A Discussion Of The Political Economy Of

The Bahamas & The Caribbean

Remarks at Beloit College, Wisconsin
by Senator The Honourable Fred Mitchell
Opposition Spokesman on Foreign Affairs, Labour & Immigration
25 April, 2000

    I wish first of all to thank the President, Officers, Professors and Staff of the Beloit College for this invitation to speak to you this evening.  I want to thank you on behalf of the Leader of the Opposition the Hon. Perry Christie for the support which you have given to the Bahamian students who have come to this school over the past two decades, and to those who are now your students.  The students are happy and grateful for this opportunity to study here. I will take your good wishes back to The Bahamas with me, and hope that in developing public policy in The Bahamas, I can assist in helping more students to afford themselves of the opportunity to study here.
    I especially want to thank two persons.  One is Harry Moore, a trustee and benefactor of the College, who chose The Bahamas as his home.  All of us in The Bahamas appreciate the fine work which he has done for The Bahamas, and we are forever grateful. I hope to be able one day to thank him in person.  I would also like to thank Alan McIvor, Vice President for Enrolment Services at Beloit (pictured with the Senator at Right) for his especially kind hospitality. I hope that when he travels next to Nassau, I will be able to repay in kind his special attention.
    Finally, I would like to thank Andrew Edwards who caused the visit to be, and ably organized it all.  He is an example of the kind of talent that we have in the next generation of Bahamian leaders.  I am proud of my association with Andrews, as I am proud to be with all of our students here.  I wish them well and pledge my support to do whatever I can to assist them in their careers.
    For most people in the United States, the Caribbean and The Bahamas as a region provides a service.  It is an area for vacations for millions of people.  For many it provides an area of safe haven for trillions of dollars.  We market these countries abroad as playgrounds for the rich and famous, and a place for the rest of us to get a decent and happy holiday.  It is not expected that you when you visit will be concerned about these places as real places. You are on holiday.
    But the unalterable fact is that they are real places, and in providing a service their economies have to remain stable and peaceful.  It is in the interests of the developed world for that to be so.  The region has about twenty million people.  Small compared to the United States, but a source of constant antagonism over the years.
    I argue here, that even in the heartland of America there is a need for an understanding of the nature of the societies. I expect that some of you students will be those making the policies that will affect our economies. Within three decades, some of you will be Senator, Congressman, Governors may be even a President. One hopes that this address is a challenge to you and that it informs you.
    The Bahamas is a small country with 300,000 people.  The nearest point to the US is 52 miles.  We are a former British colony as are many of our compatriots in the Caribbean.  The Queen of the United Kingdom is still the head of state.  We have Prime Ministers and two Houses of Parliament in all of our countries in the English speaking Caribbean.  Trinidad, Dominica and Guyana are the exceptions as republics: a lower elected House and an upper appointed Senate: a lower elected House and an upper appointed Senate. All of our populations are mainly African but in two there are significant white populations and in two significant Indian populations.
    Columbus landed in The Bahamas in 1492.  European settlement began in 1647.
    It was Gordon Lewis in his seminal work on the history of politics in the Caribbean who drew attention to the distinction between the politics of  The Bahamas and Bermuda in the North Atlantic and the rest of the West Indies. The economies of those two countries seemed to have developed along a different track. Indeed black majority rule came later to those countries than to the other countries of the Caribbean. Bermuda is not yet independent.
    The Bahamas attained what we call Black Majority rule on 10 January 1967. In Bermuda, the black majority party became the Government in November 1998, after some 35 years of trying to attain office.
    Mr. Lewis notes one of the principal factors behind the different rate of “progress” in those societies as opposed to the other Caribbean territories was the presence of a larger percentage of whites in the populations of The Bahamas and Bermuda when compared to the rest of the Caribbean.
    Indeed, it is probably surprising for any one with any familiarity with the politics of the Caribbean for them to hear me associate Bermuda with the rest of the Caribbean. That is because, once The Bahamas attained independence and majority rule, the Government took a deliberate decision to associate more closely with the Caribbean states.  We are now members of Caricom, the Caribbean Common market - although schizophrenically so but we are represented fully at the Council level.
    I say schizophrenically so because even though at an intellectual level we say we in The Bahamas are a Caribbean people, at a more visceral and emotional level, we see ourselves as a nation apart.  It reflects itself in our political decisions with regard to the Caribbean Common Market.  We have signed on to the University of the West Indies in its entirety, but we do not accept the free movement of labour and the customs union protocols.
    In the Caribbean itself, we are perceived in some quarters as spoilt and rich, and not yet fully integrated into the Caribbean movement.  This is more perception than reality, since in The Bahamas a substantial portion of the public service and other sectors are run by expatriate labour from the Caribbean.  Further, as a matter of history, West Indian workers were brought to The Bahamas as policemen and teachers and other civil servants, married Bahamian women and men and stayed.  So that as an anecdotal example in the first Cabinet of the Progressive Liberal Party's majority rule Government you had the Prime Minister and at least two other Ministers being first generation Bahamians, the sons of West Indian expatriates.
In The Bahamas, it is said that anywhere from 20 per cent to 10 per cent of the population considers itself white.  I think that is the proper way to say it, and I will come back to that distinction later.  The problem is that on the census form, race is not one of the listed criteria.  It seems to have disappeared from the census figures after 1953.  And after 1960, the birth certificates of Bahamians do not reflect race as a category.  So for example, my birth certificate from 1953 records that I am African.  There were two other categories: mixed and European. But Andrew Edwards, for example who was born in 1978 does not record any racial fact on his birth certificate.
    As I wrote this, I smiled with the thought of the irony of my birth recorded as African.  I remember my late mother, God rest her, who during the 1960s when there was an explosion of Black awareness recoiling in horror when I told her that I considered myself African.  She was aghast as was typical of many of her generation in The Bahamas.  The fact is of course that officially I was recorded at my birth as African.  Needless to say official or not my African heritage is a fact about which I am quite proud.
    In Bermuda, fed largely by a greater English expatriate population, the white population is some 40 per cent.  They were able to retain hegemony over the society up to 1998 in a political sense.  Their party the United Bermuda Party was able to adapt to retain power, by co-opting Blacks to their side.  In the Bahamas, our United Bahamian Party saw the handwriting on the wall too late, and were swept from power because they refused to recognize that a totally white run Government could not survive in a society that at least looked 90 per cent African.
    But it is interesting that in Bermuda as in The Bahamas today, the Black population was never fooled by those who had been co-opted. The distinction between the Progressive Labour Party in Bermuda being the Black man's party, the Progressive Liberal Party in The Bahamas as being the Black man's party and the United Bermuda Party being with white man's party in Bermuda and the Free National Movement successor to the United Bahamian Party being the whites man's party in The Bahamas has never been lost.
    The economy of The Bahamas was controlled and still is largely controlled today by what we call the Bay Street Boys and their successors. In Bermuda, they are called the Front Street Boys. They ran the politics of the country up to 1967 exclusively.  Today, their successors influence the Free National Movement and the Free National Movement gets all but a small percentage of the white vote in The Bahamas.
    In Bermuda when the PLP won the election there in 1998, the spontaneous outpouring of the Black population into the streets, the Goombay bands celebrating into the night reminded me of the year 1967 in Nassau.  I witnessed that transition as a boy of 13: the spontaneous crowds that passed my home late into the night in Collins Avenue and the sounds of junkanoo everywhere. Freedom had come or so we thought.
    I would argue that the Caribbean has no such experience in  their politics, with their societies being more racially homogeneous. For the moment, I leave out Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana with the special racial cleavage associated with the large Indian populations in those states. When independence and responsible Government came to them it was because of spontaneous nationalist movements drawing on the labour movements in those countries. There was not an overtly racial dimension as in The Bahamas and Bermuda, even though the societies are structured in fact the same. In Barbados, you can recognize a small, influential, racially discrete white population that runs the finance and insurance industry.  In Jamaica some have argued that the mulatto class ran Jamaica's politics until P. J. Patterson the now Prime Minister became the head of the Government.  In fact one family ruled Jamaica between them for a generation out of that mulatto class.
    And the structure is largely the same: the whites at the top of the economic and social ladder, followed by the brown or light skinned middle class, followed by the darker skinned Africans at the bottom. While there has been social mobility in our modern societies that is still the accepted social and political construct in all our societies.  Gordon Lewis would say so and so would Rex Nettleford, the social commentator and now Vice Chancellor of the University of The West Indies.  I believe in fact that it is incontrovertible.
    That is in the Bahamian case a construct that is supported by historians Dr. Gail Saunders, Dr. Michael Craton, Gordon Lewis, Sir Etienne Dupuch and by Colin Hughes.
    Colin Hughes for these purposes in the most important of the group because he wrote the seminal work Race and Politics in the Bahamas, now out of print.  Mr. Hughes was an expatriate Englishman in The Bahamas who was the founder of the famous law firm McKinney Bancroft and Hughes.  He now lives in Australia.  It gives a complete analysis of the racial politics of The Bahamas which continues to dominate the country today but in a slightly less overt way. His work takes us up to the year 1977.
    Nothing demonstrates how race continues to dominate our politics, despite the current fashion of the Free National Movement administration not to speak its name, is the debate over the placing of Stafford Sands, the racist first Finance and Tourism Minister of The Bahamas on the Bahamian ten dollar bill.  It would have been inconceivable for a Bahamian Government that represents Black interests in the country to put the face of Stafford Sands on the money. In fact, a boycott of the notes is to be organized that will ask people to deface the notes or refuse to accept them from banks and from merchants.
    I say this because it is the current fashion not to speak the name race in The Bahamas but then again it might not be the current fashion alone.  At one level of society in The Bahamas, it has always been impolite to mention race and that is particularly amongst the brown skinned middle class or mulatto group and those pure Africans associated with them who saw the African theme as a threat of some kind to their dominance.
    In fact in 1942, when Black rioters from Grants Town attacked Bay Street merchants who were all white, the soldiers who killed and injured the rioters were all white, the Government was all white and the electors were mainly Black, the official report of the Commission of Inquiry into the matter determined that racial questions did not arise as an underlying cause of the riot.

     Today, it is not unusual for whites who are supporters of he FNM administration to ask why is race being raised as a political issue.  And so politicians including the Prime Minister now address the issue in code by talking about “ the merchant class” or the “Bay Street group”. The Prime Minister, of course, represents that merchant class so it is ironic to say the least that he addresses them as if his interests are disinterested from theirs.  It is as if speaking the names black or white will arise some atavistic passion which once aroused can no longer be controlled.  The idea then of the FNM administration is to keep that genie in the bottle.  It is argued by them and their supporters that so long as they do, their hold in power is safe.
    To many then, the decision to remove the UBP from power was not a logical decision by the Black majority in their own best interests but rather an emotional decision based on racial hatred whipped up by the PLP.  Brent Symonette, the son of the first Premier of The Bahamas and whose father was UBP and white or near white, in responding to a radio talk show said that the white Bahamians who were defeated in 1967 disappeared from the scene because they were hurt to their souls about what the people had done to them.  They were never against Black people he told his radio audience.
Back in 1994, I was an ally of the Free National Movement and got them to support a Select Committee to look into the culture of The Bahamas.  I was reminded by a friend of some comments that I made then about race in The Bahamas.  My thinking was and still is that unless and until Bahamians have a frank and direct conversation about race then it will continue to be the most potent political force in The Bahamas.  The suppression of the discussion by the FNM administration is going to lead ultimately to their defeat. They cannot continue to pretend that it does not exist.
    And yet, in 1994 I quoted a story that I read in the New York times of a young Bahamian Black man whose name is Kalmari Charlton.  He was playing football at the time for one of the Florida Universities.  He was an exceptional talent.  He was charged with raping a young woman who was white. He told the New York Times in attempting to explain that going out with a white woman was not a huge deal in The Bahamas, he said that race was not important to young Bahamians.  Is that sentiment representative of his generation?
    It probably is.  And at a very superficial level that may be so.  However, in today's Bahamas you hear the young Bahamian professional complain about a glass ceiling in international business in The Bahamas.  And the Black population perceives that the ceiling exists for Black Bahamians only.
    Interestingly though a Black Bahamian businessman who is my client told me that in a frank conversation with a white businessman, they found that they had the same complaints about the Bahamian banks and discrimination.  The white Bahamian said to my client: “ I know Black people think the Banks discriminate against Blacks but they discriminate against us as well.”   The white Bahamian thought it was a conspiracy to limit the number of Bahamians who can accumulate wealth.  He argues that it was a conspiracy directed at national interests, i.e. Bahamian as against expatriate, rather than race based.
    And then there is the remarkable story of today's African Prince of business Garret “ Tiger” Finlayson.  Mr. Finlayson in his life time has been a waiter and a tailor.  Today, he sits atop a multi million dollar empire as the head liquor merchant in the country.  He owns Burns House Limited (ironically founded by Stafford Sands ), the distributor of Heineken beer and Kalik, the only Bahamian beer.  He announced three weeks ago that he had concluded a deal to purchase Butler and Sands, his main competitor.  He has a virtual monopoly in the liquor distribution business, in a community that has no anti-monopoly legislation.
    The Black community is enormously proud of his success.  The Black businessman has swallowed up a business owned by white rivals.  The history of the Bahamas is so much the other way around.
    Does that mean that things have changed in The Bahamas?
    One change does not a trend make.  The complaints in other areas of the system are still too pervasive about racial/nationality discrimination in The Bahamas.
    In fact on a social level, the two communities still live separate social lives. There is more integration in the workplace than their used to be and more integration at church than there used to be, but when the 5 o'clock hour comes or when church is over, whites repair to their own communities that can be identified by geography.  In Marsh Harbour for example, there is strict social segregation which is race based. The Black town is Dundas and Murphy Town.  These two exclusively Black communities sit right next to the exclusively white community of Marsh Harbour in Abaco.  There is no legal discrimination allowed but Blacks in Abaco say that it is impossible for them to buy land in certain areas of Marsh Harbour. There is a silent social code which prevents it from happening.
    And yet if you were to raise that as an issue in The Bahamas today, they would immediately call you racist.  They would deny that it is true, even though it is as plain as the sun in your face.  They would ask: why are you trying to bring that race business up again. The racial divide is clearest in Abaco but in other communities it exists all the same.
    The difficulty is that the PLP, the official Opposition in the country, and the traditionally pro Black and pro nationalist side has not found its voice to expostulate the discontent. This kind of political impotence is in fact not unique to The Bahamas with similar complaints in Jamaica, Barbados, Antigua, St. Lucia, St Kitts, St. Vincent and Grenada.  Black Bahamians of all generations seem to be exhibiting a disturbing self-limiting behaviour which must ultimately affect their self-esteem.  You hear expressions of discontent but a Black Bahamian will say who has been working for a white owned business that he knows as a Black man on that job “ how far to go”.  The answer always seems to be in the children.  The hope is that education will free the children from being the victims of that self-limiting behaviour.
    Or you will hear professionals admit and agree that since investors are mainly white, they would expect to see white faces in Banks and Trust companies in The Bahamas as a security or safety  for their money.  So the argument goes that it is acceptable to bring in the white expatriate because it is good for business.  That too is a self-limiting behaviour.
    The PLP’s  previous policy of Bahamianization, designed  as an affirmative action measure to counteract the past discrimination in The Bahamas seems no longer relevant or so it would appear to this generation of Bahamians.  At least, they do not give active voice to supporting Bahamianization which the PLP still champions.  In our internal discussions, we are still grappling with how to deal with the phenomenon of a policy which we believe is still relevant given all the complaints but a policy about which the young Black Bahamian seems embarrassed, as if it denies him promotion on merit and ability.  As if his success under such a policy would indicate something less than competence.
    And of course in line with our friend the white Bahamian businessman, Bahamianization would help both white and Black Bahamians.  In fact, white Bahamians tended to advance more under the Bahamianization policy of the PLP because they were in a better position financially to benefit from the new emphasis in the economy. So white Bahamians ought to be just as enthusiastic about the PLP as Black Bahamians, given the PLP’s nationalist policies.
    Not so, however.  In practice the party of the Black man does not get the support of white Bahamians.  The policy question the PLP will have to ask is whether or not that is important.  At the moment, the FNM administration is making a grab for the heart and soul of the Black working man. What should the PLP’s response be?  Despite less numbers of whites, some policy advisors to Perry Christie, leader of the PLP, think that given their influence, the PLP has to morph into an organization that is on its face more neutral in its racial rhetoric and presentation. Will such a shift cause the PLP to lose its identity?  The answer comes back, if you take a page from Tony Blair and new Labour in Britain, the PLP can save its soul and at the same time shift its emphasis in order to get back into power. It is a theory of the political scientist that I met in Barbados that morphing is the only way Opposition parties throughout the Caribbean can win again.
    If your read the History of The Bahamas by Michael Craton; if you read any work by Dr. Gail Saunders, or Gordon Lewis’ work or Colin Hughes work, you will find that race has been the dominant fact in Bahamian political decision making.  It is the subtext in subtle and in not so subtle ways in the political debate.
    Colin Hughes provides an interesting construct as to who are the white people of The Bahamas.  He repeats the historical fact that in terms of shaping the future character of the Bahamian population the most significant event was the flight of the Loyalists and their slaves from the mainland colonies in America following the war of the revolution in 1776.  According to Hughes, between 1783 and 1789, the population of The Bahamas trebled.  People came from the Carolinas and Georgia to The Bahamas, setting up a plantation way of life. That's why we eat grits in The Bahamas and nowhere in the Caribbean is grits known as a staple food. The black population for the first time in the history of the country exceeded the white population.  It has been that way since.
    It also established the social hierarchy that we still experience today: the whites at the top; the blacks at the bottom.  The formal themes in the society are European based.  The informal themes are African based. Rex Nettleford describes it in cultural terms as the rhythm of Africa with the melody of Europe. It is clear we can't have one without the other.
    In The Bahamas today then the pure white class may be shrinking but in what Hughes calls associational or structural colour, for all intents and purposes those who are not ethnically pure European are also considered white in the Bahamas. This would apply to significant sections of the Bahamian population that are ethnically mixed or coloured in the old nomenclature. And most Black Bahamians can in fact point out which families are really white and which are not.  Usually we all go along with whatever you want to call yourself, again without actually saying so. Polite to a fault, we are.
    But to show you how potent this is, Bradley Roberts the PLP’s MP for the Black belt over the hill constituency of Grants Town (the place where the riots started in 1942 ) accused James Knowles the other day in the House of Assembly as being a black man who had forgotten his Black brothers.  Mr. Knowles is a fair skinned man from Long Island man. Long Island in The Bahamas is an island with a large number of fair skinned people who appear to have mixed ancestry but consider themselves white or in the lingo of The Bahamas as conchy joes. In associational terms, Mr. Knowles is a white man. Conchy joes are a blend of ancestry that can not be traced to any pure ethnic lineage - a mixture of some Black and white. In fact when the Loyalists came to The Bahamas, they distinguished themselves from the whites they found in The Bahamas by calling the old whites: “conchs”.  Taken no doubt from the staple of Bahamian diet the sea mollusc, the conch.
    Mr. Knowles colleagues called Mr. Roberts attack “vicious”. Now a man has a right to identify himself as he wishes. Witness Tiger Woods and his demands for full ethnic identification. But what is interesting is that even today to call someone Black whether or not that person is someone who would prefer that the subject not be raised or whether or not he is someone who does not consider himself Black, it is an insult to call a person Black.  He feels it as an insult.  The maker of the statement knows it will be perceived as an insult, and his colleagues respond to it as such.
    Such is the remarkable fact of the racial politics of The Bahamas and the Caribbean in the year 2000.
    Once again, I appreciate this opportunity this evening, and for listening to what I have to say.  I hope to see you all one day in The Bahamas, where the water is warm and you can see your feet on the white sandy bottom.
     Thank you very much indeed.

Note: Unless otherwise attributed, included photos are of Senator Mitchell with various students on campus at Beloit College, Wisconsin.  Photo at top is of a handbill posted at the college to promote the Senator's appearance.