Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life - Neil Strauss (2009)
Part III. ESCAPE
As soon as I returned to my hotel room, I tore The Passport Book open again and skimmed the nationalization requirements for each country, hoping for an answer.
According to the author, several countries have loopholes that allow easier citizenships based on technicalities—for example, conceiving a child with a Brazilian woman, having a parent or grandparent who was a citizen of Ireland, proving a parent or grandparent was a German refugee during World War II, or having a Greek citizen for a father.
Unfortunately, I had no relatives who were Irish or Greek, none of my German relatives were refugees, and I hadn’t impregnated any Brazilian women lately.
The easiest option was Israel, which grants citizenships after ninety days of residency not just to all Jews but to anyone who converts to Judaism. However, not only would Israel be the worst place to live if a major war broke out in the Middle East, but military service is compulsory for both men and women there.
When I finished The Passport Book, I researched W. G. Hill online, then ordered electronic versions of three of his books.
To my disappointment, I discovered that the expression “In this world, nothing is certain but death and taxes” is acutely true for Americans, making it nearly impossible to become a PT like Greg.
After a 1994 Forbes article titled “The New Refugees” exposed a cabal of billionaires like Kenneth Dart (whose father invented the Styrofoam coffee cup) and John Dorrance III (whose father invented condensed soup) that had expatriated to avoid taxes, Congress passed a law obligating most Americans who renounce their citizenship to continue to pay taxes for another ten years, regardless of whether they reenter the country or not.
Another loophole allowed Americans to obtain a second citizenship, become a consul in their new home country, and then claim diplomatic immunity from U.S. taxes. But the government had made that impossible as well. In his book, Hill suggested a few workarounds, but they entailed never coming back to America—or returning only under an alias. And I wasn’t ready to make that sacrifice.
All this research into escaping America was inadvertently making me appreciate it more. Not only was I unwilling to forsake the country permanently, but there wasn’t anywhere else I was willing to live full-time.
As the sun rose outside my hotel window, I fell asleep discouraged, my head flooded with inconclusive data. I felt like I was living in a house with no doors. I was happy there, but if a fire broke out, I’d be burned alive. I needed an emergency exit.
When I walked into the conference room late the next morning, a speaker was warning attendees that information on every bank transaction of more than $10,000 is sent to the U.S. Treasury to track potential financial crimes. I wondered how many people in the audience were actually wealthy enough to make all these asset protection and privacy efforts worth the effort. They seemed to be richer in fear than actual money.
In the back row sat my first hope for escape: a bald, well-dressed Panamanian named Ramsés Owens, Esq. I approached and asked him about the requirements for citizenship in his country. He informed me that it would take five years to get a passport, though I could get an investor visa to obtain instant residency by investing $100,000 in a Panamanian business.
I thanked him and moved on. I was hitting dead ends everywhere. Walking away from the seminar empty-handed would leave me with little option besides a tombstone passport.
On the other side of the room, Wendell Lawrence filled a folding chair. He was a big man, reminiscent of a slightly rounder and friendlier-looking Forest Whitaker. He wore a gray button-down shirt tucked into beige trousers pulled high on his waist. Yet he wore the outfit so cleanly and properly that it seemed not like he’d pulled his pants up too high, but as if everyone else had let theirs drop too low.
“Erika Nolan suggested talking to you,” I said, meekly introducing myself.
“Sit down,” he replied in a deep Caribbean accent.
I took a seat in the shadow of his bulk. Though he loomed over me, he wasn’t intimidating. He was inviting. I felt safe, perhaps because of the way his eyes glittered with almost paternal friendliness.
“So what can I do for you?”
“I wanted to see what steps I’d need to take to become a citizen of St. Kitts.”
“Ah,” he said, clapping his hands together. “You’ll love St. Kitts. It’s a small and beautiful island, with friendly people and real Caribbean culture. You should come for Carnival this year.”
He was like a living sales brochure. A very convincing one. He turned his seat to face mine and continued. “If you’re interested in living in St. Kitts, there are two ways to get citizenship. The fastest way is three months.”
It seemed too good to be true. There had to be a catch.
“As you may know”—I didn’t, of course—“the sugarcane industry on the island collapsed. This year, the last sugarcane plantation closed. So”—here was the catch—“by investing in industries that will provide jobs to out-of-work sugarcane employees, you’re granted citizenship instantly. The minimum investment used to be a hundred thousand dollars. But that just went up to two hundred thousand dollars.”
“How long does it take to get that investment back?”
Wendell let out a long laugh. “Oh, no. You don’t get the money back.”
“So it’s more like a donation.”
“There’s also another way,” he continued. “This is by investing in real estate. You must buy a piece of approved property that costs over three hundred and fifty thousand dollars.”
“Can I live in it and sell it when I want?”
“It’s your home, but you have to keep it for at least five years to retain your citizenship.”
That sounded like a better deal—especially since wherever I went, I’d need a place to live anyway. To pay for it, I could always get a loan. This was back in the good old days, when mortgage companies gave interest-only loans to practically anyone who asked, no down payment necessary.
“How long does the citizenship process take?”
“It takes longer than the investment program. About six months.”
I wanted to punch my fist jubilantly into the air, but I tried to contain my excitement—not just out of decorum, but out of caution. I needed to talk to Wendell a little more and see if he and this program were for real.
With pride, he told me about the island’s high literacy rate. Its free medical care for children, senior citizens, and people with chronic diseases. Its public school system, which provides free textbooks and lunch for students, in addition to computer labs open to everyone on the island. And its status as a financial haven, with no income tax for citizens. My new PT friend, Greg, would approve.
Either Wendell was a genuinely good person with a heartfelt passion for his native country, or he was the best con artist in the room.
That night, I called Spencer and excitedly told him about the St. Kitts real-estate program.
“That seems like it could work,” he replied. He sounded pleased, though not as excited as I’d hoped, especially considering he hadn’t found any second citizenship options for himself yet. “It would be great if we both had places there. I’ll have my lawyer look into it.”
“Your lawyer’s an asshole.”
“All lawyers are assholes.”
Between the conference and my conversation with Greg, I had now fully come around to the idea that if anything went wrong in America, it would be nice to get out with not just my life but my bank account. So I asked Spencer what he’d done with his money.
“I flew out to Switzerland and met with the different banks,” he replied. “I wanted to ask about their history during World War II and find out if they gave back the gold deposits they held for people fleeing the Nazis. A lot of banks never returned the gold to the refugees or their families.” His thoroughness put the people at the Sovereign Society conference to shame. “I met with a number of different ones, did some research, and went with a private bank that mostly deals with B people. But I’d recommend AIG Private Bank for you.”
I asked him about asset protection, and he suggested a law firm called Tarasov and Associates that most of his friends used. I trusted his recommendations more than the speakers at the conference, who seemed to view safety more as a marketing niche than a personal right.
I returned home emboldened by a new sense of mission and overwhelmed by the amount of work that lay ahead. I booked a trip to St. Kitts during Carnival in December, left a message for AIG to open a private banking account, e-mailed Grandpa for PT advice, and set up a meeting at Tarasov to hide my assets.
It was a good start.