400 years after Blackbeard, who shares the spoils on the treasure isles?

Anver Versi

In the 40 years since its independence, The Bahamas has gained a robust political system, but its off-shore finance industry attracts criminal syndicates looking for money laundering opportunities

The Bahamas, an archipelago of over 700 ‘paradise’ islands, is one of the great playgrounds of the Western Atlantic. Its history and political development was one of the undercurrents of the larger forces that shaped the emergence of a new power in the world. This was where Christopher Columbus first made landfall on his fateful search for a new route to Asia in the 15th century and set into motion the chain of events that led to the founding of the great civilisations of the Americas.

The distance between Florida and the nearest Bahamian island is only 45 miles and the maze of islands and secret creeks, cays and coves that litter the archipelago became the setting for some of the most colourful and often blood-curdling adventures in the region’s history, as England, Spain and later the Americans fought fierce territorial battles to control the gateway to the New World.

It was also the haunt of ship-wreckers, privateers, buccaneers, whalers, smugglers, slave traders and swashbuckling pirates – the likes of Blackbeard and his cohorts – of such notoriety that their legend continues to form the stuff of a seemingly endless slew of adventure novels and films.

Today, The Bahamas, with a GPD of over US$11 billion and a per capita income of over $30,000, is the wealthiest state in the Caribbean, attracting four to five million tourists, mainly from the United States, who make the annual pilgrimage to the sun-soaked islands to bask in the dozens of resorts and gamble to their heart’s content in the numerous casinos.

But the palm-fringed villas, golf-courses and marinas crowded with expensive yachts cannot dispel the atmosphere of rakishness that has been part of the history of the islands for such a long time. Its thriving off-shore finance industry has attracted both legitimate customers and organised crime money laundering operatives. The difficulty of effectively policing the wide-spread islands made it, at least in the recent past, a haven for drug traffickers and illegal immigration. Crime has become a major political issue.

The Bahamas celebrated 40 years of independence from British rule in June this year with characteristic zest and exuberance. But there is an increasing sense of disquiet among the population of around 350,000.

Blacks, descended from Africans taken as slaves, or those freed from the Americas, form 85 per cent of the population (whites make up most of the remaining 15 percent).

But the majority still feel marginalised and bypassed by the development regime since 1967, when Sir Lynden Pindling became Prime Minister after his Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) won the first legislative election following the granting of internal autonomy in 1964. His campaign for total independence from Britain helped his party to a landslide victory in 1972. Independence followed a year later, but his vision of economic independence to match political independence still remains a dream for most of the population.

The Bahamas adopted the Westminster model of multi-party democracy. It has an elected legislative body comprising 38 seats and a 16-seat nominated senate. Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II is the titular Head of State, represented by the governor-general, Sir Arthur Foulkes. The senate is appointed by the governor-general on advice from the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. Nassau, the largest city, is the capital.

Two political parties, the left-centrist PLP and the right-leaning Free National Movement (FNM) have dominated politics since independence. Other parties, including the Democratic National Alliance, which fielded a full slate during the last elections in 2012, have so far failed to secure any seats in parliament.

The Pindling government encouraged investment from the US to help establish what has grown into one of the slickest, most profitable tourism sectors in the region. Like other Caribbean island states, it found itself ideally suited to becoming an off-shore finance centre.

However, its geographical proximity to both the sources and markets of illegal drugs drew the unwelcome attention of organised criminal syndicates and the Pindling administration found itself having to fend off allegations of corruption and drug trafficking. In 1992, the FNM, led by Hubert Ingraham, defeated the PLP and ended Pindling’s 23 years in power.

In 1996, Ingraham, responding to public alarm over a rising tide of crime and murder, reinstated the death penalty, despite strong protests from Britain. He won the 1997 elections but a rejuvenated PLP, led by Perry Christie, came back strongly to win the 2002 elections. With politics becoming increasingly fractious and personal, the FNM regained power in 2007 but suffered a heavy defeat in the 2012 elections as Christie’s PLP won 30 of the 38 legislative seats.

All Bahamian governments have had to walk the fi ne line between raising the living standards and vocational capacities of the majority, while not alienating the foreign companies that provide the bulk of employment. Nevertheless, there has been considerable progress – education is widespread, but many question the quality it provides. The College of The Bahamas, set up with great fanfare, has still not been able to consistently deliver the type of high achievers it was meant to. There is a growing, well-heeled black middle class, but unemployment among the young remains high and while wages are some of the highest in the Caribbean, only a small proportion can expect to rise to senior managerial positions. More galling is the fact that most large businesses are still owned by foreigners. The local population wants a bigger stake in ‘paradise’.

This sparked uproar in 2011 over a controversial $210 million deal which gave international telecoms giant Cable and Wireless Communications (CWC) both a 51 per cent control in The Bahamas Telecommunications Company (BTC) and a three-year monopoly right in the sector.

While in opposition, Christie had said “the deal stinks” and pledged a full public inquiry into it. Now in power, he has hinted that the monopoly, due to end next March, might be extended, as the government could not afford to buy back the two per cent which would return control to the state. Extending the exclusivity clause would scupper hopes that the sector will be liberalised and usher in a welcome era of competition.

A commission to review the constitution, set up by Christie a year ago, reported in July. Its chief recommendation was to abolish the automatic right for Supreme Court jury trials, believed by some commission members to be inefficient, a waste of resources and ultimately unfair.

It also tackled the running sore of conferring automatic citizenship based only on paternity, maternity. Commission chairman, Sean McWeeney suggested that “all provisions relating to the acquisition of citizenship and transmission of citizenship to children or spouses should be cast in gender neutral language”. This is an emotive subject with several social ramifications. The recommendations will be put to a referendum towards the end of this year.

Compared to other island nations in the region, the Bahamian political issues, apart from the fight against crime and illegal immigration – especially from Haiti – are relatively minor and more characteristic of an increasingly confident people demanding a more generous slice of a fairly big pie.

About the author:

Anver Versi is Editor of London-based African Business and African Banker magazines


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