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)

and

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.