Wednesday 19th April 2006

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Bermuda ready to stand alone

Bermuda is another world and it is truly another world in keeping with the lyrics of the lilting national song.

Located in the middle of nowhere in the Atlantic, Bermuda is one of the few remaining overseas territories in the region.

Its traditions, including place names—Southampton, Somerset etc—are British, so too is the British-descended (in the main) white Bermudian population that is listed at approximately 39 per cent.

Its black population (61 per cent) came through the Middle Passage like most other Caribbean peoples and has been boosted over the decades by new infusions of people from all over the Caribbean.

Situated approximately 90 minutes flying time off the eastern coast of the United States (New York), the island is heavily dependent—77 per cent—on America for arrivals and is one of the major financial centres, the third largest reinsurance business after Britain and the United States allied with a significant off-shore financial centre.

In power for a second term since 1998, the Progressive Labour Party (PLP) with its base support amongst the black population is mobilising, informing and educating the 65,000 Bermudian population to vote “yes” in a referendum for independence from Britain.

Premier Alexander Scott, half way through his first five-year term expects the referendum will come either as an attachment to the 2008 general election or separately after the election, depending on if his party wins third straight term.

It is an attempt by the PLP to define an identity for Bermuda out of the maze of historical accidents.

It won’t be the first referendum. One called in 1995 by the United Bermuda Party (UBP), the political vehicle of white Bermuda, was soundly defeated, 73 per cent said “no” with only 25 per cent wanting to get out of the 400-year old dependent relationship with Britain.

Curiously, but in this respect very typical of the political culture of the Caribbean, ie, oppose when in opposition and advocate when in power, the PLP, then in opposition, called for a boycott of the last referendum while the UBP, perhaps now chastened by its last experience, is firmly against any move to independence.

“Now that people have a right to choose and the right to go to work and live anywhere in the European Community (Bermudians were given British citizenship in 2002) they have the power of choice instead of being tied down in a 21-square mile territory,” says opposition leader Wayne Furbert. And he says his party has done a poll in which 65 per cent of the respondents said “no” to independence.

Furbert says the advanced constitution leaves the essential power with Bermudians, the British having responsibility for external affairs and defence.

However, it’s exactly because of Bermuda’s present inability to interact and trade on its own as part of the international community of nations that Premier Scott believes the island has to make a break with Britain.

“Great Britain looking after our interests is not taking care of us,” says the premier pointing to the direct competitive interests Britain has with Bermuda in the reinsurance business, the claiming of the island’s right to a satellite space in orbit and the airline business in which his government wanted to introduce competition to British Airways but was denied by London.

“If any country is ready for independence, it is Bermuda,” Premier Scott told this journalist with an obvious reference to the island’s flourishing economy.

With a per capita income estimated at over US$60,000, the Bermudian resident ranks as one of the richest in the world.

Seventy five per cent of the income comes from the financial and tourism industries; government is running a surplus on its current operations amounting to BD $600 million (the Bermudian dollar exchanges at one to one with the US dollar).

Unemployment is said to be two per cent, effectively no one wanting a job is without one with significant numbers of workers in the financial, tourism and government administration imported from the UK, the US, Canada and the Caribbean, the police commission is Vincentian.

However, the island is not without major problems.

The cost of living is extremely high; the cost of homes range between BD$500.000 to BD$1.8 million and the government is now on a massive drive to house the approximately 48 per cent of the population which does not own a home.

Because of its wealth, Bermuda is not a transit point for drugs going north but rather a destination and large numbers of young people are said to be caught in drug addiction, from which crime is flowing, according to the premier.

In a television statement recently, the premier expressed concern about the young black male; the majority achieving but a significant group in fall-out mode, victims of the system; lack the ability and or have not been given the right incentives.

“Our study is suggesting it’s a mixed bag,” says Premier Scott.

Social problems include a measure of conflict between white and black Bermuda.

Opposition leader Furbert, a brown-skinned man of mixed heritage, leading the UBP that represents the white population, admits to a problem between white and black but argues that the ruling PLP is not helping the process: “Bermudians do not want to be divided by race: there are poor whites and there are many blacks in the PLP who are doing well,” says Furbert seeking to dampen the reality of racial competition and conflict.

Will independence, if it comes, bring Bermuda closer to the southern and northern Caribbean?

The island now has observer status within Caricom. Obviously hedging on the issue, Premier Scott anticipates continuing links with the regional integration movement but is hesitant to say whether there is the possibility of full membership in Caricom; when that time comes is his best venture.

Furbert is certain there will be no deepening of the relations, fearing an influx of Caricom people in an environment of free movement.

I am told by Caribbean people living here that while their contributions are appreciated, they have not been fully accepted.

One Trinidadian, Bermuda shorts and all, who has been living and working here for 20 years and the major anchor of the television evening news, a man who insists on wearing T&T’s national colours literally and figuratively, say they remain “outsiders.”

The possibilities for increased trade with Caricom are enormous. Bermuda, without a productive base, has an import bill of US$1 billion and Caribbean people with their well-known appetite for travel can experience a non-Caribbean vacation environment somewhere in the Caribbean.






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