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.

Reparations Part II: A Lecture by Prof. Hilary Beckles

[easy-media med="3125"]The lecture is not short. Watch it at your own leisure. You may well not agree with it, all of it or some of it or a little of it. But if you have anything at all to say about the question of reparations, you will have no ground on which to stand unless you engage with the ideas he puts forth.Here is a taste:

When the world sits down, the western world, the European world, when they sit down to discuss the Caribbean, Africa, when they look at their past and the enslavement of our peoples, the victimization of our peoples, the destruction of Africans' potential, and the consequences that followed slavery, the apartheid that was put in place in the Caribbean after slavery, they speak about [the idea that] the time has come to move on.And they discuss moving on in the context of certain key words. These are the words that they use: Let's be progressive. Let's move on. Let's have progress. Let's have equity. Let's have democracy, equality, time for healing, time for atonement. We must have redemption, and forgiveness. The time has come for reconciliation ... Justice.These are the key words [around which] the conversation takes place about the legacies of slavery. But if you look at these words very carefully—and these are all very important words because these are the key words in western civilizations that speak to human progress—but there's a word that is missing from there. There is a word that is missing from the dialogue. And that word is what we call the elephant in the room. There's an elephant in the room. There's a word that nobody wants to say in the western world. There's a word that they do not want to use. But without that word, all of the precious words of hollow. Without that word, the justice, the forgiveness, the atonement, the equality, the progress, the reconciliation—without that word all of those other words are hollow. And that word of course is reparations.

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.

Geography, Gerrymandering and Alternative Energy

Over on Facebook, Renard Eric started this thread to discuss ways of making life in The Bahamas better for all. In case you can't find the post for some reason, here's what he says:

It's a new day - the Independence celebrations are over.I'm determined, as many of you are that follow my posts, to correct the wrongs in our country, to bring about change for poor people so "we" can all afford: groceries every week to feed our families, to pay our bills (in full), to live in a safer community, to afford health care, to get health and life insurance, to own our own businesses rather than be modern day slaves to hotels and banks, to afford to educate our children etc. But like many of you, I realize I have to be a part of the change I want to see...Let's network and use this thread to discuss solutions to our national problems. Some of us may know of issues/problems etc while others may have ideas to resolve them. No post/idea/concern is irrelevant.Obviously I have an agenda, it's no secret 'My allegiance is to the middle class and lower class'. I don't see why 'we' can't be educated, safe, financially comfortable and owners of the land in our country. Kudos to the rich in The Bahamas for making it - but they need to make room at the dinner table for us. Crumbs have lost their flavor! Our children are hungry!My first post in this thread is - 'The high cost of living'. How do we lower the cost of grocery items, gas, mortgages, car payments, insurance?

My answer referred to what I learned from my student Renaldo Major, who presented on alternative energy at COB's Bahamas@Forty Conference. He asked for details, so I'm sharing the recording of that session here.Major's presentation starts at 30:31 in the recording. Please excuse the typing sound in the foreground. We were recording on the go.[vimeo 70139934 w=500 h=500]Lean Forward Panel from the Bahamas@40 conference June 13 2013 from Nicolette Bethel on Vimeo.

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.

Bahama Republic

Election fever has brought some interesting things back to my attention, such as this blog, Bahama Republic.It's not that I didn't know it existed. It's right there in my blogroll, among the various links that are expired, obsolete, or moved. That means I knew about it three, four or five years ago (don't know how long ago I constructed the blogroll—the older I get, the more time compresses into one big blur). Still. As is the case with many of those links, I haven't revisited it in some time.But links to its posts are resurfacing on Facebook via the Demand Debates campaign, and because there's more discussion regarding life and work at the College of The Bahamas.Go check it out. It's good reading. I tend to fall into its camp with regard to the ways in which we view ourselves, our fundamental conservatism and fear of confrontation, our need of "brain-un-washing". I particularly agree with the idea that 2012 and possibly years to come "may see the continuation of the unfinished revolution of the 1960/70s." I'm not sure I share all of its cynicism, and while I am as unimpressed with the "achievements" of the past five years as the author is, I have not been convinced that a return to a PLP administration will be the magic bullet that solves all our problems.My only criticism? There's nothing on the site to indicate who's behind it. Now while I can't blame a person (who for all I know may well be a civil servant, and therefore prohibited from exercising the constitutionally guaranteed right of free-ish speech, or a sitting MP, or even—weird thought—a down-low member of the FNM cabinet) for wishing to keep a low profile, the lack of identifiable authorship does give me pause. Anonymity is sometimes necessary, but in this cyberage it is also an easy way to make statements for which one does not have to take responsibility. We live in a country where responsibility is too easily shifted from the person to the generic; it seems to me that one way to counter that failing is for each citizen to step up and take personal responsibility for what they feel, think and say.That said, what do I know? I don't know the author's situation, and for all I know his/her livelihood may depend on keeping the powerful happy. In that case, the blog itself is an exercise in responsibility.In any event, go read Bahama Republic. It's heartening to see the continued level of discussion, and well worth it.

Answering the challenge: a consideration of patriotism, democracy, and voting - part I

Of all the responses to the Voter's Manifesto I received, it was the one that challenged it that I appreciated the most. Not that I didn't welcome the people who commented and wrote in support of the Manifesto, or that I am not happy to know that the original seemed to have struck a chord with several other voters; but at the heart of democracy is, and must be, the ability to disagree. A space for dissent, for disagreement, for debate, must be built into any democratic system; democracy cannot hope to be achieved when no debate takes place.And it's not enough for room to be left for debate; that's only the first step in the democratic process. Unless debate happens—and debate that is rational, not polemic, slander or other forms of empty political rhetoric—unless, in other words, the group of people for whom democracy was provided do not exercise their freedom to speak, the process cannot survive. Silence paves the way for tyranny, and so also do name-calling and mud-slinging. There is very little that's democratic about a host of people, all clad in rainbow-coloured clothing, gathering insults into a pile to throw at one another. In that scenario, Ian Strachan's comment that no matter who wins the general election, the losers will be the Bahamian people is spot-on. What's missing from our political discussion is any reference to real, debatable issues, and any honest debate about them; and if we hope to maintain our hold on democracy, already tenuous in several respects, blind agreement can be as unproductive as senseless personal attack.So to the critique of the Manifesto, which was described by its critic as "ill-conceived, emotive, and racist". The main area of contention was the "I do not believe" section, which rejected the ideas

In response, the critic observed that

  1. the Bahamas already has a fully democratic process for electing its leadership 
  2. it is arrogant to suggest that a population of under 400,000 people has every single skill, knowledge and experience to address the issues faced by the country

and concluded that these statements "seemed designed to elicit anti-foreigner responses". The response challenged me "to defend your words and demonstrate the error of my interpretation".Here is my defence. To the first, the claim that the electoral process in The Bahamas is "fully democratic". This I challenge on many levels while at the same acknowledging the core of truth in the statement. On the one hand, we have a right to be proud of our electoral record. Great changes have taken place in The Bahamas via the ballot box, without bloodshed, and with a relatively low incidence of coercion, fraud, or corruption, the common understanding of all of the above notwithstanding. One could of course argue that there is a long-standing practice of wooing voters with cash incentives or of rewarding them for their support with gifts of food, or, apocryphally, large appliances; I could counter that with the challenge that the twenty-first century has seen an overall reduction in the value of these incentives, given the fact that neither of the two latest elections resulted in any major hiring of supporters to work in the absolute security of the Government Job. But I digress. We have a strong democratic tradition when it comes to voting for people to sit in Parliament. But we have a very poor democratic tradition when it comes to raising, debating or considering issues that have relevance for our nation; what passes for "political" discussion in our country is really personal attack and gossip dressed up in cotton tees.There are several areas in which we fail miserably in the development of the democratic tradition. The first is in the fact that, unlike other democracies, Bahamians have only one tier of representation. In our elections, two-thirds of the population may vote only for the national government. The city of Nassau has no local government, and there is no talk of any serious nature of creating one any time soon. Although we talk about urban renewal and the regeneration of downtown Nassau, the agency that we imagine will be given the responsibility for this is a corporate entity appointed by the government and accountable to no ordinary citizen. Family island communities have a measure of local governance, but urban Bahamians are governed by corporations—the Port Authority in Freeport, and whatever the title of the proposed agency will be for Nassau.The second is in the method by which our representatives are chosen. It's not good enough to invoke the Westminster model of parliamentary governance here; I am arguing that no matter where it came from, it does not meet our needs. In Nassau (where, I repeat, our Members of Parliament are the only voices we have at the governmental level), our much-touted ability to vote is seriously compromised by the fact that voters have the very last say in choosing the candidates. There are no primaries, no public weeding out of candidates, no debates, no means by which the average person can vet the candidates before they are presented to us. The selection is in the hands of the political parties alone. This dilutes the democratic process. I'm going to quote Pat Rahming here, because his poem "Power", now four decades old, continues to resonate:

cuz vot’n ain’ much powerif somebody else guh choosethe choice

The third is that the representatives are not answerable to the people from the time they are elected to the time they begin to campaign for votes three, four or five years later. Voters, having gone to the polls, made the best choice they could from among a group of (generally) unsuitables, are obliged to sit back and live with what they have done for five years. We cannot recall our representatives. Our representatives have no obligation to report to us what they have done with our trust. All we can do is watch them make fools of themselves and a mockery of our state on the Parliamentary Channel, and at best talk behind their backs—or on the air, sometimes—while smiling and kowtowing to their faces. Our so-called full democratic process has succeeded in making passive hypocrites of too many of us.The fourth is that in order to create democracy, more than a vote is needed. A voice is also not enough. We got our vote in the 1960s when women were allowed to cast ballots, and we got our voice in two parts: in the 1960s when we elected the first majority government of The Bahamas, so that the faces that ruled us looked like ours, and in the 1990s second when the Free National Movement made it possible for different perspectives to be heard on the airwaves by breaking the broadcasting monopoly that had hitherto been held, by law, by the Broadcasting Corporation of The Bahamas. Neither fact seems to have prevented us from enacting the same dumbshow of electing and revering individuals who by their greed, lack of exposure, lack of knowledge, lack of morals, or lack of sense of self have proceeded to disenfranchise the average citizen even more. We need more than a voice; we need to be given the kind of education that breeds a sense of pride, a sense of honour and a sense of integrity so that we, the citizens, can exercise that voice in such a way that democracy is strengthened. That is clearly lacking. The very real oppression of the 1970s and 1980s—by which dissent by ordinary people was silenced in numerous ways, not least among them the very real activity of victimization, when opponents could be, and were, stripped of their livelihoods, their positions, and their reputations—has given way to an oppression of the mind. We have the channels and the means to speak, but what we have to say is ignorant of Bahamian history, lacking in substance, and small-minded.And so. We live in a nation that is nominally very democratic, but that is actually little better than any tyranny—and perhaps worse, because we are comfortable with our situations and so prefer not to rock any boats. We live and die by our passivity, and when things don't go well for us, we complain, we moan, or we lash out with knives and guns. Our democracy is a veneer, and a thin one at that.End of this part of my response; more to come

A Reader Responds to the Voter's Manifesto

Got the following response to my Voter's Manifesto. It was sent privately, for reasons the writer makes clear, but as that individual has encouraged me to post the response and to respond in my turn, I'm honouring the request.

Happy New YearI wish to challenge your Voter’s Manifesto as ill-conceived, emotive and racist. You will notice that I am doing this in a private message rather than a post.I would rather post and challenge publicly, however, unfortunately, foreigners do not have freedom of speech in the Bahamas without fear of consequences, and so I am forced to challenge you in private.I request that you honour my request for anonymity, but I encourage you to post (anonymously) and respond to my challenges in public.I have no argument with your ‘I believe’ section.I suggest that you are being intentionally emotive and encouraging misunderstanding in your ‘I do not believe’ section.‘I do not believe that Bahamians need help, time, or training to deepen and strengthen the democratic project’ I am not sure what you mean by ‘project’ but the Bahamas already has a fully democratic process for electing its leadership so this statement seems gratuitous and a little divisive to me.‘I do not believe that Bahamians need help, time or training to address those problems that our country is struggling with now’ Wow this is an arrogant statement, to suggest that a population of under 400, 000 people has every single skill, knowledge and experience to address the issues faced by the country. In this context I am reading ‘help’ as ‘help from non-Bahamians’ as I don’t see what else it can mean.Let me take an example that is close to your heart ……. COBCOB has been struggling for over 10 years now to transition from a community college to university status.• I question what percentage of Bahamian lecturers at COB became qualified for their job in the Bahamas? I believe over 98% of Bahamian COB lecturers gained their education abroad.• There are a number of foreign lecturers at COB. According to work permit requirements, COB was unable to fill those posts with Bahamians or work permits would not have been granted.Did you mean that you want to get rid of all the foreigners from COB and stop Bahamians going abroad for their education?Let me take another example………. The economy.The two largest industries in the Bahamas are tourism and off-shore banking. Both of these industries rely on foreign investment and international interactions.You might not like Sol Kerzner building Disney Land on Hogg Island, but it is one of the largest employers in the Bahamas, and there were no Bahamians in a position to build at the same level, as proven by Baha Mar, which tried for a number of years to elicit Bahamian investment and failed, and also could not generate the skill set required for high rise construction within the Bahamas.The off-shore banking industry functions through cooperation between the government of the Bahamas and international banks, who generate significant income for the Bahamas.These two industries between them generate the majority of the wealth of the Bahamas and the majority of opportunities for Bahamians. Take away the foreigners and the money of the foreigners and both will collapse, along with the economy of the Bahamas.You may not like the Bahamas’ dependence on foreign industry, but the Bahamas cannot do without it until it generates a broader economic base.Your statements seem designed to elicit anti-foreigner responses.What does it say about a country who shows such little respect for the foreigners legitimately living there?“If you want my vote don’t come waving flags or t-shirts or offering promises of more jobs laying cement, gathering laundry or taking orders for rich white people from abroad.”Are you saying it would be ok if they were rich black people from abroad?I do not think you intended to be so disrespectful to those white foreigners living in the Bahamas, but it is significant that, whilst addressing your agenda of quality of jobs provided by the government, you are comfortable using derogative phrases like this.This document does not match your usual quality of work in my opinion. I think it is significant that you published it on MLK day in the USA and its style is derivative of the ‘I have a dream’ speech.I invite you to defend your words and demonstrate the error of my interpretation.I moved to the Bahamas because it is a country that still values family, community and humanity. As you correctly state, it is a country full of people with talent and creativity. I love the Bahamas and the people of the Bahamas and I believe I make a positive contribution to this country, so I find it hurtful to hear ‘getting rid of the foreigners’ as an election platform.

 

A Voter's Manifesto

With elections around the corner and three political parties, none of which appear to have formulated, much less articulated, any new or credible plan for Bahamian development or growth in twenty-first century (and no, planning to beg more rich people for more money to buy up more of our precious archipelago does not count), I think it's time for the average Bahamian, the voter, to exercise her democratic right and put down in pixels what will or will not get her vote.I am a Bahamian who has never been represented by any party that has held power in The Bahamas to date. I am a woman, middle class, neither black nor white, a cultural worker and intellectual, a citizen and a voter, an ordinary Bahamian who does not campaign, carry a voters' card, attend rallies, or otherwise show her face during the silly season that surrounds politics.I pay my taxes in every way they are presented to me. I have never sat in a politician's office to beg for anything when doing so was not part of my job as a civil servant. I have been eligible to vote in the past 6 general elections but in that time I have only once been visited by a prospective MP, who believed that he was making a social call on old friends, my parents. I have never,  in my civilian position, called any sitting politician for a job, for a handout, for a favour, for any sort of help. I do not work in the tourism industry, real estate, the construction industry, or any other other area that figures in political discussions of "jobs" and "economics" or anything else.I am one of thousands of productive, independent, patriotic Bahamians who make this country run on a daily basis. I took the opportunities offered to my by the first independent government of The Bahamas and went off and earned a college degree. I came home because I wanted to serve and build my country. To date, my country has not put in place anything to serve and build me; to every politician who has served in parliament in the time I have been voting, people like me have been invisible. In our democracy, we do not count.And so: a voter's manifesto.

I believe:
  • that Bahamians are as intelligent, as resourceful, as industrious, as talented and as deserving as any other group of people on the planet;
  • that Bahamian innovation, creativity and adaptability carved this nation out of these scattered rocks in the sea, and that that innovation, creativity and adaptability will make flourish in the twenty-first century;
  • that Bahamians are full human beings, with needs that go beyond the merely material;
  • that The Bahamas is as important as any other nation in the world, and should be treated as such;
  • that our human capital -- the ingenuity, intelligence, talent and independent spirit of the Bahamian people -- is the most important resource that our nation has.
I do not believe:
  • that Bahamians need help, time, or training to deepen and strengthen the democratic project;
  • that Bahamians need help, time, or training to address those problems that our country is struggling with now;
  • that Bahamians need help, time, or training to make our country better.
And so:
  • I, the voter, do not care what colour T-shirt you offer me or what three letters you cast before my face.
  • I believe in democracy.
  • I do not care nearly as much about the history of your particular party (or of your opponents) as you think I do.
  • I do not care about how good (or bad) you look in a suit, how well you speak off the cuff, or whether your leader is God incarnate or the Devil himself.
  • I care about this country we all share.
  • I care what you and your party are planning The Bahamas will look like tomorrow.
  • I want to know the details.
  • I believe that it is the right of a people to elect a government who will represent them and not the foreign interests who come offering the latest wads of cash or promises grander than the grandest Prime Minister's.
  • I believe that is the obligation of a government to seek out and hear the needs of the people whom it represents.  All the people, not just the vocal few at the bottom who have depended thus far on their crippledness to coerce their representatives into enact ill-thought and hurried acts of bribery-in-return-for-votes, or the fatcats at the top who enact coercive acts of bribery of their own.
  • I believe in governments who represent and serve the people who vote for them, not the people who pay them, or bully them, or frighten them.
  • I believe in equality. That is not to say that I believe that all people are universally idiots, or that we must make all decisions according to the lowest possible common denominator. Rather, it is to say that I believe that all citizens—and, indeed, in a truly civilized nation, all people within our borders—should be equal under our laws and treated as such. No better, and no worse.
  • I believe that our ideals should be more important than individual exceptions.
  • I believe that a nation should be founded on ideals. Tell me yours.

If you want my vote:

  • Don't come waving flags or t-shirts or offering promises of more jobs laying cement, gathering laundry or taking orders for rich white people from abroad.
  • Don't come not debating policy.
  • Don't come bad-talking the other politicians around you.
  • Don't come not knowing basic things about this country, about governance, about policy, or the world of the twenty-first century.
  • Don't come expecting my political philosophy to do the trick and make me vote for you party because it happens to be the next best thing to the ideals I hold.
  • Don't come expecting your track record to move me.
  • Don't come expecting my colour, my family name, my friends, my profession, or any other attribute to influence the way I vote.
  • Don't come trusting in your personal political arrogance and my continued political passive stupidity.
  • Come talking to me about the Bahamas you will create the day after Election Day, and come telling me in detail how we are going to create it together.

It had better be a different Bahamas from the one I live in today.•••More links:A Reader Responds to the Voter's ManifestoAnswering the challenge: a consideration of patriotism, democracy and voting - Part IOn the mis-education of the Bahamian citizen

Towards A Voters' Manifesto

It's 2012 and the silly season is officially upon us. Bloggers and tabloids and Facebook commentators have begun their discussions and predictions. To quote Pat Rahming (and I'll quote him again before this post is over), everybody catchin politics like germ.It's a rare situation this election. For the first time in 35 years, it's a proper three-way race; in almost all of the 38 new constituencies, voters will have the option to choose candidates from one of three parties.Predictably, and unfortunately so, the discussion is progressing the way football hooligans support their favourite teams. Most of the loudest voices have painted themselves with the war-hues of their favourites, so that the air has taken on the quality of a rastafarian flag or (to employ the more common metaphor) a stoplight; the political parties (I am tempted to call them teams) adorn themselves in the party colours of red, gold and green.Equally predictably, the squabbling is as shallow and as thought-free as that paint. In almost no quarter does one hear discussions of the issues that affect us all, regardless of party -- of the economic future of the country, of ways in which we hope to function as citizens, of the kinds of fundamental changes that are necessary for the continued process of nationhood -- of questions of how to expand and deepen the democratic project, or how, in this small country of 350,000 people, to find solutions to the problems that plague us.I've been thinking for a long time now that what we need are not more political parties with platforms, plans and promises as fragile and transparent as cheap glass. No. What we need is a voters' manifesto -- a code by which we, the voters, live and move and cast our votes. So I've been thinking about what I want from a country and from a representative, and working back from there. Watch this space -- as I develop it, I'll post it. Maybe you'll share my perspective. If so, let's work for our own small change whenever the election is called!

The Duty to Vote - by Simon

I've been thinking about this commentary by "Simon" of Bahama Pundit (and the Nassau Guardian):

To refuse to vote is a decision.  It shows a level of disdain and contempt for our democratic system.  There is certain arrogance to those who feel that voting is beneath them and that they won’t participate in electing “those politicians” (who, incidentally, are our fellow citizens).

Voting is not fundamentally about politicians.  It is about the citizenry choosing their elected representatives and holding them accountable.  Democracy, like the human condition is imperfect, requiring constant improvement and renewal.  The alternative is a system of anarchy.

There is also an immaturity to those who refuse to help choose the nation’s elected representatives and refuse also to participate in governance.  Still, they expect someone else to make the tough decisions on everything from crime to the economy to education.

Often, these same individuals have much to say on issues of public policy though they refuse to vote or become involved in governance.  There is a level of hypocrisy by those who sit on their high horses complaining about the politicians while refusing to participate.

A refusal to exercise one’s right to vote is a dereliction of a basic right for which many have fought and died, and for which many are still struggling.  For the progeny of slaves it is a sort of disregard and dishonouring of the struggles of those ancestors who for generations fought for basic freedoms, including in The Bahamas for majority rule.

Those who refuse to exercise their right to vote for cavalier and unreflective reasons, do a disservice to the witness of Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, Bahamian men and women freedom fighters, and protestors around the world today for whom the right to vote is a democratic gift not to be taken lightly nor for granted.

The Right and Duty to Vote - via Bahama Pundit.

In many—many—respects I agree with him. The right to vote is more than an entitlement; in any democratic society, is a responsibility, the major responsibility perhaps, of citizens in democratic societies. Simon's right to shift the point from the politician to the citizen, and is also right to remind his readers about the cost of democracy, and to remind us all not to take it for granted. But there is a whole lot more to it than that, in my opinion.

For I have a problem with this idea that the responsibility in any democratic society is one-way, that it adheres to the citizen only, and that the politician is exempt. Because while I agree wholeheartedly that one has a duty to register and even tend to agree that one should turn out to vote, I balk at the idea that my vote must be constrained by the choices offered to me by people who, it seems, more often than not, have very limited imaginations about the potential of this nation, who indeed have very limited comprehension of statehood at all, and who are really put in place because they bowed down and said the right things to the right political overlord. Even in the most informal cases, a person has the right to abstain when the time comes to vote, and that abstention is counted; it is, in effect, an anti-vote, a rejection of the choices placed before one, or of the lack of choice imposed on the voter by political machineries that are fundamentally antidemocratic at their very core. What, after all, is democratic about a system in which representatives are chosen in the wake of an unholy alliance between a set of individuals entrenched in a political game and the super-partisan delegates whose job it is to choose and/or ratify candidates? When does the ordinary citizen, who is faceless and nameless and often even party-less, get to have some say in who will sit in Parliament on her behalf?

So while I agree with the duty of every citizen to participate in this most fundamental of democratic rights and responsibilities, and while I think that Australia is on to a good thing—every citizen is obliged to vote by law—I resist entirely this idea that the politician has no responsibility to the citizens or to the state that they govern. I especially resist it in our Bahamaland, where local government is another word for more direct taxation and where there is no such thing for the over two-thirds of the population who reside in the city of Nassau. There is nothing democratic about the shifting around of constituency boundaries by that parliamentary joke called the "Boundaries Commission"  and there is nothing democratic about the musical chairs being played by the three political parties in scrambling to find candidates who, by some strategic algorithm, are best poised to win within some made-up geographical area. And so I reserve the right, having registered and planning fully to turn out to vote, to make my displeasure known at the polls if (or when) the three parties who are scrambling for power do not show me enough respect to offer for office an individual for whom I can vote without feeling that the choice is one among many evils.

In short, I believe in the citizen's duty to vote. But it doesn't stop there. I believe as much, perhaps more, in the politicians' duty to govern. And until I am confident that they think as much of this nation as I do, I reserve the right to choose no one to represent me at all.

Bahamas Press » Plans by FNM to allow foreigners the right to vote in Parliamentary Elections in The Bahamas?

Writing about politics is usually such a bore, I don't generally engage in it. Politicians don't much care what Bahamians have to say anyway, so it's usually also a waste of time. And the media -- Bahamas Press and its so-called "wutless" competitors alike -- tend to sensationalize the trivial in this regard, rarely engaging in the kind of analysis or debate that changes things or leads to a broadening of democracy that it becomes difficult to carry on political conversations. But this headline grabbed my attention enough to get me to read the story, and the section regarding the comparison between the UK's voting policies and ours was so very misleading that it seemed important that there be some sort of response.It's not that I'm against the ideas of non-citizens voting in elections. In another country, under different circumstances, I would entertain the discussion, perhaps even raise it. But in this country, where non-citizens have more rights and privileges than Bahamians in almost every other way, I find the idea insulting.I happen to believe that the principles of democracy go far beyond voting. Voting is one way in which the citizenry participate in their government. The politician placed in power therefore has some kind of obligation to that citizenry, an obligation that has to do with meeting the needs first of all of all the people. Now this is something that Bahamian governments in general have done very poorly, in particular over the last fifteen years or so; ours has become a nation that puts Bahamians last in virtually every arena. For some reason unfathomable to me, we Bahamians elect and re-elect politicians who despise their country and their people and take every opportunity to find ways to disempower us all, politicians who lie down and become carpet when they meet people from abroad, but who stand up and become granite when faced with their fellow-countrymen, politicians who insist on behaving as though we are all as stupid as they imagine we are, as they have trained us to be.You will notice that I refer to them as "politicians". "Leaders" seems to give them too much credit. But I digress.Here's the bit of the BP article that struck me as disingenuous.

According to the FNM source, “In Great Britain right now, if you are a resident not born in the UK, but is working there, you can vote in National Elections. In fact, the privilege has been extended to member states of the EU. When it comes to UK Parliamentary elections, not only members of territories can vote, as like residents of The Turks and Caicos, but citizens from all Commonwealth Countries and British Territories can indeed vote in any Parliamentary General Election in the UK,”BP’s resident CEO, Alexander James, who resides in Cardiff, also participated in the recent UK elections, as he is a resident there. James is from the Bahamas and is a born Bahamian; so the idea is not far-fetched.According to the UK Electoral Services Department, Commonwealth Member States, including local citizens of the Bahamas, Jamaica, Rwanda, Zambia, Guyana, Trinidad, South Africa and others all can register and participate in British Parliamentary elections.via Bahamas Press » Plans by FNM to allow foreigners the right to vote in Parliamentary Elections in The Bahamas?.

While there is some truth to the idea that "foreigners" can vote in UK elections, there is far more truth that democracy in the UK and Europe is so much more far-reaching than democracy in The Bahamas that the concept of considering allowing anyone but Bahamian citizens the right to vote at this time is ludicrous; the problem with referencing the UK in this matter is that we have not referenced the UK in the provision of services to our citizenry, and we have not put the matter into context.So here's some context.The UK is part of the European Union. There are several tiers of government in Britain: local councils, (i.e. true-true local government, not this travesty we "have" here), national government, and the European Parliament. The purpose of allowing non-nationals to vote has to do with the levels of service and privilege that devolve to the inhabitants of the UK as a result. Voting in Europe in general, unlike voting here, is not a matter of handing unbridled power to a small handful of people to do what they will with for five years, as it is here. The role of government in the UK is far more complex, with different tiers of responsibilities and different services provided.In our so-called nation, the idea of Bahamians receiving services from any tier of government is, to put it kindly, a bit of a laugh. We only have one tier, and it spends most of its time offering services to foreign investors. No wonder the idea of allowing those investors the right to vote has come up.Let's take it further. When I was in the UK during the 1990s, I was able to vote and be active, should I have wanted to, in local elections. I had a Canadian friend who campaigned for the Labour party, who worked in council elections, who voted, who did everything that the politically active do. Technically, as a member of the British Commonwealth, I was also able to vote in council elections; my aunt, who was living in Cambridge at the time, was also able to do so. But here's the thing. We were all paying taxes to the council, to the local government; living in the area obliged us to do so. Voting in council elections was part of our right to say how our taxes were to be put to use -- and they were. Resources were allocated to everyone, including the very least fortunate -- and this was in Maggie Thatcher's Britain, even though John Major was the titular head of it. It was possible to apply for government funding or services in every arena I can think of. As a student, I was obliged to register with the nearest surgery for medical purposes, and that surgery sent me notices on an annual basis to tell me to come in for my check-up. I cannot remember whether my German friends were permitted to vote in those elections, but I think they did -- these were the earlier years of Britain's engagement with the EU, pre-Chunnel, so what is permissible now may not have been then. But I can tell you who were not permitted to vote in any election: my American friends, even though they too paid taxes and received services. This so-called British magnanimity was not boundless.The thing I'm getting at is that the concept of allowing non-nationals to vote in British elections was one that had a philosophy behind it -- something that I do not expect our politicians to have. The philosophy was this: the job of the government is to provide services for its people (not *just* to seat its behinds in power). Local councils had the task of making their cities and regions liveable; they collected their own taxes and disposed of them accordingly. Those people who received those taxes were given a voice regarding the disposal of those monies.The idea of offering "foreigners" the vote here, though, has fundamentally different roots. In The Bahamas (and in the Caribbean in general) governments seem to forget their obligations to their citizenry. They don't refer to us as citizens, and they don't treat us as such; they provide very poor service, and they make very obvious distinctions between Bahamians and non-Bahamians in every arena. Non-Bahamians roads are paved; non-Bahamians' harbours are deepened; non-Bahamian businessmen get tax concessions; non-Bahamians get tax breaks, get the right to build in national parks, get appointments with Prime Ministers, get to call shots, get to influence government policy -- all without the vote. To give them a vote seems to be more a ploy on the part of the politicians who serve them to get themselves re-elected.And against this I take a stand.Here's my fifty cents. When the Bahamian governments we elect find some way to meet the needs of all its people, no matter how small or insignificant we are imagined to be (and our politicians, make no mistake, consider us, the Bahamian citizens, very small and insignificant indeed), then let's allow them to think about this. But until I see democracy enacted throughout this nation in ways beyond simply having a vote every five years, then let's put the kibosh on this so-called idea.

Gilbert Morris on Blackness & The Presumptions of Ultimate Power

This is an interesting thesis, to say the least. I want to reject it outright, but I am not sure I can. I can certainly see evidence of what Morris is talking about in the case of our own turn-of-the-century leaders; there is a core lack of confidence in the ability—or is it the right?—of Bahamians to take control of our own destiny. It's something I run up against in my students again and again—as one young man told me, "white man always on top". It's a myth, sure, but it's a myth whose psychic power, especially, apparently, among men, hinders us from taking advantage of the authority that independence and nationhood confers.I had a conversation last night with someone who compared the confidence (might we call it the arrogance) of someone like Stafford Sands, the architect and mover of the Bahamian economy to this day, who pretty well invented, or refined the invention of, the successful service economy in the immediate post-war era, when the majority of nations were seeking to develop along the Euroamerican "proper" path, which meant building agriculture, developing industry, and becoming a player on the global market through exports. Thanks to Sands, The Bahamas ignored that trajectory and built up tourism and financial services, starting in the 1950s, several decades before this was acceptable on the global economic scene, and we were unable to explain the success of that model until the whole world had adopted it. Now, we find ourselves unable to imagine something equally brilliant and equally radical to maintain what we have achieved.I'm really concerned to reject Morris's argument in the case of Obama, who as a truly African-American man seemed to have a fairly rounded concept of the world and of the need for power. For me the jury may still be out here. But as a general rule, I have long felt something along the lines of what Morris writes about. It lies at the core of what I have already termed the insufficient consideration given to the meaning and structure of democracy in the Bahamian setting; it explains why our leaders are so anxious to sell the country they are supposed to be managing for future generations, and why roads that take tourists to the harbour and Paradise Island, or the selling of crown land for a temporary handful of house-slave jobs seem to be the best ideas that our leaders can offer to us.Morris's article is worth the read, believe me. It's not the most cheerful thesis to engage with, and it's certainly not wholly politically correct, but I'm not sure it is entirely wrong. My only criticism is that Morris presents it as a fait accompli rather than as a malaise that can be cured.Read it, and let me know what you think. A taste:

Blacks have never had a "concept of the world" sufficient to drive foreign policy. This has been the prerogative of the 'dominant culture'.... given the legacy of slavery, “white supremacy” and racial discrimination in the United States, when a moment [of] racial fairness or ethnic equality (say in Iraq) collides with a moment of racial tension or Machiavellian exploitation of ethnic differences that advances American policy objectives, how can a person whose very being and cultural primacy is structured to protest unfairness and inequality opt for the Machiavellian strategy?via Gyroscopia: Blacks & The Presumptions of Ultimate Power - Caribbean Basin Review.

And more importantly, consider Morris's conclusions -- which I, for one, question on certain fundamental grounds, not least of which is that leaders who are women, and therefore similarly disenfranchised, have demonstrated that they are not affected by these "rules", but which hold enough water to warrant some deep thought:

  • it is inconceivable that a Black or minority person can exercise power with an instinct of belongingness, since, nothing will have prepared him or her to deal with the interstices and immediacy of superpower politics.
  • Social protest movements ... do not prepare their beneficiaries for and they move “against the grain” of superpower imperatives, which aim at serving its power first, and principles second, if at all.
  • In the foreign policy superstructure, there are few Blacks, working on technical questions aimed at securing power for and maintaining the dominance of the United States beyond being part of the apparatus. Yet, this is the heart of American influence, and its perch from which, beyond imposing its will, it can be a force for good in the world.

via Gyroscopia: Blacks & The Presumptions of Ultimate Power - Caribbean Basin Review.

Bahamas B2B: Elizabeth Lessons

There at least three important lessons to be learned from the Elizabeth by-election.

  1. Bahamian voters are fed up with "politics as usual".
    • Voter turnout for the by-election was around 64%, low for The Bahamas, where the usual turnout is over 90%.
  2. Independent candidates are now a formidable force in Bahamian politics.
  3. The governing FNM party will not coast to a victory in 2012.

--Bahamas B2B, Lessons from Elizabeth

Hear, hear. More on this later.

Elizabeth By-Election: a Tribute to Idiocy, Absurdity and the Lowest Common Human Denominator

Vote Independent. Or New Party. Let us try and find some adults to run our country. Let us behave like adults at least some of the time.

11:10am Supporters of both sides continue to hurl abuse at one another. FNM Deputy Leader Brent Symonette put his hand on one woman's shoulder, asking her to calm down, and as he turned to walk away, she hit him in the shoulder. He didn't report it to the police or have her removed from the area.10:30am Barricades have now been put up to separate FNM and PLP supporters. Even though they've now been physically separated, the angry shouting continues. PLP candidate Ryan Pinder, who at the moment remains down by a single vote, arrived a short while ago and stopped to speak with the media gathered there. He chided the media for focusing attention on the acrimony between the two groups, suggesting that by doing so, they're fueling the problem. 10:26am Police have had to form a human barrier around the gate to the Thelma Gibson Primary School where the recount is taking place. This after they had to break up groups of passionate, arguing supporters of the FNM and the PLP. Inside, FNM Deputy Leader Brent Symonette and PLP Leader Perry Christie shook hands for the cameras. via The Tribune.

Peter Hallward, "Securing Disaster in Haiti"

Well worth reposting, reading, and savouring in days to come. Sobering commentary indeed.

Nine days after the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti on 12 January 2010, it's now clear that the initial phase of the U.S.-led relief operation has conformed to the three fundamental tendencies that have shaped the more general course of the island's recent history. It has adopted military priorities and strategies. It has sidelined Haiti's own leaders and government, and ignored the needs of the majority of its people. And it has proceeded in ways that reinforce the already harrowing gap between rich and poor. All three tendencies aren't just connected, they are mutually reinforcing. These same tendencies will continue to govern the imminent reconstruction effort as well, unless determined political action is taken to counteract them.via Peter Hallward, "Securing Disaster in Haiti".

Google May Hand Over Caribbean Journalists' IP Addresses

I have often wondered seriously about the American commitment to freedom, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I have often wondered also about the American belief in the principles on which it is founded; it's one of those things that make me deeply sceptical about any action taken by that giant of a country that seems to find it so very easy to draw a line between the rights that it accords its own citizens and the denial of those rights that appears to be routine in its treatment of non-Americans.Below is a case in point.

Google May Hand Over Caribbean Journalists' IP Addresses (Updated)Google said the following in a letter to the TCI Journal last week, as posted on Wikileaks and sent to us by the Journal:

To comply with the law, unless you provide us with a copy of a motion to quash the subpoena (or other formal objection filed in court) via email at legal-support@google.com by 5pm Pacific Time on September 16, 2009, Google will assume you do not have an objection to production of the requested information and may provide responsive documents on this date.

Google has not yet responded to our inquiry asking what the company might do once the TCI Journal does send a motion to quash the subpoena, which we presume it will do. Hiring lawyers in California will likely be an onerous task for a volunteer-run website from a tiny Caribbean island. Journal editors tell us that they hope Google will decide to help them fight the case on 1st amendment grounds.Update: A Google spokesperson sent us the following response to our inquiry.

"When Google receives legal process, such as court orders and subpoenas, where possible we promptly provide notice to users to allow them to object to those requests for information. Users may raise any and all objections they feel are relevant, including First Amendment arguments. In addition, we are still evaluating all our legal options regarding this particular request."

Here's my problem. In small nations like ours, fighting for freedom of speech and opinion, fighting against corruption and special interests and the continuation of the rape of our region by those who can gain disproportionate access to leaders is risky at best, virtually impossible at most times. Victimization is the word we use to describe what has happened in The Bahamas; in the USA it was called blacklisting and it was carried out against suspected communists in the 1950s, and it is pretty widely rejected as being anti-democratic (though the communist ideals and the communist party has never recovered in the USA since McCarthy). No matter what the British response was to the exposure of the corruption of the Misick government in TCI (and the suspension of the TCI constitution is questionable at best, but that's another topic), it is nevertheless crucial that such corruption could have been exposed and dealt with in a reasonable amount of time.Because the fact is that in small nations like ours, corruption can be achieved pretty easily, often simply by presenting leaders with tastes of fancy lifestyles. Large corporate interests from outside the country find it embarrassingly easy to get what they want from our governments, as we have poor records of social protest, weak organizations on the ground, and a habit of factional interests that often lead us to suspend our critical judgements in favour of partisan support (simply put, that means that our attachments to one political party or another, which for many of us are complicated by familial, social, historical and sometimes racial ties leads us to support actions we might otherwise criticize if "our" party was in power, or to criticize actions we might otherwise consider a good idea).This makes it very easy for corruption to take hold. (And if you ask me, I'll say, yes, there is probably an element of corruption of some kind or another -- not necessarily economic -- in virtually every foreign investment deal passed in The Bahamas and, by extension, in the Turks and Caicos; it's certainly evident that our governments here in The Bahamas favour activities that benefit our foreign investors (Miss Universe) while rejecting those that favour Bahamians (CARIFESTA)).The twenty-first century answer -- and it's this that I believe to be crucial to the spread of democracy in the world, and not American bootstamping and shock-and-awe tactics, or free markets -- has been that investigative journalists in small countries can expose and criticize corruption thanks to the virtual anonymity of the internet. This is what the TCI Journal achieved. Whether we agree or not with the British reaction to the exposure of corruption in TCI, the fact that the colonial power took such drastic action is testament to the power of the internet press.Google's action threatens the ability -- indeed the possibility -- for true democracy ever to exist in these, our little nations (and by extension those nations that really really need the anonymity of the internet to fight the physical oppression that they face). I have no doubt that it is being pressured by the kinds of external interests that held the Misick government in the palms of their hands, and that the kinds of resources possessed by investors enamoured of their near-absolute possession of a land and its people, virtually limitless in comparison to those of the TCI Journal. But its inability to see its action as being in contravention of its own constitution -- the constitution of the country that it sets itself up as a beacon for democracy -- calls into question, for me, the ultimate value of America's democratic principles.

Strong institutions, not strong men

"Africa doesn't need strong men -- it needs strong institutions." -- President Barack Obama, Address to Ghanaian Parliament, July 11, 2009

It's been two years now, and there's been all kind of noise in the public sphere about Bahamian party politics and who bears responsibility for the difficult times we have faced for most of that time, and who will deal most effectively with the difficult times we will face. Most of the time I leave the discussions and the debates about personalities (which is most of what the discussion addresses, even now, mid-term) and political party up to politicized pundits. There's enough noise out there, and it really hasn't done us any good.

And it seems to me that every moment we spend focussing on small tings -- like which colour tie the majority of the members of parliament wear, or which initials we can attach to the administration (and what is the difference, anyway, in real terms?), or whether Perry Christie or Hubert Ingraham is better cut out to lead The Bahamas through the twenty-first century (the answer, of course, is neither -- both men were shaped irretrievably by the third quarter of the twentieth and neither has demonstrated the ability to recognize the current environment we face and find ways that are relevant to today to meet its challenges) -- is time wasted. Our whole political campaign in 2007 was an exercise in time-wasting; because I believe with all my heart that, like Africa, what The Bahamas needs is not strong men, but strong institutions.

Yesterday was independence day here in The Bahamas. Normally I write that title with capital letters, like a proper noun; but today I'm not capitalizing the first letter of the date because I don't think we truly understand the challenges and responsibilities of being independent. Too many of our leaders, no matter what party to which they apparently pledge allegiance (which, for too many of them, changes with a dizzying flourish anyway), do not value our independence, but prefer rather to wait for strong men from elsewhere to solve our difficult problems. Development by dependence is the model they appear to prefer. It's so much easier, after all, isn't it, to allow a monolithic investor to come in and provide short-term happiness. But the hollowness that results in our own society hurts us all. For instance, while Atlantis was employing thousands in the 1990s and early 2000s, our own institutions were growing weaker and weaker and more and more irrelevant, and no strong-man leader had the guts (or the vision) to tackle that fact. The result? We have, if we're lucky, perhaps five more years of functionality within our public entities. We're already beginning to see the crumbling of public services -- from our inability to handle the renewal of passports to the apparent impossibility, despite hundreds of millions being spent in borrowed money on road improvements, to keep our traffic lights working. And the answer does not easily lie in privatization; governments have responsibilities to all their citizens, and one of those responsibilities is to ensure that the smallest and weakest of their citizens is not placed in a position of vulnerability to rapacious private enterprises which have no allegiance to their clients beyond the amount of money they make from them.

Our problem? Like Africa and many other post-colonial regions of the world, our focus has for far too long been on electing strong men instead of demanding strong institutions for ourselves. We have not built our nation in any way that can be guaranteed to last into the future. And our debate continues to ignore that fact.

So my hat's off to Barack Obama today. Let us take heed from those countries around us who have invested in strong men at the cost of building strong institutions. Let us learn from those nations where for years and years good government continued even when the leaders of those countries were people whose names have been easily and quickly forgotten because the institutions that governed those nations were stronger than the individual weaknesses. And let us recognize that there is value in creating and maintaining the institutions that we need.

Why Obama matters to all of us, everywhere

Four Fingers and a ThumbOn a hot day in a school in Laventille, I am reasoning with a student. This beautiful young woman of 17 years or so. I say to her, what do you want to be? She laughs and says a stripper.Her classmates laugh too, because to them it is a joke, as funny as their lives being lived out in predictable boxes.On a hot day in a school in Laventille painted in colours disturbingly similar to the wall around the Royal Gaol, this beautiful young woman sums up the totality of her potential in saying that she wants to be a stripper.I am not amused. I am also not surprised that she doesn’t hesitate to respond in the negative. I fight the urge to run from the room screaming and crying because she is living proof that you can build buildings but if you don’t build the people, your social fabric will crumble and then what is the point of phallic concrete edifices in you city?I suggest to her that she creates her own reality. I suggest to her that words have power and if you call yourself a whore enough, the ease of the words on your tongue will numb you to the dread reality of your actions.I ask her again what she wants to be. She says that what she wants for herself is not what other people want for her.She says she wants to be a hairdresser and a singer. And I wonder who has told her that she can’t be anything she puts her mind to.

This is from a blog by Trinidadian writer Attilah Springer, who wrote it on Saturday while engaging in the "escapist fantasy" that Barack Hussein Obama might win the US election. I posted it because it is so fundamentally true in so many places that are growing young people of colour.The "No You Can't" mentality is pervasive throughout the world, not just in the USA, and it's in part because our leaders swallowed wholesale and without critical examination the concept that there are first and second and third class citizens in this world, and people of colour never break into the first group, and it's also in part because the popular media really only promote images of non-white people engaging in sex, drugs, violence and angry, nihilistic music. It's also in part because our leaders see no value in supporting an economy or a culture that enables us to create alternative images for our own young people.Until now.The fact that Obama has been elected President of the United States of America means something. It means something to all of us, and it's far more than just the fact that he's African-American (and when we apply that to him, it means something real, it's not just another synonym for black/negro/nigger/ex-slave). It means that the people who elected him, who are overwhelmingly under 30, of all backgrounds, ethnicities, genders, beliefs and class are the people who are creating new realities for us. And maybe it also means that something of that hope, of that new reality, will trickle down to the rest of us in the African diasporic world.  It isn't going to come easily, and it isn't going to come automatically. But what it does mean is that we can no longer fool ourselves that our destinies are out of our hands. And it means too that throughout the Caribbean we must make our own futures. We have to confront those politicians who have nothing but old ideas, stuff fed to them by imperialists and racists and people who didn't even realize that they were imperialistic and racist but who were force-feeding those worldviews anyway, and tell them it ain't like that anymore.And we have to kill the "No We Can't" attitude stone dead.Dare to dream. America just has had its dream come true. Time for us to dream big too.