DATELINE: THE BAHAMAS

Islands under a cloud

BEVERLEY KAGAYAMA February 9 1987
DATELINE: THE BAHAMAS

Islands under a cloud

BEVERLEY KAGAYAMA February 9 1987

Islands under a cloud

DATELINE: THE BAHAMAS

On a deserted stretch of beach near the tiny Bahamian hamlet of Spanish Wells, frothy waves steadily curl over the shoreline. An abandoned plane lies half-buried in the sand—left, according to the local people, by drug smugglers after they loaded their South American cargo onto boats bound for the United States. Further along the beach other evidence of drug trafficking has washed up: pieces of thick black plastic commonly used to wrap narcotics shipments. Its northwestern-most point only 50 miles from Florida, the 700island archipelago has become a favorite refuelling and transfer point for drug smugglers, whose products have also permeated Bahamian society. But narcotics—and an increase in crimeare only two of the problems facing the Caribbean nation. Among its 232,000 residents, unemployment is estimated to be as high as 20 per cent. And with an election due sometime this year, political uncertainty hangs over the islands.

For 20 years the Progressive Liberal

Party (PLP) has held power in the Bahamas and now fills 32 of the 43 seats in the country’s parliament. But the party, led by Prime Minister Sir Lynden Pindling, has a mixed performance record. The PLP successes include black-majority rule in 1967, independence from Britain in 1973, universal

Although the Bahamas enjoys a high per-capita income, much of the apparent prosperity is due to one source: the drug trade

secondary education and a national social insurance plan. Among its failures is a decline in foreign investment, which experts say is the result of Pindling’s tough business and landownership restrictions, and the soaring unemployment rate. Pindling’s government has also been harmed by allegations of political payoffs from

drug smugglers. Although the prime minister was personally exonerated by a commission of inquiry he set up in 1984, that investigation condemned several of his closest supporters—and painted a picture of a country for sale to the drug industry.

This year’s election may prove to be a tough contest for Pindling, a former Bahamian junior sprint champion, but he has shown his ability to win against the odds in the past. In the 1967 election he swept the Bahamas, after the previous white government became tainted by suspicions that it had accepted bribes from Mafia-linked casino operators. In the process, he created the first black-majority government after 325 years of white economic and political control.

Many black Bahamians—who constitute more than 80 per cent of the population—say that they still resent the excesses of white rule and that they remain PLP loyalists. One supporter, Andrew Green, a 39-year-old native of the island of Mangrove Cay, says that on his first trip to Nassau, when he was 16, he bet a friend $15 that he could walk in the front door of a restaurant on Bay Street—the heart of the white establishment. But he said that the owners told him to “use the back door because I was black; it was a humiliating experience.” In the late

1960s he moved to Miami, where he found employment building swimming pools. But Green, still a Bahamian citizen, frequently returns home and says that he remains loyal to Pindling. “He has done wonderful things for this country,” Green declared.

Still, the prime minister’s popularity has clearly suffered, especially outside of Nassau, the glittering capital located on the island of New Providence. Steven Rose, owner of the only grocery store on Long Cay, an island 275 miles south of the capital, describes himself as a staunch supporter of the opposition Free National Movement (FNM), which holds the remaining 11 parliamentary seats. Rose says that the island did not receive telephone service until late 1985, after years of relying on telegraph and CB radio. “Sure, we have telephone service now—but 18 years overdue,” said Rose. “We only see changes when an election is coming.”

Pindling is actively trying to regain support before the election, which must be held by Aug. 10. He said recently that the PLP is considering relaxing one of his government’s most controversial undertakings: the extensive so-called Bahamianization plan. Under that legislation, noncitizens require a special government permit to acquire land. Work permits for non-

Bahamians are restricted, which critics say has resulted in a shortage of skilled foreign experts to help develop a trained Bahamian labor force. As well, businesses reserved for Bahamian ownership and control include advertising, publishing, restaurants, importing, exporting, wholesale and retail distribution, construction and hotels of 100 rooms or less . And according to FNM spokesmen—who have always favored opening up the country to foreign capital—that has led to a decline in investment that has strangled economic growth.

Pindling, whose government has not published unemployment figures for the past 10 years, has responded to criticism by pointing to areas of economic prosperity. In his speech before the PLP’s annual convention last October he declared: “This is the captain speaking. This economy is jumping, and she is steady as she goes.” But although the country enjoys the second-highest per-capita income in the Caribbean—$5,600 in 1983—much of the apparent prosperity is due to one source: narcotics.

U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency officials have said that up to 40 per cent of the 300,000 lb. of cocaine entering the United States passes through the Bahamas. That trade—worth an estimated $680 million to the country—has

provided a financial bonanza to many residents. “There is physical evidence all around us,” said FNM leader Kendal Isaacs. “You see apartment buildings going up all over the place and persons who have no visible means of support driving very expensive cars.”

Still, many Bahamians are clearly complacent about their country’s role in the drug trade. The high unemployment, coupled with a high cost of living—80 per cent of all Bahamian food has to be imported from the United States and is subject to heavy taxes—

has made drug profits particularly alluring. As one U.S. drug smuggler involved with the Bahamian connection told The Miami Herald, “What cop who has to pay $1.50 for a Coke is going to turn down $10,000 to go to sleep?” But the drug traffic, which Pindling has blamed on his country’s proximity to the “apparently insatiable appetite” of U.S. drug users, has created a similar appetite among younger Bahamians. Authorities would not release recent statistics about drug use, but at the Sandilands Rehabilitation Centre—a Nassau mental hospital-admissions of cocaine addicts rose to 299 in 1984 from zero in 1982. And a government-sponsored report of July, 1984, stated that a “severe drug problem” exists in many sectors of the economy, including major hotels, restaurants and even government corporations. Declared Isaacs: “It is not an exaggeration to say that it is almost destroying a generation.”

The drug traffic has also led to a marked increase in crime. In 1981 the

Bahamas was included on Interpol’s list of the top 10 countries for all forms of violent crime. And since 1981 violent crime in the Bahamas has increased by 25 per cent annually. So far, such statistics have not dampened the country’s tourist industry, worth about 70 per cent of the $2.7-billion gross domestic product. But some visitors are clearly alarmed. Said Marlene McMahon, an Ottawa-area resident who vacationed in Nassau last November: “I would not walk the streets of Nassau at night—I am too frightened.”

In what critics say was a belated effort to stop the drug trade, Pindling agreed two years ago to co-operate with U.S. drug enforcement officials. In April, 1985, a joint U.S.-Bahamian raid on 30 islands netted 33,332 tons of marijuana and 5,500 lb. of processed cocaine. But some Bahamians say that the crackdown has been halfhearted. Although 20,000 lb. of cocaine have been seized over the past two years, an estimated 100,000 lb. still reach the United States annually through the Bahamas.

For Bahamians, the attraction of easy drug money is an everyday dilemma. During a recent visit, Green says, he received a $4,000 offer for an hour’s work: unloading a plane filled with bags of South American cocaine. Green said that he had declined. As he fingered the return portion of his Nassau-Miami plane ticket, he said, “It makes it hard to go back to Miami and build pools for a living.”

BEVERLEY KAGAYAMA