The Dilemma Of Dependence
Caribbean territories that remain overseas territories of the United Kingdom or departments of France and The Netherlands face a dilemma: how to balance a desire for greater autonomy with the benefits they receive from their non-independent status?
In the case of the French departments, such as Martinique and Guadeloupe, they are treated as part of France and their people benefit from all the social welfare conditions that apply to French citizens, and they are free to move to France. Additionally, their security and defense are the responsibility of the French government.
There have been movements for independence within the French Departments, but in recent years these movements have become muted, particularly as the experience of independence in some neighboring Caribbean countries has not resulted in the great economic and social advancements that were predicted. Greater autonomy for the French departments is arguably not an issue at this time. But, the dilemma is now evident in Bermuda and the British Virgin Islands (BVI)
With regard to the BVI, discussions are taking place between that territory’s local government and the government of the United Kingdom for greater powers to be devolved to the BVI administration. In Bermuda there is continuing debate over the desire for independence expressed by the government of Premier Alex Scott. Independence is opposed by a significant number of the Bermuda populace who demand a referendum on the issue.
While Bermuda, with a population of 68,000 people, is not geographically a Caribbean country, its proximity to the region and historical administration links it to the area.
The per capita income and quality of life in both the BVI (population: 27,000) and Bermuda is higher than in many independent Caribbean countries, and the citizens of both countries have the right to move to the United Kingdom to live and work.
Both territories enjoy low unemployment and are homes to immigrant labor. In recent years, the health of the BVI economy, and its tourism sector, has attracted workers from neighboring islands and Guyana. But, their non-independent status has saved their budgets significant costs for external affairs, defense and security for which the United Kingdom government has responsibility.
These are significant costs given the area’s vulnerability to drug trafficking, and the myriad organizations to which independent countries have to belong, and in which they have to be represented to safeguard their interests.
Many independent Caribbean countries are finding the costs of security extremely onerous, and, in reality, they could not provide such security as now exists without help from donor countries and agencies.
Further, several Caribbean countries can not afford representation in key international organizations. As a result, many times their interests go unattended, or they have to fight rearguard actions to defend their concerns after decisions have been taken or rules made. The World Trade Organization (WTO) is one such organization.
In the case of Bermuda, a break from Britain is regarded by some as harmful to the island. The constitutional tie to Britain, the Head of State being Queen Elizabeth and the Privy Council being the final court of appeal - all are seen as elements of stability that are important to the financial services sector which accounts for 60% of the island’s gross domestic product (GDP).
Like Bermuda, financial services and tourism are the major contributors to the economy of the BVI. The government of Chief Minister Dr Orlando Smith in the BVI is not seeking independence; it wants greater autonomy in keeping with recommendations made by a locally appointed Constitutional Commission.
Dr Smith has said that past economic improvements of the territory have been linked to constitutional advancement, and he clearly believes that if the local government has a freer hand, economic development would take place at a faster rate.
As it is, the BVI enjoys a large measure of internal self-government, but the Governor, as the UK representative, has direct responsibility for external affairs, defense and internal security (including the Police), the Public Service and the administration of the courts.
The Constitution provides for a ministerial system of government headed by the Chief Minister. Specifically, what the BVI government is seeking from Britain is what the Chief Minister describes as “a better alignment of rights and responsibilities between local government and the UK’s representative (the Governor) in the territory.”
This, of course, is the age old problem that every former colony faced, and which, to some degree, pushed them into seeking independence: How to balance the authority of elected local representatives with the powers of the colonial governor?
The price of the protection of the colonial power and its financial responsibility for external affairs, defense and security is the direct involvement in government decision-making by the Governor and the offices in the colonial Capital from which he takes his guidance.
The desire of a people for self governance and the right to determine their affairs is understandable, but the cost is high and burdensome on national budgets. And, individual small states in today’s global community are so increasingly marginalized in international relations as to make their political independence almost meaningless except for the votes they cast in international bodies.
But, even the issues on which they cast votes, and the organizations in which they cast them, make little difference to their individual capacity to influence global issues. This is a principal reason underlying the movement of the member countries of the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) to ceding some of their individual sovereign powers into a single pool.
Both the BVI and Bermuda are confronting the dilemma of dependence, and there is no easy solution to it. How the governments deal with it in ways which do not overburden their national budgets, and promote their continued economic growth will be a real challenge.
Sir Ronald Sanders is a former Caribbean Ambassador. He served on the first Board of Directors of the Caribbean.