Kingston—It is the question on the lips of every Jamaican — and none more so than the country’s most famous athlete, eight-time Olympic gold medal sprinter Usain Bolt.
“Where’s the money gone?”
The investigation into a multi-million dollar fraud at the Kingston-based investment firm Stocks and Securities Limited (SSL), which has reportedly seen Bolt’s $12 million account left almost empty, is dominating discussion in the Caribbean nation.
So much so that one of the country’s top dance hall artists, Gage, quickly released a song “SSL,” whose chorus repeatedly asks the above question in Jamaican patois.
True to the traditions of Jamaica’s vibrant and straight-talking music scene, Gage’s lyrics highlight the division between Kingston’s affluent and influential “uptown” residents and the young people hustling in the city’s poorer areas.
The song points out government efforts to clamp down on telephone and lottery scams from what he calls “ghetto youth,” but notes those young people never engaged in such large-scale fraud as what is suspected in the SSL investigation.
Finance Minister Nigel Clarke appeared to acknowledge that sentiment when he said he wanted to see tough sanctions on the fraudsters.
“The discrepancy between sanctions for white-collar crime and other forms of crime must be erased. If you rob depositors, or you defraud investors and you put our financial system and our way of life at risk, the Jamaican society wants you put away for a long time — a long, long, time,” he told AFP.
Bolt is one of around 40 people whose accounts may have been impacted by the fraud. While his status as a national hero means his situation has dominated the news, there is concern that elderly investors may also have been left penniless.
Clarke said he will ask the FBI and other foreign agencies to help with the investigations after replacing members of the Financial Services Commission (FSC) board.
The FSC has taken over temporary management of SSL and appointed a special auditor.
Jamaican police raided the home of a former employee of the company and took away documents, but no suspect has yet been charged.
Those in the financial world are hoping that confidence in the country’s banking and investment institutions will not be damaged.
Business executive Dennis Chung, also general secretary of the Jamaican Football Federation, is confident the country can withstand the shock.
“What we have seen initially is an emotional reaction, and that is understandable, given that it is people’s money and it shook the confidence in the financial systems, but… the government moved quickly to ensure that regulatory confidence is restored,” he said.
Chung believes that there will be “no long-term ramifications” from an isolated case.
“People will now continue to invest in stocks, bonds and securities and have confidence in the financial system,” he said.
Prominent journalist and commentator Abka Fitz-Henley believes the fall-out will have limited political impact on the government of Prime Minister Andrew Holness.
“The fraud at SSL appears to have taken place at the private sector entity while different political administrations were in charge of government,” he said.
Fitz-Henley says what is not in doubt, however, is the widespread sympathy for Bolt’s plight.
“The majority of the population is rightly disgusted by the criminal act which has seen an injustice meted out to a man who globally is the most popular Jamaican alive and there is extensive hope that he gets back his money,” he said.
“Bolt is box office in Jamaica and across many sections of the globe and he’s regarded as a kind human being,” he added.
‘Embarrassing’ for Jamaica
Bolt came from humble beginnings in Trelawny Parish in northwest Jamaica to become a global superstar, after smashing world records in 100m and 200m sprints and dominating the Beijing, London and Rio Olympics.
While his popularity is enormous in Jamaica, some, like two-time Grammy nominated reggae singer Etana, wonder if his lack of connections with the elite left him exposed.
Etana said that the case was “embarrassing for the nation,” and said her attitude to investment would take into account the affair and the lessons she has drawn from it about Jamaica’s class system.
“Bolt is ‘new money.’ He was merely trying to fit in when he should have just joined up with the wealthy and connected, then no one would have touched his money,” she said.
“I would only invest in Jamaica if I could do so in partnership with a member of the aristocrats, and the moneyed class, no would dare mess with their money,” she added.
Bolt has said little about the details of the case — only that the affair won’t lead him to abandon his homeland.
“I just want to say to Jamaica that no matter what’s going on right now, Jamaica is my country and it will never change. I will always love my country and always do everything in my power to uplift this country no matter what’s going on,” he said.