Taxes, spokespeople, politicians & the press

The Nassau Guardian, continuing its expose on the value-added tax coordinator, reports on the latest statement made by the Leader of the Opposition about the Prime Minister.

I don't really see why.

For me the story does not lie in the statement of the Leader of the Opposition, or in the Prime Minister's response. Both men are transient; but the issues are permanent, and will affect us all for quite a while. For me the story lies in the absurdity of the defence of a person who clearly is not managing his own finances as the main spokesperson for financial reform. Forget what the PM or the LO had to say; focus on the issue at hand. The government has no money because it has not kept up with the changes in the global economy and has not managed its finances as it should. The government, in an attempt to manage those national finances, has appointed a person who appears unable or unwilling to manage his own personal finances. This is, to put it kindly, illogical; to put it unkindly, it's absurd.

It's absurd.It's disrespectful to the citizenry who is being asked to pay more taxes, and new ones.It is, very fundamentally, part of the problem. People not paying taxes that already exist is a large reason why the government has a shortage of revenue. To have someone who does not pay taxes—or even his mortgage, if reports are to be believed—as the spokesperson who is asking us to pay more taxes is quite possibly the worst strategy that one could ever employ.

Harvard, sustainability, Exuma, and COB

Yesterday morning, Facebook posts notwithstanding, I was in Long Island waiting to board a plane to Georgetown, Exuma, as part of a ten-day long ethnographic study of Exuma, Long Island and Cat Island.

The study is part of a longer-term project whose ultimate goal is to create a plan for the sustainable development of Exuma and its cays, a plan which, it's hoped, can provide a blueprint for the development of other islands. This year, as part of the project, seven Bahamian students doing Field Experience at the College of The Bahamas have teamed up with 16 students from the Harvard Department of Anthropology and the Graduate School of Design to carry out ethnographic field studies. There are several teams of students, most of them in Great Exuma and the Cays, but also in Cat Island and Long Island.

Since Friday, I've been travelling with the professor of the Harvard course to the different locations where the students are deployed, meeting with them and talking to them about their personal projects, helping to troubleshoot (where possible or necessary). On Friday and Saturday we were in Long Island, helping the students there settle in. Yesterday we moved on to Georgetown, where several events intertwine: for me, the main one is working with my students, but there are workshops and meetings between the people in Georgetown and the people from Harvard. What's exciting about it is that we're working together on a piece of ethnography that is put together like a mosaic. Ethnography, the in-depth study of a single community at a single point in time, is traditionally done by a single anthropologist who goes to a different society from her own and lives there for an extended period—at least fifteen months—they used to specify in Cambridge, which allowed the researcher to observe a full year of activity and also gave a three-month cushion to permit a working level of acclimatisation.

What's happening in this case is something a little different. Researchers from Harvard have been working since 2012 on different elements, and the project will continue through 2015—a five-year span that will incorporate perspectives from a wide range of researchers. Some are student researchers, and some are working on doctorates and post-doctorates. Some are established researchers as well. Some are students of design, some are anthropologists. It's the mosaic approach to ethnography, and now, in 2014, the voices of Bahamian students of the College of The Bahamas have been added.The project has murky connections, to be sure. In 2010-2011, the Bahamas National Trust and the Free National Movement government came under heavy fire after the revelation that the Aga Khan had been given permission to create a marina for Bell Island, his private island in the Exuma Land and Sea Park. The process required dredging of the sea bed and the conversion of an inland pond, and there was strong opposition to the development. (That opposition, according to more recent reports, has abated somewhat, as the PLP is now the government in power; the current narrative seems to be that far less damage was done to the environment than those in opposition feared. Be that as it may. The permissions were given, the development has taken place, and we must all, especially those of us who are the citizens and stewards of this remarkable country, move on.It's probably no coincidence at all that the Aga Khan has established a gift and grants to research and plan for the sustainable development of Exuma and the Cays. Cynics like me will have the tendency to regard this largesse as a payoff for being allowed to do in the Exuma Land and Sea Park far more than Bahamians who have been living on the communities within that park for over two hundred years. There is certainly more than a whiff of inequity about the permissions given to the über-rich to develop private islands in the Exuma Cays, even within the Park, while locals are prevented from using the resources which have provided them with subsistence for generations. But the reality is that the permissions have been given, the inequities are being enforced, and all that we are left with is the prospect of amelioration.

And here's where we come in,  the students of the College of The Bahamas and myself. The gift and grants are being administered by Harvard University, the Aga Khan's alma mater, and since 2012 students and faculty from Harvard University have been visiting Exuma, conducting research to contribute to the island's development. In 2013, the College of The Bahamas was approached in various capacities to join the project. One of those capacities involved linking up with the fieldwork that would be carried out this spring in Exuma. I happen to teach a Field Experience course this spring, and the students in that course are required to conduct field research somewhere, at some time. The project's challenges notwithstanding, this element offers potential for that amelioration. Here's where the potential lies. One of the most fundamental flaws we have in our governmental system is the fatal disconnect between the Family Islands (I refuse to call them "Out") and New Providence, where officials sit in air-conditioned offices, meet with high-faluting investors, and carve up our archipelago for finite, quickly-spent pocketsful of cash. The way in which we administer our nation is akin to the Europeans dividing up Africa with a table, maps and a ruler during the nineteenth century, or  the Allied generals of the First World War deploying their troops to die among the barbed wire and trenches of the European front. The decisions made by our leaders are cavalier, ill-informed, greedy, and destructive. Bahamian patrimony is being disposed of for sums that spin the heads of politicians and civil servants but that carry with them heavy doses of nothingness: they mean almost nothing to the investors who offer them, and they mean less than nothing to the people who are most directly affected—the Family Islands, our fellow citizens, who are daily being deprived of their traditions, their communal means of survival, their ways of life, and their sustainability. My students, the students who attend COB, are potentially the politicians and civil servants of the future. The experience they are being offered by their involvement in the project is my hope of contributing to long-term and future change—of creating a sense of respect and understanding for the different ways of life of our archipelago, for the wealth and beauty of our environment. There's another far more pragmatic, element as well. The studies being led by Harvard are generating data about our islands, data that can and may be crucial to the future well-being of our nation. This project will end in 2015, and that end will be accompanied by a set of reports and plans which will be touted and bound and, if past experience is anything to go by, shelved. But the data itself, the raw material that is being generated in the process, will be the property of Harvard University, not of The Bahamas—unless the College of The Bahamas is involved at the base level of the research. We have missed a year of this already, but the fact that Bahamian students are now involved in the ethnographic process is one way of ensuring some access to the intellectual riches that are now being generated. And that is my ultimate goal here.

Long blog post. Big, big deal. From here on in I will be blogging, as internet permits, about the things we are discovering on our journey. Watch this space. And, my fellow Bahamians, prepare for action if needed. This is the only Bahamas we've got.

Taxing the way forward

Earlier this week, the Nassau Guardian featured the following in its business section:‘Accelerated push’ to collect real property taxes

WWW.THENASSAUGUARDIAN.COMThe government will mount an “accelerated push” this year to collect the more than $500 million owed in real property taxes and eliminate the policy discrepancies which lead to taxpayer “frustration”, Financial Secretary John Rolle said yesterday.

The Nassau Guardian: Accelerated Push.

I read the article with a mixture of hope and scepticism. The article, and the fundamental statement it reported, only barely address the critical need for reform in the government agencies that are responsible for revenue collection in this country. For over half a century we have subsisted—even flourished—with a state revenue collection scheme that was, in its own peculiar way, streamlined and relatively easy to administer. When you tax consumption over everything else, and collect that tax at the border, it's pretty easy to keep track. Our supplemental revenue streams (like real property tax) have been far less successful, with the result that, despite some six years of administrative bleating about collecting outstanding taxes, the general toothlessness of the exercise has made it very difficult for the government to show any real gains. And to a large extent, the problem is systemic.

Let me give you a personal example.

Three years ago, my mother died. In my immediate family, she was the last of her generation to do so. As a result, I became the owner of real property that I do not inhabit. This certainly did not happen overnight (the process of probating estates is far slower than that), but it did take place without overt intention on my part. It changed my status as a taxpayer in this nation.

I have to confess that I am still unclear about how that status changed. My obligations as a taxpayer quite simply passed me by; until the probate of my mother's estate, I didn't qualify as someone who had to pay real property tax, not being the owner of any potential income property, and in the year or so since that situation changed, I have had no notification about my new obligation to pay taxes on the property I have inherited. Even though the change in my property-owning status occurred just at the time that the government was in dire need of increasing its revenue, no one and nothing has been done to make it any clearer just what my obligations are in this regard.

I have to confess, I did not think that I needed to do very much to find out how my status was changing. After all, the process of probating the estate took a long enough time, with the documents in question passing through various government departments, and requiring a kind of assessment that, I imagined, would result in the end with a notice from some government agency informing me that I was now obliged to pay real property tax. Ideally, I imagined that the notice would come along with specifics: that this piece of property was liable to pay this amount of tax, and that one was liable to this amount. I imagined it because all through the period the estate was being probated I was hearing noises about the government's tax collection policies, the amnesty on real property, etc. I assumed, clearly naïvely, that somewhere, somehow, the real property office would have had something to do with the probate, would have noted that the property I was inheriting had changed hands, and would have made up the notice that I was imagining I might receive.

No notice came with the probate.

No notice came after it.

I have slowly come to the realization that it is entirely up to me as a new landowner, as the new possessor of property that is not owner-occupied to find out about, register, call for the assessment of, and pay taxes on the property I have inherited.

Something in me rises up in indignation about that. After all, it's not me who needs the money; it's the government whose bottom line is affected, and the government who should be making the effort at least to alert me that my status has changed, to make it easier for me to pay the tax I owe. I'm not saying that I want to withhold the taxes. On the contrary; I am one of those individuals whose salary is heavily subsidized by the taxpayers' money, and so it's in my own best interest to make sure taxes are paid. But I don't think that it should all be left up to me as the potential taxpayer to go to a government office to sign up to pay taxes. What sense does that make?

Am I wrong to raise this question? Should I be so very patriotic that I go out of my way, even pay a substantial sum out of my own pocket, to get the land surveyed so that I can produce the documents that, according to what I've looked up online,  I have to submit with the registration form that I have to pick up or print out and deliver to the Real Property Tax Office? Something about this seems counterintuitive, especially as we live in a society where very few people go out of their way to pay for what they don't have to. Compare this state of affairs to that which obtained when I lived in Canada, where the government was the principal actor when it came to taxpaying, where the government made it its business to see that revenue was collected. There, I paid up front, and had to put effort in to get my rebates back. Here, it seems, it's the other way round.

Now consider this. I am the member of a generation that may be among the first large group of people who inherits the kind of real property that can be taxed. Our parents, who benefitted from Majority Rule in ways that were tangible and financial, became the first large group of private property owners. Their generation is slowly dying off, and we, their children, are inheriting their assets. We too are beneficiaries of the prosperity that followed Majority Rule, and so many of us are living in homes that belong to us. Some of us are fortunate enough to be living in homes that are above the tax threshold, but some of us are exempt. But as we inherit our parents' land, our status is changing too; we are becoming  taxpayers. But too many of them, of us, are effectively "tax dodgers" because the system requires us to make the effort to find out what we owe, pay for the assessment on what we own, and begin to pay our property taxes. This in a climate where there is no clear avenue to finding out what we owe and when. This is a climate where there too little thought has been given to making it easy for those of us who are well-intentioned to meet our obligations. The government needs the money but the government is making very little legitimate effort to collect it.It's not as though this moment was unforeseeable. Indeed, this is a time when the government, if properly staffed and equipped by enough vision, should have been able to predict a spike in government revenue for the very reasons I outlined above. My generation, I realize now, should have been being prepared for this moment, the moment when we would begin to inherit non-owner-occupied property--or to begin to sell that property, converting it perhaps to ownership that falls into more lucrative tax brackets. But no; despite the bleating about amnesties and the rest of it, I have had to go to a non-governmental website to find out what exactly my personal obligations are. I remain unclear about them even now.

So it's no surprise to me that there are many people in positions of authority who are delinquent on paying their real property tax. I'm not talking about those who are deliberately avoiding their obligation; I'm not talking about the faceless, corrupt them who take, take, take and never give to our society. I'm talking about well-intentioned Bahamians, people who work hard to pay their bills, people who make their national insurance contributions for themselves and the people who work for them, people who pay down on their mortgages and their credit card debts and their electricity bills, people who pay their customs duties when they bring in merchandise that exceeds the allowable exemption. I'm talking about the working Bahamian middle class, the people who keep the economy going because they do pay their way in our society. These people, like me, may well intend to pay their real property tax, but may equally be daunted by the amount of effort that is required to begin to do so.There is something fundamentally wrong with a system that requires honest people to have to engage in detective work to find out what taxes to pay and how to pay them. And so I trust that this "accelerated push" announced this week will be far more than lip service. Because lip service is not what is needed now. What is needed, direly so, is the reform of a system that is unwilling to prosecute the dishonest and makes crooks even of the well-intentioned.

More about Deans Blue Hole

Turns out the articles and features on the Blue Hole were a year old.  Still, the webpage advertising the site is still up and running, as anyone who followed the link would see. The post about the selling of the property around the Hole was discussed on Facebook, though, and I'm going to include the discussion below, to bring us up to date; it seems that the government has moved to acquire the land around the site by compulsory acquisition.Below is the Facebook exchange.

  • David Burrows Can anyone say Clifton II?
  • Marysa Malone 'This slice of paradise in the Bahamas is one of, if not the, definitive trophy parcels of the Caribbean and is open-zoned and thus limited only by one’s imagination, whether a large resort or development of ultra exclusive private homes.' OPEN ZONED???
  • Leigh Termath James Sarles How is it that a non Bahamian company can be advertising this for sale?
  • Kimberly King-Burns it has been privately-owned for more than thirty years, and there have been several efforts to trade parcels of other land with the past two administrations that have been unsuccessful. utterly boggles the mind.
  • Ishmael Smith I think that I am misunderstanding Kimberly King. Kim, are you suggesting that the current owners of the land tried to trade this for other parcels and successive governments have refused?
  • Gina Mortimer Storr And how did it ever become privately owned....
  • Donna Harding No private owner can own a body of water, the ocean. They can own the property around it . I am told that the Government is acquiring the surrounding property by way of compulsory acquisition and either paying them or giving them land elsewhere.
  • Der Bonniesicker Say what? They selling Dean's Blue Hole?!?!?!?! Oh noooooooo. Another gem lost to the Bahamin people.
  • Nicolette Bethel It's my understanding that the land around Dean's Blue Hole was originally generation property and the family acquired the title. Well and good. The property has for a while been parcelled off for sale to private buyers. Also well and good. But there ought to be limits. The government CAN, if this threat continues, acquire the land, forcibly if need be (as was done with Clifton, as was done with the lands along West Bay Street that were needed for the expansion of the road), but I'm sure is reluctant to do so (a) because it may not wish to pay "fair" market price (though what is $24 million when we have an $80 million+ deepwater harbour, are giving $20 million a year to Bahamar, and spent $278 million on New Providence roads?) and (b) would prefer not to interfere with local Bahamian developers' right to sell the property they own.

    While no private owner can own a body of water, a private owner can make it very difficult to access that body of water. If the land around the hole (which this company has even RENAMED) is sold, the ability of Bahamians to access this world wonder will be severely curtailed, as the only reasonable access is by land.

    23 hours ago · Edited · Like · 3
  • Donna Harding I am not sure how recent the article is as this was in the news sometime ago with the real estate company saying that it was an old listing and taken off the market. I just returned from a trip there and was told that the government is indeed acquiring some of the land around the blue hole and exchanging it for land somewhere else on the Island. The Government can acquire by way of Compulsory Acquisition and to take away any doubt they hopefully will.
  • Donna Harding As regards access, it will be extremely difficult to deny it to the public when they have had it for years.
  • Gina Mortimer Storr I tht generation property is not supposed to b sold...
    22 hours ago · Like · 2
  • Antoinette Pinder I agree Gina!
  • Nicolette Bethel Thanks, Donna Harding! Looked again -- the article that was linked to it is a year old. But the web page and the listing are still very active, which concerns me.
    12 hours ago · Like · 1
  • Arlington Gibao Butler I hope through eminent domain the government acquires the surrounding property giving Bahamians unfettered access and ends all the speculation.

Blue Hole Bay | Long Island, Bahamas - The Agency

Somebody want to explain to me exactly how it is that my government is permitting this piece of national patrimony continue to be advertised for sale -- for the paltry price of $24 million?And not even by a Bahamian real estate agency?Anybody???

Step onto one of the most magnificent beaches on the planet—literally. This heavenly marvel was officially designated one of the Top 77 Natural Wonders of the World, a title that truly speaks for itself. In fact, the Grand Canyon is the only site in the U.S. to achieve the same designation. We want to welcome you to the divine Dean’s Blue Hole located on Long Island in one the most viable vacation spots on earth, the Bahamas.Blue Hole Bay consists of a whopping 46 acres, wrapping around Deans Blue Hole – the deepest undersea cave in the world – along with 134 back acres totaling 180 Acres. It is open-zoned and thus limited only by one’s imagination, whether a large resort or development of ultra exclusive private homes.Take a luxurious swim in the clear shallow water of the adjacent turquoise bay perfectly framed by a sparkling white sand beach.… Dive into the world’s deepest sea cave that plunges 663 feet down into the bottomless blue depths….Or simply sail over to dazzling Stocking Island in the Exumas, the utmost popular sailing destination in the Caribbean.This slice of paradise is one of, if not the, definitive trophy parcels of the Caribbean, fit for the dreamer who wants to make their own personal idea of pure bliss come to life. It is for the person who wants to own a Natural Wonder of the world, and for those that choose to indulge in only the best of the best, without exception. Other owners in this region of the Bahamas include—Johnny Depp, Tim McGraw & Faith Hill, The Johnson & Johnson family, David Copperfield, Tyler Perry, Bernard Arnault LVMH – Forbes #4, and frequenters Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Google’s Sergey Brin, and Oprah.Located a short 350 miles southeast of Miami.via Blue Hole Bay | Long Island, Bahamas - The Agency.

How The Tribune is helping me get into trouble

What's not made clear, of course,  is that the "revamping" of Urban Renewal that I'm talking about was the cutting short of the programme in 2007, not the instituting of Urban Renewal 2.0 in 2012. I was disappointed to see that the revolutionary core of 1.0 was not replicated in the programme when it was reintroduced, but the real damage was done in 2007, if you ask me.

“Urban Renewal 1.0 was designed to give the law-abiding citizens real opportunities to gain access to social services and community policing worked on the premise that if you can gain the trust of the law-abiding citizens in a troubled area it becomes far easier to solve, deal with and ultimately prevent crime.“And the programme was accompanied by some real efforts by psychological professionals to help to heal people who had suffered long-term abuse, brutalisation and so on.“This core is what I considered revolutionary at the time, and which was removed when Urban Renewal was reformed because it was considered a waste of time and money, and a waste of policemen’s training too, as apparently police are supposed to fight crime, not prevent it.”“By focusing so much on the criminals, we lose sight of the law-abiding citizens in the same communities, and it is a long time since we have really sought to serve them or meet their real needs.”Dr Bethel added that the policing of inner city communities that arose after Urban Renewal 1.0 ended helped inspire distrust in inner city communities for authorities.“Imagine if you were,” she said, “a 12 year old living in inner city Nassau in 2002 and in 2003 all of a sudden police are put into your community and they’re not violent or menacing, they are friendly, father figures who are teaching you music. They are walking around, learning your names and so on and for five years you get to know them.“Then, when you are 17, they are taken away, and the only replacement are police with guns. How are you ever going to trust your country again? That’s what I think part of the root of this particular kind of violence is.”via Urban Renewal revamp 'an error' | The Tribune.

A World According to Denmark

This week I've been watching the Danish television show Borgena series that follows the career of the fictional first female Prime Minister. I'm a good way through the first season (there are three seasons so far) and I'm hooked.But this isn't going to be a discussion of the show. If you want to know more about it, go do your own research; go watch it yourselves. For me, the exercise of watching it illuminates--throws into relief, rather--the very narrow limits of our local democracy.For Borgen is a television show about government. I'm forced to watch a lot of these shorts of shows, and to be honest, ever since The West Wing I have not been sorry that I have done so. Such shows have a lot to say, a lot to teach perhaps, a lot to contribute to the way in which we (I) think about democracy. I've been exposed to the blockbusters (The West Wing), the sensational (Scandal), the seamy (Boss), the dastardly (both versions of House of Cards), but, The West Wing aside, most of them tend to exaggerate both the players and the gravity of their actions in the telling of their tales. Perhaps that's because they all deal with politics and government in countries that are used to having great sway on the world stage--the US and Britain--and so the issues that preoccupy the fictional characters are larger than life; and, in a rather Shakespearean way, the flaws of the characters (in Boss and House of Cards particularly--and Scandal of course, which cannot survive without, well, scandal) are Hamlet-sized.Borgen is different, and there is nothing wrong with that at all. Denmark is not, and never has been, a world leader. It's a small, rich, successful country that had (and still has, indeed) a very minor empire; that has a very democratic monarchy; that has a parliamentary system that is very typically European, in that  political parties are ideological factions and represent many different ways of viewing the world and one's government, and that has a pretty endearing way of seeing its place in the world. The politicians about which this series is written are pretty ordinary in this sceme of things. They are about as flawed as the people I work with at the College of The Bahamas. The crises that threaten the government are more often than not moral crises (how many times does morality cross the political stage on our side of the Atlantic?), and philosophy often lies at the core of decisions made. What's even more interesting is that the government in question is a coalition government, so forget the monolithic strong-arming of policy and ideas that we are so used to on this side of the Atlantic; governing in this world has a lot more to do with finding and maintaining common ground than bullying opponents. The main antagonists (I don't mean this in a protagonist/antagonist sense) are the press, which is really free, and whose right to challenge and question politicians is guarded by almost everyone, politicians included. It's a fascinating look, for me, into a world in which democracy is related to what ordinary people believe about the world, to consensus, and to paying attention to the rights of the many, where "democracy" is not a code-word for the tyranny of the majority or first-past-the-post voting (a crash course on Danish politics can be found here and here).It makes me hopeful that it is possible to do the business of government in a different way than we currently do in our part of the world. That's the main reason I enjoy the show. Every other television show about government that I have seen, has reinforced the idea that politicians must universally be hollow or corrupt, and our familiarity with the (very lofty, very flawed) American political system has hurt our democracy, our government, and our ability to carve our own way. Do we believe in democracy, I wonder? Do we hold our politicians to account? (I can hear you now--are these serious questions?) In the forty years of our independence, how much real work has our legislature done? Why are the laws on the books still patched-up versions of colonial laws, most of which are predicated on the idea that the majority of the inhabitants of our country are little better than children and must be forced to behave well rather than treated as full citizens? Are the decisions we make made for us or in desperation to achieve something worth recording in history books?I'll stop there, and just say this to every Bahamian who cares about the state of our nation: go find this TV show, clear your head and clear your schedule, and watch it. Then see how you think about politics, governance, and the possibilties of small societies. Then let's get together and start making them happen here.

Write A House Is Giving Writers Free Homes In Detroit

Write A House is currently hoping to raise $25,000 on crowdfunding site Indiegogo to restore Peach House, the first future home for a Detroit writer. Young Detroit Builders, which teaches contracting skills to young people in the city, will help get the houses back into shape.via Write A House Is Giving Writers Free Homes In Detroit.

Yes. This is why we need real, independent local government in our country. I cannot imagine any Bahamian government coming up with something so radical, but a municipal government has room to experiment.All the best to Detroit. This is a kickass project.

The new colonialism, or Things Fall Apart: S&P: downgrade if no tax ‘follow through’ | The Tribune

The Bahamas will suffer another credit rating downgrade within the next six-nine months unless it “follows through” on Value-Added Tax (VAT) or some other structural revenue reform following the 2014-2015 Budget.Dr Lisa Schineller, Standard & Poor’s (S&P) senior country analyst for the Bahamas, yesterday told Tribune Business that the upcoming May Budget had to include the Government’s plans for generating medium and long-term “revenue buoyancy”.Suggesting that the national debate over VAT, and whether this is the best tax reform option, needed to be concluded relatively swiftly, Dr Schineller said S&P needed to “see something move on the revenue side this [fiscal] year”.via S&P: downgrade if no tax ‘follow through’ | The Tribune.

Don't get me wrong. I am not one of those who is fundamentally anti-VAT or who believes that there is absolutely no need to reform the Bahamian tax regime. I am not a knee-jerk no-taxes person; indeed, I believe that taxes are critical to maintain a contemporary society, where all citizens have access to the basic services that are necessary for twenty-first century life, and I also believe that to do away with taxation is to create a society that will resemble the world on which the Americas was built--a profoundly unequal world, where profit and wealth for a few rested on the backs of many who were underpaid (or not paid at all), under-fed, ill, poorly housed, abused.But.I do not see that much good can come out of any agency who stands far away, has nothing invested in the society, and who simply goes around the world, peering into people's business and recommending solutions that have been developed for other social realities with other challenges. The approach seems to be both cavalier and dismissive, and the goals are unrealistic. While I would be the first person to agree that government spending is in dire need of adjustment, I am also part of an institution, the College-soon-to-be-university of The Bahamas, which is under real threat from indiscriminate cuts in government spending. It is institutions like the College on which future revenue streams, future real economic changes will be built, if the government invests in those institutions; but the pressure being applied by companies like S&P and others is having the opposite effect. What The Bahamas needs are not more experts from the outside who come along with solutions that treat us as though we are cookies cut from some other reality, as though the unique challenges posed by being a large sprawling, unevenly developed postcolonial archipelago can be solved with plans developed in post-war France or approved by the OECD under the terms of the WTO. I don't need to watch films like Life and Debt to guess what might happen next.Once again, don't get me wrong. I am not arguing that changes do not need to be made. I am not making any case whatsoever that the system we have at the moment is working. What I am suggesting is that the carrot-and-stick approach being used by those who pay too much attention international credit ratings agencies--who are not gods, even though they behave as though they are, and even though they have the power to affect our economic fortunes as we let them--is too reminiscent of the indiscriminate tactics of the plantation and of the colonial settlement, where the bottom line is more important than the damage involved in getting there for my liking.I can only refer people to Achebe's classic work, Things Fall Apart for one of the best illustrations of what can happen to a society where necessary change is imposed from the outside, rather than developed internally. It's a story that has been repeated again and again over the last five hundred years in our part of the world, especially with regard to societies made up of people whose skin colours once marked them out as less-than. There is a hollowness that attends on these kinds of changes, most of which spring out of a deeply entrenched sense that--contrary to the evidence of history--people from the developed world know what's best for people in the developing world. We need to beware the White Man's Burden, which remains alive and well in the twenty-first century global economy; that burden has a bad habit of being dropped and breaking everything that's inside.

Concerning Reparations for Slavery: Part One

This past October, a tiny tempest-in-a-teacup erupted in the wake of a fairly routine report on a decision taken by CARICOM to sue the United Kingdom, France and the Netherlands for reparations for slavery. Following the report, which headlined, somewhat misleadingly, as "BAHAMAS SUING UK OVER SLAVERY", was a flurry of communications on both sides of the debate, along with a quick opinion poll by the Tribune which suggested that one-third of the people who took it were in support of the lawsuit, two-thirds against. The matter has since seemed to go away, sinking into the mire of superficialities which passes for public debate in our nation. But I want to suggest that what CARICOM has initiated is something that will eventually occur, and which may, when it does happen, change the future of the region if we let it. Whatever the noise in the market, the matter of reparations for New World slavery will not go away. A great wrong was committed against millions of human beings in the name of nothing more than global domination and profit, and that is a debt that will one day be paid.Here's why I say that. It seems to me that the resistance against the idea of reparations for slavery takes one of several forms. The first is the idea expressed by the UK government representative contacted by the Tribune to respond to CARICOM's lawsuit: that "governments today cannot take responsibility for what happened 200 years ago". The second is subtly connected to the first, but it shifts the focus from the enslaving nations to the nations founded on slavery, and argues that as the ills of the present cannot be solved by placing the blame on past wrongs, the past should be buried and the future considered. There is a third: that the debt has already been paid with independence, and that the political freedom of the people who were once enslaved is all that is necessary to right the wrong. A fourth argues that instead of focussing on the slavery of the past, the continuing enslavement and exploitation of people today is more a more pressing matter to consider. And there are countless other objections to the idea.What all of these objections have in common is that they deflect the idea of reparations from the principle on which the idea rests to the practicalities of the issue. In so doing, they inadvertently make the case, at least to me, for the very thing they oppose. What not one of these objections admits is that the institution of transatlantic slavery was a crime against humanity of such magnitude that makes it nearly impossible for us to deal with even two centuries after the beginning of its abolition. What they all do, instead, is continue to perpetuate the crime that lies at the heart of the reparations movement: that the enslavement of Africans by Europeans in the process of founding the so-called "New" World depended upon the fundamental dehumanization of those enslaved, and was accompanied by the very different dehumanization of the enslavers which occurred in the process.What these objections do is focus on the people enslaved, on the practical difficulties in addressing the wrong, on the pragmatics of the issue, which affect so many things about our current existence that it is almost impossible to conceive of living any other way. What not one of them does is address the idea that the crime for which restitution is being sought is not a crime against the person; it is a crime against the very idea of humanity and the concept of human beings. And it does not address the idea that until we begin to think about reparations from this perspective, we will continue to commit that crime.In case I'm not making myself clear, let me say it this way.For me, reparations for the transatlantic exercise of slavery (which is the specific offence that is being addressed in the CARICOM lawsuit) are not being sought for some past wrong that ended two hundred years ago. They are being sought for the continued dehumanization of the people who were enslaved, the people who enslaved them, and the people (us) who have inherited the world that rose up to maintain the slave system. It is a world whose structures, certainly in The Bahamas, remain very much intact, thus giving life to, enabling, the narrative that suggests that the past can be buried. But the past is not yet dead. It lives on in the very discourse that we use to discuss--or to dismiss--the call for reparations, and it is this which needs healing.This meditation is only a beginning of an exploration of the topic, and the start of my personal attempt to make sense of the issue, and to explain why first, I support the call for reparations; why second, I am convinced that no amount of ridicule and dismissal will make the call for reparations disappear; why third, I am certain that the arguments being brought against the call will eventually dissolve and peter out, and why the call for reparations will swell until restitution is paid; and why last, I am convinced that one day reparations of some kind will be paid by European governments (or by the EU itself) for their part in the system of transatlantic slavery.If you doubt me, consider this move, initiated this past May in France, pushing Europe to do what it has already done: to declare slavery a crime against humanity. And consider the language that accompanied it:

Written declaration, under Rule 123 of Parliament’s Rules of Procedure, on establishing a European day in recognition of the victims of European colonisation and colonial slavery1
  1. European colonisation not only caused political submission and the economic plunder of the colonised territories and population, but also the extermination of native peoples and the deportation and reduction to slavery of millions;
  2. Under Article 7 of the Statute of the International Criminal Court, enslavement is recognised as a crime against humanity;
  3. Colonisation had among its effects that of depriving the colonised territories of their lifeblood, impacting negatively on their development capacity;
  4. The political, economic, demographic and psychological consequences of European colonisation are still resonating;
  5. The Commission is hence called upon to support the establishment of a European day in recognition of the victims of European colonisation and colonial slavery;
  6. The Council is also encouraged to take ownership of the initiative by supporting it at European level;
  7. This declaration, together with the names of the signatories, is forwarded to the Council and the Commission.
It's a beginning. It is a small step, true, and principally symbolic, as it was accompanied by no restitution; but it is a turn in the direction of rightness.I'm going to return to this topic over the next month or so.You're warned.

Firearms group formed | The Tribune

“There is a great need to protect our rights to bear arms and in doing that gun owners should be able to have somewhere – a shooting range or facility to learn the proper handling of a firearm. There is also a desire to be able to work with the government in that regard where people can go and use their guns without interfering with the safety of other people,” Mr Albury said.via Firearms group formed | The Tribune.

Bahamians have no rights to bear arms. This is not the United States of America. The most we have is the right to apply for a license for a shotgun to go hunting creatures with. The absurdity of this statement is that it assumes that what is being talked about is even vaguely legal; it is not.Excuse me. I plead the Fifth.

Democracy, Belief, and Belief in Democracy

BahamasPrideFlag-AranhaThere's a petition circulating right now. I've signed it. I'm also promoting it. And I'm apologizing right now to those people for whom my promotion of the petition is problematic. I recognize the dilemma you might be facing. It's not my dilemma, but if it is yours, I respect it. I even apologize for not allowing the issue to go away.But I'm not going to allow it to go away. Because discrimination is not right, and I will not support it in whatever form it takes.Here's the issue:

"ATTORNEY General, Allyson Maynard Gibson said yesterday the Constitution should be amended to end all forms of discrimination, except discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. (Tribune 11/06/2013)Amendments to existing law or introduction of new legislation (whether constitutional or statute) should include provisions for the protection and free expression of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community in the Bahamas.-----------------Original story:"I Have Been Discriminated" ~ Erin Greene:

And here's the petition:

To: Allyson Maynard Gibson, Attorney General

Sincerely, [Your name]

I believe that in a democracy, one citizen should not be any less equal than another citizen. If we are removing discrimination from our constitution, let us remove it altogether, even if the process of making everyone equal may open up challenges to our personal convictions. It is that equality under the constitution that guarantees us our right to hold our convictions.If you agree with me, consider signing the petition. Let us stand for democracy together.

Intellectual property, slavery & reparations

imageThis morning I spent three-plus hours in a workshop on intellectual property. I have to thank the Ministry of Financial Services for it, but the information that we received was sobering, frightening, even. The amount of traditional knowledge that is stolen from our region on a daily basis is staggering. And the legal situation is dismal; retroactive applications of legislation is difficult, almost impossible. Attempting to reclaim our knowledge on an individual basis appears futile.But there is one debt that the developed world, the former imperial world, owed our region that remains unpaid. It is a debt that may be unpayable, but that is none the less real. It is the debt for three hundred years of forced labour on which the developed world developed. And since 2007 disscussions about reparations for the enslavement of our ancestors are tentative.Perhaps, though, this is where our recourse for present situation lies. Reparations are owed. Our ancestors' sweat, their toil, their bladderwater, have yet to be paid for. The slaveowners received compensation for the loss of their "property" at emancipation, but the slaves and their ancestors have never been paid for the generations of their labour.Their labour should be paid for.Our traditional knowledge should be paid for.Is there a linkage between the two?Is it perhaps time we begin to collect everything that you owe me? - COBUS: "Let's Build a University Where Students are Afforded Quality Education at Low Cost"

This is worth reading from beginning to end: - COBUS Press Statement.The press in general has focussed on one small part of the document, that relating to the House of Assembly; the original title of this document online is "COBUS: 'Would like an apology from the Speaker of the House and Royal Bahamas Police Force'", but that is only part of the concerns of this press release. The refusal by the RBPF to admit members of the College of The Bahamas Union of Students to enter the House of Assembly (doubly ironic, given the fact that that day's proceedings were dedicated to Sir Randol Fawkes, the father of the labour movement in The Bahamas and a supporter of all unions) puts broader issues of democracy into question, and it is those issues that are at stake here, not the relatively trivial call for an apology. The apology is incidental. The question is the value we place on the young adults in our society who have chosen to educate themselves at home,, and the value we place on their place in our so-called democracy.In regard to that issue, here is what the President-Elect, Alphonso Major, had to say:

We have many questions about what that transpired that day: what laws gives them police such authority to pick and choose who enters into the House of Assembly? How exactly were we a threat? Who exactly was in danger? Or is the crux of the matter simply that any time a group of educated College students assembles to stand up for something within this country, they are immediately perceived as a threat that must be contained. Even if there was intent to disrupt the proceedings which we maintain we did not have, Members of Parliament disrupt each other all the time within the House of Assembly - why aren’t they being denied access to the proceedings?Is this still a democratic nation that we live in where fundamental rights apply? -- Alphonso Major, President-Elect

But that was not all that transpired at the press conference. Indeed, the meat of this release treats the proposed cuts in subvention to the College and the resultant raising of fees. If you are not a student at the College of The Bahamas, I challenge you to read the whole thing before you come to any conclusion.Some of the highlights, for me:

In the absence of substantiated data, it is our goal to bring these inefficiencies to your attention, and to show all that a solution can be found through our critical assessment and assistance by providing practical, logical solutions, not as idealists: rather as students who recognizes the direction where we as a College should beheading and who wish to insure our futures within the nation as a whole, even before we consider transitioning to University. -- Donovan Harding, PR Director-ElectLet us build a University together one where students are afforded a quality education at low to no cost! We must build on the 21st Century learning skills with the technology and resources that are needed to move the country’s level of education from the bottom of the list to the top with Barbados, Singapore and Finland. -- Ernesto Williams, outgoing COBUS President

Once again, go read it. The whole thing. I challenge you.

Nightmares and Dreams

I had a dream last night which was really a nightmare.

In it, I received a phonecall directing me to go to the cabinet office. Dutifully, I went. It was early in the morning, and I didn't have to wait as long as I expected. Not long after I arrived, someone came and led me into a back room. There were people in the room I didn't know, mostly young politically weighted professionals. They introduced themselves to me. Most had heard of me but we had never met. We observed each other warily.

Then into the office walked several old friends, people with whom I spent many days in my twenties. They were brothers, and they were working for the government.

"You're with me," said the one I knew best, whom I'll call John.

Turns out we were the publicity / public relations / negotiating arm of whatever work was being wrought within the cabinet office. This day, the work was a long-term meeting with foreign investors. I found myself rather liking the investor in question, who was a European of some sort and who was proposing a major land development somewhere on New Providence. At the same time, though, I found myself hating the job itself, hating the project, hating the government and its policies which were poised to sell yet more of our patrimony to yet another profit-seeker. I said only one thing in the negotiations that we conducted all day. I can't remember what it was, but it was something that was self-evident to me but that no one had thought about, and it had to do with the long-term implications of proceeding with the development as projected, and it seemed to change the way in which the development would, well, develop.

At the end of the day, when we were finally finished (fourteen hours or more of time wasted selling Bahamian land to external interests) John told me I was invaluable and I needed to be in all of the meetings from here on in. Thank the lord, that's when I woke up.

All day I've been happy. Happy and relieved that I no longer work for government, that I no longer have to spend my days doing things I absolutely repudiate for the sake of a job, that all I have to combat the injustices our governments perpetrate on the people they supposedly serve is my mouth in a closed room.

And I recognize the feelings I had in the dream. They were the feelings I had--exactly--when I sat in the room I sat in while government officials discussed with resort officials the way they wanted Sidney Poitier to be recognized, the way they wanted to rename the bridge. I had been summoned to a meeting about which I knew nothing. My presence there was little more than an embodied stamp of approval on something about which I had not been consulted, had not even been wholly informed. I was there so that politicians, presumably, could say that the "Co-chair" of a non-existent committee had been consulted, nay, present, during negotiations. They're the feelings one has when one has been silenced.

My waking up was liberation, because I now work for the one government corporation whose freedom of speech is enshrined in its very act. I know, of course, that speaking too liberally can still be punished, can still be silenced, but at the same time my employer is governed, indeed, constituted, by a law that promises "academic freedom". That is why I support the students who have begun to criticize the government (the government that many of them trust(ed), voted for, and may even still wish to support) and the administration of the college. That is why I do not share the media and public opinion about that criticism--that it's just another example of the college's unruliness.

I support the students without wholly agreeing with all their demands because what they are doing is right, what they are doing is not partisan, and what they are doing stems from fundamental principles. I do not support their harnessing or dismissing of their actions by any political faction, because what they are fighting for is beyond any party good. They are fighting for their future, and that is not shaped or bound by any three-letter profanity that I can think of; and they know that, in the words of Dia da Costa,

the very construction of political culture needs to be changed, the method and purpose of government and democracy need rethinking and reorganisation. Political economic culture cannot be about individual and party gain because that amounts to reproducing and reducing social life to liberal democratic and market epistemes. (da Costa, "Theatre as Space of Political Economy")

The students have had the audacity to imagine a different world, and to act as though they are right to want to live in it. More power to them, I say.

Dying of the (US) White

Not trying to make people feel uncomfortable here. But racial and gender transparency and white male privilege in the USA can no longer be taken for granted.  To wit:

Increasingly, the message in America is clear: If your organization or project is a myopic den of white homogeneity, or if your strategy for success includes trying to gin up fear around people who are different, you are destined for irrelevance, and nobody will care how rich you are, or who your daddy is, or at what ivy-draped liberal arts school you cut your perfect teeth. Those who haven't learned that lesson are mocked, shunned, or, worse, totally ignored. Either way, they don't win elections.

Cord Jefferson & Gawker.comDying of the White: Requiem for the 2012 Election.

So how does that translate for the Bahamas? Well, my advice to all politicians, past, current and future, would be not to take the status quo for granted. In the USA, the white rich male norm is being challenged. People are pointing out, rightly, that by the mid twenty-first century American whites will be a real minority. Wealthy white men are a minority now. Expect for something similar to affect the mainstream political class in the Bahamas, be it PLP or FNM, as time moves on. Expect it to happen to those who rely on cries of immigrant invasion, women as the property of men (think the marital rape exception), culture as peripheral, or the Christian nation fiction here at home.  This is not the time for business as usual. Usual is slipping into the past.

Charlie, R.I.P.

This morning, my heart and mind will be at Christ Church Cathedral, where my former minister and colleague, Charles Maynard, will be laid to rest. My body will not; I teach a class at the same time which I have not yet met and which meets once a week, and my first obligation is to them. But my heart and mind will be with Zelena, Charles' children, Mr and Mrs Maynard, Andrew, Nina, George, and the family at large.Charles and I worked together for some eighteen months. He was the Minister of State for Culture; I was the Director of Cultural Affairs. Unlike his colleagues on both sides of the political divide, Charles got it. He was the first Minister of Culture to have had his own conscious, real investment in the business of culture, and he understood what we in The Bahamas needed in that regard. He and I didn't always agree, but he always allowed room for healthy discussion, and would always listen to dissenting views; even more strangely (for a politician), he would even allow himself to be convinced by another person's position if he felt that it had more merit than his own, or if he felt it could bear fruit. In other words, he made room, when I worked with him, for the possibility that he might be wrong. The rowdy persona that he adopted in the House of Assembly was miles away from the person he was in his ministerial office. There, he would join in a debate in his usual vigorous fashion, but as minister he would never ridicule you or dismiss your position outright. The typical malaise that we associate with Bahamian cabinet ministers, that of having instant expertise conferred upon them by God or the Governor when they take the oath of their office, did not afflict him; he had respect for the experts in the field  and would bow to their expertise when necessary.I loved and respected him as a minister. I knew that his desire was the same as ours—to develop Bahamian culture in such a way that it would become a beacon of pride for all citizens, an integral, perhaps a primary, part of the tourist package, and a source of income for many. He believed in us, in our worth, in our ability to create greatness. That he could not infect his colleagues with the same belief was not his fault; and so, like us, he deferred his dream.He told me once, when we were in a passionate discussion about CARIFESTA and why we should hold it in The Bahamas at the time we had committed to do so (and he went to bat for us, all guns blazing, because he understood what it could do for a nation), that he was advised as a cabinet minister to make a choice. "Either you are a cultural activist, or you are a cabinet minister," he was told. "You need to pick a side." He was passing the choice on to me; "Either you are a cultural activist," he was saying, "or you are a civil servant." He made his choice. He believed, as almost all politicians do, that maintaining a position of power was the best way to effect the change that he wanted to see. I was not so sure about that; I knew which one I was. Our paths parted, and we continued working in the ways our consciences demanded. I am more committed than ever to make his dream real.Perhaps coincidentally, today, August 24, is the day my father died, twenty-five years ago. For those who don't know, my father, E. Clement Bethel, was the first Director of Cultural Affairs in The Bahamas. He had the same dream that Charles and I shared, but he had it forty years before us. When the idea of the Bahamian nation was both embryonic and impossible, E. Clement Bethel was imagining greatness for Bahamian culture. In 2007, Charles Maynard was imagining the same. That we have not achieved it yet is not the fault of either man. The best legacy for Charles now is to honour him by making the dream a reality. I'm committed to it. Come join me.And Charlie—rest in peace.

The Bahamas Corruption Narrative: Get Yours and Say Amen

There's a narrative about The Bahamas that helps shape the ways in which we talk about politics, the nation, ourselves. It's a narrative that proposes, uncritically, that the Progressive Liberal Party is a consortium of liars, crooks, and outlaws, and the Free National Movement is a party of honest men and women whose only desire is to make the Bahamas a better, more civilized place. It expands this idea by suggesting that PLP supporters are lazy, uncouth, corrupt, stupid, and violent, while the FNM and its supporters are diligent, civilized, honest, intelligent, and peace-loving.Now I admit it: I have voted in my life for the PLP. So have many of the people around me, people whose good sense, personal integrity and patriotism I respect. (Many others whose good sense, personal integrity and patriotism I also respect have voted FNM, BDP, CDR, DNA, BDM, VNSP, and probably Labour, NDP, and maybe even the Workers' Party too, but that's another story.) For this reason, as well as for the reasons which have led me to cast my vote in that direction, the idea that I have supported a party of demons and criminals, as well as the idea that in doing so I have condoned or supported corruption, does not sit well with me. But that is where the Bahamas corruption narrative, at least in its current incarnation, tends.It's a narrative that appears in the mainstream print media, both at home and abroad, and it certainly surfaces in politically charged speeches of all kinds. It ran rampant in pockets on Facebook, especially immediately after the results of the general election last week, so much so that some dismayed individuals chattered about packing up their belongings and emigrating from The Bahamas in the wake of the PLP victory at the polls. So pervasive is the narrative that many young Bahamians, born and raised in the 1990s, accept it as truth, and tend to apply without question the concepts of the Progressive Liberal Party as gangster men with their arms up to their armpits stuck in the national "cookie jars", and the Free National Movement as white-hatted sheriffs, valiantly smashing those cookie jars to set the cookies free. It's a lovely, simple idea, and one that seems to be reiterated, consciously and unconsciously, in general conversations, so much so that discussions become depressingly, boringly predictable.The only problem is, it's not strictly true.Let me be quite clear here. I am not claiming for one minute that there is no corruption in Bahamian politics. I am not claiming that the Progressive Liberal Party is a pristine organization; the history of the party is chequered, to say the least, and definitively tarnished when one goes back a generation. The 1980s were not bright and shining times for any of us in The Bahamas, and the Progressive Liberal Party was implicated in much wrongdoing. The 1980s were, for those of us who lived through them and remember them, vexing, turbulent times. But they were not all bad. Criminality and addiction pervaded the society from top to bottom, and there was talk about our losing an entire generation to drugs; but at the same time, we had stories of remarkable personal triumphs (ask Carlos Reid and Pastor Dave Burrows), we saw a burgeoning movement of self-help and self-reliance (ask Myles Munroe and Neil Ellis), and we saw leaders taking historic stands of conscience that cost them more than many of today's holders of political office would be willing to lose (ask Arthur Hanna, Hubert Ingraham and Perry Christie).No; I'm not claiming that there is no reason for a corruption narrative to exist. What I am suggesting is that it is not unique to any one political party or the other, as so much of today's discourse appears to suggest. It seems to be a truism that the PLP is corrupt, the FNM incorruptible; but the truth is politics is a dirty business on the whole, and no group is exempt. Even in the 1980s, the moral ground on which the Free National Movement stood with regard to drugs began to erode when the public realized that the shining stars in that party themselves had links with drug kingpins, with Free National Movement lawyer-politicians acting for Luis "Kojak" Garcia and Carlos "Joe" Lehder; as the former Leader of the Opposition, Kendal G. L. Isaacs, Q.C., acknowledged, in our system of law, individuals are considered innocent until proven guilty, and all people are entitled to representation.What bothers me perhaps the most is that this discussion appears to unfold without critical examination. Take, for example, this comment from one of the denizens of Facebook, regarding the change of government:

So the PLP is already off and running with their same corrupt business as usual. ... Same corruption. Same mess. Same PLP. And it hasn't been a week yet. (taken from a thread in "Bahamas Election 2011/2012" in May 2012)

An overzealous supporter, you say? Someone with limited knowledge, someone who is easily led? Perhaps, but take these examples, from the editorial pages of the Tribune, which appear to chart the course:
She made a little speech about supporting the PLP and what “Papa” better not come promising around her, then in a typical PLP gesture, she held out her hand: “Gimme sumt’ing,” she begged. (April 24, 2012, my emphasis)


Yesterday we drove around various constituencies, including Grants Town. The stories we heard of vote buying in various places were mind-boggling. Some were told by the very persons who had been solicited, one of whom had succumbed.We heard the stories of men who were offered bribes of $5,000, $10,000, as high as $15,000, to take off their red shirts, reject their FNM candidate and convince other FNM supporters to do the same. (May 8, 2012)

I really don't need to state the obvious: that vote-buying is neither a new habit, nor one owned, invented, developed, or perfected by the PLP; it has been blatantly a part of Bahamian politics since men could vote. I don't need to say, further, that if one listened, one might hear similar stories regarding the taking off of yellow shirts to put on the red. This issue is not a party issue, but a cultural one, and something that needs to be addressed in a manner that involves a little less paternalism, a little more respect.Rather, I'd like to focus on what disturbs me more: that the corruption narrative appears to be validated by the fact that the American media follow the same general line as is taken above. I have long been troubled by the lack of balance, or perhaps of critical distance, exhibited by our print media, which, despite tremendous improvement over the past decade or so, is still inclined to eschew political analysis in favour of reportage and innuendo; but what prompted me to write this post was the story in the Miami Herald which appeared on May 4th—an article that made reference, of all things, to the Anna Nicole "scandal" of 2006-7, while overlooking issues of greater concern, such as (say) the awarding to the Aga Khan the right to own/occupy/develop islands within the bounds of the Exuma Land and Sea National Park, for what Bahamian benefit I have never been able to discern. I have never terribly impressed by sex scandals, or things that purport to be. I happen to believe that it's perfectly possible for a man (or woman) to make valid, even inspired, political decisions while at the same time being incapable of controlling his (or her) libido; Martin Luther King and William Jefferson Clinton come to mind. Call me crazy, but I am far more concerned about the selling of Bahamian tax dollars (say, the several million in advertising that we continue to provide Atlantis, some 18 years after its initial investment), Bahamian land to foreigners (Cable Beach from Goodman's Bay to Sandals, an indigestible chunk of Exuma to Four Seasons/Sandals, or individual islands and cays to cruise ships), or untapped fossil fuel resources to little-known private companies.This is why the current Bahamas corruption narrative unsettles me. It's not that we shouldn't be talking about corruption; of course we should. What is missing from the discussion, however, is balance. It is easy to assign blame to only one group of people, to assume that when a particular party takes power, the moral fibre of the society is under threat—but it is not accurate. It is a matter of record that politicians on all sides of the political divide have been implicated in questionable activities, if not outright examples of corruption; but it is also a matter of record that the people that many consider impeccably honest of the House of Assembly come from every party too.When we pull up Anna Nicole Smith, but ignore Mona Vie, the Aga Khan, or cease our interrogation of the 4,000+ Chinese work permits, we undermine our commitment to the Bahamas corruption narrative. When we revisit the 1980s, but skim over the scandals, such as the Clifton Cay deal, that plagued the Free National Movement at the end of the 1990s, we do the same. In both cases, we may be following our moral compass; but we're overlooking the fact that it needs calibration.My own position is that there is probably very little difference among politicians. People are people; many succumb to temptation, while a few are able to resist. What I would like to see is a willingness on the part of all Bahamians to call out corruption whenever or wherever we see it, especially if it comes from within our particular political enclave. It is not all right to endorse corrupt activities in the name of one's own party while at the same time condemning them when they are conducted by another, as happens here:

ATTENTION ALL FNMs, the PLP is now giving out PLENTY MONEY!!!!!! THE OIL MONEY IS HERE. TAKE THE MONEY, SAY THANKS YOU AND VOTE FNM. Heavy money in Freeport, Bain Town, Centreville, Bamboo Town, Mount Moriah, Fort Charlotte, Montague, St. Annes, West Grand Bahama, Coopers Town, North Andros, Central & South Eleuthera, North Eleuthera Fox Hill etc. There is plenty OIL MONEY. GET YOURS AND SAY AMEN. (taken from a thread in "Politics in Review" in May 2012)

So let me end by taking a leaf from my own book. It's this very question, the question of "oil money" that concerns me right now when it comes to the continuation of the Bahamas corruption narrative. Bahamian oil is an issue that, as Larry Smith has so succinctly observed, "is the biggest single issue facing the country today"—and something about which we know far too little; shareholders in London appear to know more. It is also something that, now the government has changed, is no longer a neutral issue for the Progressive Liberal Party. When last challenged on their relationship with the main company that has been granted oil exploration licences, the new Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister stated that they had no conflict of interest, as they were not in government, and had no ability to influence national policy on the question of oil. The situation is fundamentally different today.I call upon the government to move swiftly to the referendum promised regarding oil drilling from the platform of the Progressive Liberal Party rallies. But before that, I call upon the government to engage in open and public dialogue about the oil question. Let us see and know what the Bahamas Petroleum Company plans to do with the oil that apparently lies beneath our seabed, and how drilling for it might benefit us. Explain to us what good things, beyond the $$$ we naively associate with oil money, drilling will bring to our nation, in this century that is already looking beyond fossil fuels to sources of alternative energy. Show us how ordinary Bahamians will benefit from oil exploration, and why we should trust any investment in a resource that has brought poverty and turmoil, not prosperity, to too many of the regions that looked upon it as a remedy for all their ills—Nigeria comes all too swiftly to mind. This is an issue as big as any we have faced thus far in our history, and it is an issue on which the new government of The Bahamas, a government in which I have chosen to believe, will stand or fall.

Predicting the 2012 General Election: Third parties & other things

Been following some of the predictions re the upcoming elections. (There are others too: here, here and here.) Not closely, you understand, because I just don't have that much time in my life (and I've been doing other, really exciting and constructive things), but occasionally, with some interest, because this is the most fascinating election period that has occurred in a long, long time, and because every prediction out there has to contend with a new, unfamiliar curve ball: the rise of the third party movement.Note I didn't say the DNA. That's because the Democratic National Alliance is just capitalising on something that has changed in the country, something that I believe is going to continue to grow, even if the two-party acolytes succeed in killing the DNA off. It's the fact that the split between two major parties in The Bahamas has developed almost by default. Its roots are in that most ancient and powerful division in our nation: the centuries-long categorisation of Bahamians of colour as "natives" (white Bahamians were "residents") whose purpose was to serve their betters—not to lead. The FNM-PLP split, for better or for worse, is buried in this dichotomy, and for decades one could fairly safely assume that PLP supporters tended towards the privileging of black Bahamians, while FNM supporters advocated the One Bahamas movement (by which I mean the recognition that Bahamian and black are not necessarily synonymous). As a result, anyone who has voted in two or more elections should recall that no election season till this one has been allowed to pass without the invocation of race—whether from rally platforms, in letters to the editor, or by reference to the American TV miniseries Roots.The third party movement has queered that pitch. The 2012 election is historic in any number of ways, but one of the most significant is that I have not noticed any real reference to race in the campaigns. In fact, it would appear from the images being projected by the Afrocentric PLP, in posters, the Mandate, videos and ads, that white Bahamians are embraced and included, and that it is no longer possible to assign PLP-ness to black Bahamians and FNM-ness to white. The simple fact is that race is no longer a major issue for most Bahamians. I am not saying that it is no longer relevant in our society; what I am suggesting that it is no longer a primary determinant of one's ability to succeed in The Bahamas. And because of that, the principles on which both the FNM and the PLP were founded are growing obsolete, and both parties have for some time been losing their "base".This is a trend that started to show in 2002, when no less than 4 independents sat in the House of Assembly. Some people might disagree with me, arguing that the resounding defeat of the CDR at the polls in that year, and the continuing trouncing of the BDM to boot, challenge  my position. They may well be right, but I would argue that by 2002, the transformation of the Bahamian society that was begun under the PLP and continued by the FNM had resulted in a society where the largely uncontested foundations of the FNM and the PLP were being eroded, a place where one did not necessarily need a political party to give one legitimacy, a place where ideas rather than tribe began to matter. Never mind that the independents that sat in the HOA between 2002 and 2007 were there because, for the most part, they ran unopposed by one of the other of the parties (Wells, Cartwright, & Dupuch were unopposed by the PLP; I can't remember whether Bastian won hands down despite going up against FNM and PLP or not); I suggest that the facts that they sat in the House of Assembly as men beholden to no one but their constituents, and that they were watched representing those constituents, and appeared to vote with their consciences for the most part, were not incidental to the growth of the faith in the third-party movement that we are witnessing in 2012.(I also have very little doubt that, had the CDR weathered their defeat in 2002, regrouped, continued to develop their platform, and continued to work on their base, they would be a very real contender in this election, and would have attracted far more of the mature disaffected voters than the DNA has been able to do after one short year; we might be looking at quite a different situation today. But you know what they say about hindsight, and I digress.)But there's something else that's important here, and something else that the pundits appear to have overlooked. The greatest obstacle to the ability of a third party to gain traction among Bahamian voters was its ability to get its message out. Until the by-election in Elizabeth in 2010, third parties needed considerable sums of money simply to make their voices heard. The advent of Facebook and Twitter, however, has changed the ground completely. As has been observed elsewhere, much of what has enabled the green wave to continue to gather has been the presence of third-party candidates on the internet, their activity, their accessibility, and their willingness to engage in dialogue with potential voters. This is quite different from the traditional Voice-of-God politics that the older parties continue to practise. And while the DNA has capitalized on this change in the past 12 months or so, the real success story of this shift was the short-lived NDP.Think about it. The NDP did not only use Facebook as a means to spread its message; the message it spread was also a reflection of the ethos that prevails on social media. The principal tenets of the new party included a real focus on the constituents of Elizabeth, and—remarkably—a new approach to the selection of candidates. Instead of the traditional system of delegates nominating and ratifying candidates behind closed doors without the knowledge or input of the citizens those candidates were supposed to serve, the NDP advocated a more open process, in which hopefuls would present themselves to the voters, and the voters would indicate who they wanted to represent them. Furthermore, the NDP campaign on Facebook was remarkable and ground-changing, as it addressed issues in ways that enabled citizens to review them, think about them, and become involved in them. (Read a full account of the rise and fall of the NDP here.) I would argue that much of that energy was shifted to support for the DNA. What has happened is that, although the principals of the third-party movement have melted away, amalgamated with more established parties, or otherwise disappeared, the general interest of the voters, the hunger of Bahamian citizens for something different, has not abated. Rather, it has built, and the existence of the DNA has allowed it to be fed.Because of that, I think this election is too close to call. I believe anything could happen when the results start coming in an hour from now. Anything. A landslide victory for the FNM, say with the 4 x 7 sum of 28 seats? Sure. A landslide victory for the PLP, with the same numbers? Definitely. A split house, with (say) a tie between the FNM and the PLP, with the DNA holding the balance? Possible. A minority or coalition government, with the DNA calling the shots? Even that.The point is, we just don't know. There's a lot of conventional wisdom floating around, and it's on this conventional wisdom that the political parties have all based their strategies. It's on this conventional wisdom that the big guns—from the Prime Minister and the Boundaries Commission to the invocation of the traditional Saint-FNM/Demon-PLP narratives to the outrageous claims of The Punch and Bahamas Press—have drawn to build another issueless, diss-the-citizen campaign. If I can sum it up, it goes something like this: The base needs to be fed, because you have to be sure they vote. So feed them with trash-talk, sound-bytes, snippets of carefully pruned information, and exciting political gatherings where people gather together wearing the right-coloured shirt so that some photographer can take their picture and post it on Facebook to make the other side scared. As one earnest  political candidate actually told me: the people don't want meat; what they like is gravy. Keep them entertained and fed and well-supplied with liquor, trash-talk, insult-trading and dancing you'll get their vote.It's on this conventional wisdom, too, that many of the pundits are basing their predictions. Now maybe they're right, and the election will be as predictable as they hope; maybe the careful redrawing of the boundary lines, the glad-handing of shirts and caps and wads of cash, and the Junkanoo-competition rallies will do the trick. But I have my doubts.Why ? Because the last election was the closest in modern Bahamian history, with an initial outcome of only five seats separating the government and the opposition in the House of Assembly, meaning the balance of power was three seats alone (which three, incidentally, might have been held by the former CDR if the members had so chosen). That election was won by a margin of 2%—a margin that is fundamentally affected by the so-called "swing voters", those of us who think about how and why we cast our X, who are not predictable, who consult our consciences, who watch the price of the fish. Yes, we do exist. And the third party has attracted many of us.So don't sleep on the DNA, even if they do not win one seat. The outcome of this election will depend on them. And I have no intention whatsoever of attempting to guess what that outcome will be.We'll just have to wait and see.