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Clinging to Comforts of Colonialism in Turks and Caicos : Islanders, Uneasy at Notion of Full Independence, Weigh Canadian Ties

Times Staff Writer

Beckoning beaches are still empty, the salt pans that once meant jobs are abandoned. But change may finally be overtaking one of Britain’s last outposts in the Caribbean.

On the brink of major development, the Turks and Caicos, a colony of about 30 sun-drenched, water-short islets southeast of the Bahamas and north of Haiti, will probably change more in the next decade than it has in the last four centuries. Many people here hope that includes some sort of union with Canada.

Bathed by a crystal sea that is marketable to tourists, the islanders welcome economic growth as a belated remedy to generations of backwardness. But stung by recent scandals in its attempts at self-government and sobered by the small-island lessons of Caribbean history, they shy from the prospect of eventual political independence.

Rather, on tax-haven Grand Turk, the capital, and on Providenciales, a would-be tourist mecca, islanders talk of a small country’s need for a big brother.

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The 14,000 residents wonder aloud whether it should continue to be Britain, or if there is more to be gained by association with Canada: as a sunshine province, perhaps, or in a link less formal but reassuring to the islands.

“There is an almost unanimous opinion against independence,” said W. Blythe Duncanson, editor of the weekly Turks & Caicos News. “We are too small--not viable economically. There has to be a link with a major country--Britain, the United States or Canada. The idea of a Canadian tie is not far-fetched. It’s been mooted since the early 1970s.”

Fashionable colonialism? A minority position in today’s Caribbean, perhaps, but one with strong support here and in other New World colonies where the Union Jack still waves--the Cayman Islands, Montserrat, Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands and Bermuda.

Larger, more venturesome English-speaking islands across a broad crescent of sea from the Bahamas off the Florida coast to Trinidad off the Venezuelan coast have had mixed results handling the independence that they achieved over the last generation. Among a regional giant like Jamaica (population 2.3 million) and a well-administered mini-state like Barbados (population 255,000) swim smaller island countries with little to show for their proud new flag and admission at the United Nations.

“Many Caribbean politicians have believed that independence would mean greater access to international aid sources, but it hasn’t always worked out that way, particularly when aid is assigned on a per-capita basis,” said Peter Tasker, a economic consultant promoting private-sector development for the Turks and Caicos.

Most of the small independent islands, whose numbers include remote atolls like St. Vincent (population 109,000), Dominica (72,000) and St. Christopher and Nevis (46,000), are financially strapped, doomed to economic doldrums by monoculture and limited resources. Sometimes, as in Grenada (population 92,000), political instability has followed independence.

“The question of the viability of microstates hasn’t been sorted out yet,” said Michael J. Bradley, the London-appointed governor of the Turks and Caicos, who has worked in Caribbean colonies for two decades. “Population size may be less important than development levels and sophistication.”

A British-sponsored West Indian Federation floundered in the 1960s. But last spring, Grenada met with five other independent states in the eastern Caribbean to mull over the possibilities of a new political association.

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It is a question of scale and of reality. The lesson is not lost on the residents of the seven inhabited islands of this colony, totaling 193 square miles of land.

“There is no way small territories like these can afford the administrative and security infrastructure that independence demands,” said Ariel Misick, a Grand Turk lawyer and former government minister. “A small country with our resources, for example, could not cope with drug barons, who have limitless resources.”

Bradley believes that the drug problem on the island is now “firmly under control.” But not long ago Turks and Caicos proved a handy refueling stop for cocaine flights bound from Colombia to the United States. Scrubland on these islands is now pocked with the skeletons of at least half a dozen crashed planes.

In 1985, Norman B. Saunders, the islands’ chief elected official, went to jail in the United States on drug-related charges. An earlier chief minister, J. A. G. S. McCartney, died in a suspicious plane crash in New Jersey. He was supposed to be on official business, but no one here is yet sure where he was flying or with whom.

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Last year, Nathaniel Francis, the chief minister who succeeded Saunders, was sacked by the British for corruption.

To the discomfiture of local politicians, Bradley now administers the island with the aid of an appointed advisory committee until new elections next year. He also pays the bills. Since the islands are a colony, Mother Britain makes up the annual budget shortfall, currently about $2.5 million, and also underwrites capital improvements.

What has revived the talk of links with Canada is unprecedented private development on islands, which until recently boasted that they were the “last unspoiled piece of the Caribbean.” Awaiting a boom, the Turks and Caicos remain a slow-motion, drive-on-the-left kind of place where the big-time sports are softball, cricket, darts and dominoes. The big news this year has been the sixth-place finish of a local beauty in the Miss Universe contest.

Providenciales, or Provo as the colony’s most developed island is called, is already home to a 350-room Club Med. A 200-room Sheraton with a casino is under construction. More international hotel chains plan to build on Provo.

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Others want to build on Grand Turk, a paradise for divers and a growing center for the tax-free registration of offshore companies. A beachfront acre on Grand Turk that sold for $20,000 in 1981 is now worth more than $50,000, and Provo building sites are well into six figures, according to real estate agent C. Washington Misick.

With a new airport and direct service to Miami, the population of Provo has quadrupled to 4,000 since 1980. Turks and Caicos natives there are already outnumbered by newcomers, which include rich white expatriates and about 1,000 Haitians attracted by a hungry construction job market.

Americans were most numerous among the 39,000 tourists last year, five times the number of a decade before, but Canadians were next. They share with Turks and Caicos islanders membership in the Commonwealth and allegiance to the queen, even if they must suffer the official currency, the U.S. dollar, when they come visiting.

“We feel very much at home with Canadians. They’re easy; they mix well,” said P. Felix Grant, who works in the district commissioner’s office on Provo.

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Said Dalton B. Jones, a young government worker who went to Canada in April as half of an informal mission seeking a link: “Canadians have a desire for a place in the sun. They could help us develop. Province, territory, associated state, trust territory or just some strong economic ties, it doesn’t matter. Most people are not satisfied with the British. We’re not ready for independence but we want more autonomy.”

The idea has strong support among some backbenchers in Ottawa, and a special committee appointed by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney is studying it. But a report by the External Affairs Department has advised against it, and the government is staunchly cool to any suggestion of neocolonialism.

“It’s a romantic idea that burns strongest in the middle of winter,” said Ariel Misick, the lawyer. “Once the snow has thawed, it doesn’t sound so attractive.

“What appeals to people here--deserted beaches, no pollution and the like--would quickly change with massive tourism. And would the Canadian government assume responsibility for education, medical care and social services without exacting some sort of taxation? Let people come and find us different. It’s best to remain with the UK.”

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Even if a Canada-islands link doesn’t come to pass, it is a telling reflection of a modified world view in an English-speaking Caribbean, where fiery nationalism was once the required ante for entry into the game of island politics.


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