Millionaire Sons Maneuver to Rule : Now Playing in Antigua: Real-Life Dynasty Drama

Times Staff Writer

An aged patriarch nears his end as one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the Caribbean. The two oldest of his four legitimate sons fight a bitter, multimillion-dollar power game, each maneuvering to seize control when the old man falters or dies.

The patriarch's long-estranged wife and their two wealthy younger sons, one a playboy and the other a mystic, teasingly switch allegiance, first to one of the older brothers, then the other, as they decide which--if either--they will back in the dynasty game.

Meanwhile, the patriarch's 26-year-old mistress, an 8th-grade beauty queen when he took her in at age 14, treads a tightrope of influence and intrigue between the rivals, fighting to keep the old man alive and in power because she knows that when he collapses or dies, her growing business empire and the future of their child could collapse as well.

It sounds like the scenario for a television miniseries or a prime-time soap opera. It is actually the true story of the struggle for power being played out today in Antigua, one of the most enticing micro-states of the Leeward Islands, 250 miles east of Puerto Rico.

Even the scenery here is intriguing: 365 powder-fine, palm-fringed beaches lapped by aquamarine seas, where luxurious resort hotels and glittering gambling casinos draw tens of thousands of mostly American tourists to play and sip the local rum the year 'round.

The supporting cast includes two sure-fire box-office names: Donald Trump, said to be close to a deal with one of the brothers to acquire the newest of Antigua's posh, government-owned tourist hotels, and Robert L. Vesco, the fugitive American mega-millionaire who reportedly sought the same brother's help to establish a sovereign kingdom on half of the neighboring, Antigua-ruled island of Barbuda.

The patriarch is Antigua's Prime Minister Vere C. (Papa) Bird, 79, recently reelected to his sixth five-year term as the virtually unchallenged ruler of Antigua. But the election, a landslide in which Bird's family-dominated Antigua Labor Party won all but two of the 17 seats in Parliament, was widely seen as his last hurrah. Opposition leaders and members of his own party have expressed doubt that he will be physically able to finish out his new term.

Powerfully built and a towering 6-feet 6-inches, the one-time Salvation Army captain is the last survivor of the generation of union leaders who fought against labor conditions of near-slavery to win political control of the English-speaking Caribbean after World War II.

Under his leadership, the 108-square-mile island of Antigua emerged from a colonial sugar-cane economy in which field workers had earned only 24 cents a day. Today, the island is one of the prime Caribbean watering holes, boasting more than three dozen hotels and full employment. It has the highest growth rate--and one of the highest foreign debt burdens--in the region.

Along with the growth and debt, both fueled by the hotel construction boom, the Bird family prospered. The father and all four of his legitimate sons are millionaires.

Showing His Age

Bird does not often appear in public, but people who have seen him recently say his age is beginning to tell. At his swearing-in ceremony, according to the opposition weekly newspaper Outlet, the newly reelected prime minister, "looking old and behaving old . . . was unable to read some of the oath and had to be assisted. When it came time to sign his name he turned the pen upside down and began to write, and again had to be assisted to turn the pen around. It was a sorry sight."

An American who saw him recently said his knees have gone bad and he has difficulty carrying on a conversation.

Also mostly out of public view is Cutie Francis, mother of at least one of the prime minister's illegitimate children and chief executive of a growing business empire that includes island properties, at least three boutiques and the Gucci franchise for Antigua.

"Evita," as many call her, has been at Bird's side since 1978, when she dropped penniless out of the 8th grade to enter a Labor Party beauty contest. She is fiercely protective of the prime minister and sometimes bars even his two oldest sons from seeing him, according to Outlet editor Tim Hector and other island Bird-watchers. She is said to be deeply suspicious of the two powerful sons because each has openly set his eyes on the patriarch's job.

'Needs Security'

"She can't let the old man give up power because her own security depends on it," Hector said, adding that she "needs a great deal of economic security."

Both of the rival brothers are huge men, like their father, but there the resemblance ends.

The oldest is Vere Cornwall Bird Jr., 52, a London-trained lawyer and ham radio buff nicknamed "Runway" because of his involvement in an $11.5-million airport paving scandal in 1987 that prompted his powerful younger brother and seven other Cabinet ministers, now known as "the Gang of Eight," to seek his ouster from the government.

Naturally withdrawn and soft-spoken, Vere Jr. says that his brother and the hostile Cabinet colleagues "said I was a dunce" they expected to "roll over and play dead." But diplomats and others describe Vere Jr. as a single-minded, forceful and well-organized man who commands the loyalty of Antigua's 200-member army.

In a nation of fewer than 80,000 people, his connection with the small military force has been enough to arouse fears of another Haitian-style military dynasty when the struggle to succeed the patriarch reaches its climax.

Concerning the $11.5-million airport paving project, which was to have cost no more than $3.5 million originally, an official investigation ordered by Papa Bird found it "self-evident that V.C. Bird Jr. placed himself in an ideal position to feather his own nest."

But in an interview, Vere Jr. denied accusations that the private company he admittedly formed to manage the government contract siphoned off as much as $4 million. He insisted that the $11.5 million all went into vital improvements demanded by foreign airlines that otherwise would stop bringing tourists to the island.

Lester Bird, 51, also a British-trained lawyer, appears to be more powerful than his older brother. Since 1976 he has led the Labor Party and served as deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs, economic development, trade, tourism and energy, and he is responsible for many of the government's financial dealings.

Talks With Trump

He is currently conducting what he described in an interview as "warm" negotiations with American real estate billionaire Trump for the sale of the new Royal Antiguan Hotel, built by the Bird government with a $75-million commercial loan. An economic specialist here said the government desperately needs to sell its hotels in order to begin repaying an estimated $300 million in foreign debt and another $600 million in internal debt.

A champion University of Michigan long jumper in the early 1960s, Lester is outgoing, articulate and quick-witted. He moves garrulously among local politicians and businessmen and, as foreign minister, smoothly through the halls of the United Nations and the foreign affairs ministries of Europe, Africa and Asia. Like his brother, he has been accused of profiting heavily from his official position.

Until recently, Lester Bird and two other Cabinet officers owned three-fourths of a company that mines fine construction sand, under exclusive government permit, from neighboring Barbuda. This enterprise could not exist had they not arranged the government permit, charges Dr. Ivor Heath, a 62-year-old surgeon who heads the opposition United National Democratic Party.

The group pays Barbuda a little more than a dollar per cubic yard and resells the sand throughout the Caribbean for as much as $23 per cubic yard, according to Hilbourne Frank, newly elected Barbuda representative to the Antigua Parliament, who has filed a lawsuit to stop the project.

"They're making millions," Frank said, "and we (Barbudans) are getting ripped off."

According to Heath, Lester recently sold his shares for the sake of appearances--but to a company in which he holds a substantial interest, thus preserving his interest secondhand.

Barbuda has never fared well under the Birds, Frank said. Lester once sought to use the 62-square-mile island (population less than 1,500) as a dumping ground for toxic waste from the United States, but he dropped the idea when British and American newspapers publicized it.

On another occasion, he reportedly encouraged fugitive U.S. financier Vesco, then living in Antigua, to try to buy half of Barbuda. According to published reports, Vesco intended to use the island to establish a principality called the Sovereign Order of New Aragon. The plan fell through when publicity forced Vesco to flee Antigua.

Lester plays hard-ball politics, according to Vere Jr., who described Lester's "Gang of Eight" attempt to force him out of the government as a Cain vs. Abel struggle.

'Bird the Evil One'

"If I'm to be slain, they can try and I'll protect myself," he said, still smarting over what he called a Lester-inspired campaign to label the governing triumvirate as "Bird the father, Bird the son and Bird the evil one."

"Many a lesser man would have gone a long time ago," Vere Jr. said, "but the one person totally on my side was my father."

Even though he had personally ordered the investigation of Vere Jr.'s airport paving deal, Papa Bird intervened on his behalf in the Cabinet fight, reshuffling his ministers in order to protect his oldest son from Lester.

Heath said, "When the prime minister was told that his eldest son had to go because of the airport scandal, he said, 'Listen, if he has to go, you all have to go, because you're all just as bad.' "

Paradoxically, Vere Jr.'s involvement in the airport scandal also strengthened him with the rest of the family and resulted in Lester, his accuser, being ostracized. Not only his all-powerful father but also his mother and two younger brothers lined up behind him as the favorite son.

Lydia Bird, who separated from Papa in the late 1940s when he took the first of his several mistresses, and their two younger sons, Roswald, 48, and Ivor, 45, indignantly voted Lester out as head of the family-owned radio station, then castigated him and his Cabinet supporters in radio news broadcasts.

Family Rupture

According to Hector, the family rupture lasted until just a few months ago when, at Papa Bird's urging, it was smoothed over to give an appearance of unity for the elections. At present, Hector said, it is anyone's guess which way Roswald, a mystic who believes the Bird family was "born to rule," and Ivor, a sometime playboy who runs the family radio station, will turn if and when the old man dies.

Barbuda-born Lydia, now in her early 70s, has remained out of the public eye for about four decades. But according to Hector and others, she has kept her influence in the family, sometimes mediating and sometimes using her two younger sons to squeeze the older ones, as when they ousted Lester from the radio station.

"She is still a very powerful woman," Hector said. "Her influence will be decisive when he goes."

Whatever the outcome, even the opposition politicians foresee no chance of pushing the Bird family out of power for a long time to come.

"They're too well entrenched, too well organized and too rich," Heath said, sighing. "It's a family government."

ANTIGUA'S BATTLING BIRDS: THE CAST

1. Vere C. Bird Sr.

Family patriarch, 79, and prime minister. Has ruled island for two decades, revitalized economy. Rarely seen in public (photo dated 1967). Health reportedly in decline.

2. Vere C. Bird Jr.

Eldest son, 52, and Cabinet minister. Forceful but soft-spoken. Commands loyalty of army. Implicated in $11.5-million airport paving scandal. British-trained lawyer.

3. Lester Bird

Next eldest son, 51, Cabinet minister and Labor Party leader. Outgoing, articulate. Handles government's financial dealings. Joined effort to oust brother Vere over paving scandal, alienating rest of family. Also accused of profiting in office.

SUPPORTING PLAYERS

Lydia Bird: Estranged wife of patriarch, in her 70s. Joined with two sons, below, to oust Lester as head of family-owned radio station.

Roswald Bird: No. 3 son of patriarch, 48. A mystic who believes Birds were "born to rule."

Ivor Bird: No. 4 son of patriarch, 45. Sometime playboy who now runs family's radio station.

Cutie Francis: Mistress of patriarch, 26. Former beauty queen. Heads business empire. Fighting to keep her lover in power.

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