigation costs, retired Haitian businessman Gilbert Bigio was the man with the money. He purchased the disgraced financier’s Mercedes Maybach sedan in Paris for a cool sum of about $132,000.

Bigio, 86, is a well-known power broker in Haiti’s political circles. When Haitians talk about families that run the country, the Bigios invariably come up.

A new and massive global leak of secret offshore shell company documents shows just how far-reaching his empire stretches — and how the Caribbean’s wealthy elite have for decades masked their fortunes and protected their assets through offshore shell companies that point to Swiss bank accounts.

Dubbed the Pandora Papers, the leak involves more than 11.9 million documents from 14 global offshore service providers — companies or law firms that create offshore entities, often with obscure and complex ownership structures. Collectively, the Pandora Papers show how the wealthy elite across the globe shield, even hide their fortunes.

There are legitimate reasons for seeking the anonymity a shell company provides. Secrecy can prevent a seller from jacking up the price if the buyer is a celebrity, smooth the process of a merger in the works or enable an individual to legally minimize their tax obligations.

Bigio retired as CEO of the GB Group in 2018, and is frequently referred to as a billionaire, yet hails from the hemisphere’s poorest country. It’s a nation torn apart by earthquakes, corruption, gang violence and this summer’s horrifying assassination of the president.

The Pandora Papers show the Bigios, sometime Miami residents, used offshores in multiple tax havens and moved wealth to Miami and to Switzerland.

Who are they?

Along with his son Reuven, 48, Gilbert Bigio controls the GB Group he founded in 1972. The conglomerate’s reach extends to the entire Haitian economy, from providing construction supplies and fuel to offering household necessities like cooking oil and food. He has branched out as well into the Dominican side of Hispaniola.

GB Group, which boasts offices in the tony Florida city of Aventura, over the past decade constructed Haiti’s private Port Lafito container terminal and free-trade zone. Much of what is bought, sold or consumed in Haiti is likely to touch some corner of the Bigio empire.

Despite that grip on the Haitian economy, Bigio prefers to operate behind the scenes. He’s not considered allied to any politician or political party or diplomats who have worked in Haiti over the years. The family, sanctioned by the United States in the 1990s, mostly refuses interviews.

Why it matters

Haiti carries the ignominious title of the Western Hemisphere country with the highest levels of income inequality. It makes the Bigio family wealth, at least partly hidden behind offshore shell companies, even more notable.

Haiti’s business barons, portrayed by American diplomats in the 1990s as the Morally Repugnant Elite — MREs for short — have built their wealth by establishing and controlling monopolies on imports, and have been accused of profiting off chaos and dysfunction in Haiti while offering limited investment in social programs for the poor majority.

“The result of the wealth drain from Haiti is devastating,” Kalman said.

The International Monetary Fund said as much in its April 2020 report on Haiti, its most recent. The IMF noted that from 2015 to 2020, Haiti collected tax revenue akin to 13% of the size of its overall economy, with only Panama and Venezuela collecting less. The United States by comparison averaged 24.5% as of 2019.

The inability to collect tax revenue limits what Haiti can spend on combating poverty. The IMF made a direct link between elites and income inequality.

“This is related to a concentration of resources in the hands of a small but powerful group of elites, many of whom have dominated entire sectors of the Haitian economy” since the days of dictatorship, the report said.

Why offshores?

The Bigios have since expanded into energy in both Haiti and the Dominican Republic, telecommunications and more recently a private port terminal.

Another successful Haitian businessman, on the condition that he not be identified in order to speak freely, said Gilbert Bigio is “a shrewd businessman.”

“He takes care of his workers but will fire them at the drop of a hat, too. He’s not crass, and he’s not cheap.”

The Bigios are celebrated in Jewish publications for preserving the island’s only Torah, the scroll of the Hebrew Bible. Radical Haitian websites, often rife with antisemitism, decry them as part of a light-skinned ruling class that controls the wealth of the overwhelmingly Black country.

That distinction looms large in any conversation about Haiti and its income inequality, cautioned Vicki J. Huddleston, a retired U.S. ambassador to two African nations who worked in Haiti in the ‘90s and again from 2013 to 2015.

“This tiny white or whitish minority controls the resources of the country,” she said in an August interview, before she came out of retirement for a temporary post in Africa. “They control the resources, and they’re not terribly good about putting them back into the country.”

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