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Project Guayacanes

Dubai, Singapore . . . Guayacanes?

Dubai, Singapore . . . Guayacanes? Unlikely as it may seem, the tiny coastal town in the Dominican Republic is being touted as the next hot regional hub for financial services, at least by one determined former banker.

Gaetan Bucher -- who was born in the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo but launched his private banking career in Switzerland -- says he has so far spent $35 million of his own and private investors' money to create a capital markets base for the Americas. He aims to open the Independent Financial Centre of the Americas in 2010 on 17 square kilometers of oceanfront land midway between Santo Domingo and the popular resort of Casa de Campo. The goal is to begin trading Latin American and Caribbean debt, eventually attract private and corporate banking and one day found a regional stock exchange.

"We are a sovereign nation. There is nothing stopping us," says Bucher, who is waiting for the Dominican Congress to pass a law that would create a free-trade zone surrounding the IFCA, making it independent of local banking supervisors. (Fortunately, Bucher, 39, has close ties to the government. His Swiss father was a sugar magnate on the island, and Bucher is on a first-name basis with President Leonel Fernández.)

Bucher, who was educated in Switzerland and entered private banking in Geneva with Capital Group and Pictet & Cie, later ran his own private banking ventures, Archway International and BNB Capital. He wound both down in 2003 and headed back to the DR to pursue his vision.

Winning over skeptics won't be easy. Bucher, who is trying to raise an additional $800 million before the launch, has already pushed back the opening by a year and admits that he's still searching for his first tenant. What's more, the DR remains tarnished by its banking crisis of 2003, when the country's second-largest lender, Banco Intercontinental, collapsed after a $2.2 billion fraud.

It's hard to believe that outsiders would be eager to invest in the IFCA, says Richard Francis, Latin American analyst at Standard & Poor's in New York: "If you were looking to create an offshore financial center in the Caribbean, the DR would be pretty low on your list."