On May 19, the Pacific island nation of Fiji, known more as a South Seas paradise than a Third World trouble spot, erupted in violence. Hundreds of shops were looted and burned, homes sacked, the nation's new television station trashed and a policeman killed.
Armed followers of a bankrupt businessman marched past what remains of the U.S. Embassy in Suva, the capital, to Parliament, where they took Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and his cabinet hostage. As events escalated to a full-blown coup, its enigmatic leader, George Speight, seized power on behalf of indigenous Fijians in opposition to a government dominated by Fiji's Indian minority. Speight wants the constitution changed so that only indigenous Fijians can hold the country's top political jobs. Fiji's 1997 constitution had enabled Chaudhry to come to power.
Fiji, like many small nations emerging from the ashes of poverty and colonialism, was an accident waiting to happen. It also occurs at a time when U.S. policy emphasizes trade and open markets over the development of democratic institutions.
In the late 1800s, English colonists sought to revive a sagging Fijian economy by increasing production of copra and sugar. In a 30-year period, they imported about 70,000 indentured laborers from India. Yet, while British colonial law restricted native Fijians to rural villages, the indentured Indian immigrants were free to open businesses in town once they paid off their debts.
Upon independence in 1970, Fiji's Indian minority controlled the economy, and Fiji's indigenous majority owned 87% of the land. Forbidden to buy land for agriculture, Fiji's Indian sugar growers must apply for 10-year leases. Disputes over renewal of land leases have proved a major source of conflict between the ethnic groups.
Such disputes are fertile soil for demagogues, and Fiji has had its share. In 1987, after 17 years of independence and parliamentary democracy, a coalition government with substantial Indian representation was formed. Soon after, Fijian military leaders staged a series of coups. It took 12 years to rebuild the foundation for a multiracial democracy. Chaudhry, the first prime minister from Fiji's Indian minority, was elected last year.
The current crisis is rooted in continuing power struggles among Fiji's traditional ruling chiefs. Before the arrival of the British, rival warlords fought incessantly for control of the islands. The most powerful, Ratu Seru Cakobau, allied with the British in 1874, and Fiji was united and ceded to Britain as a colony. British authorities soon organized the warlords into a Great Council of Chiefs to administer colonial law. The resolution of the crisis is in the hands of the heirs of these traditional leaders, each with historic allegiances within the armed forces. Fiji is now in danger of splitting into regional nation-states, each with its own militia.
The U.S. State Department's recent condemnation of the coup came much too late. Nurturing a free press and other fragile democratic institutions is critical at this moment in Fiji's history; it is the only antidote to the forces of tribalism and superstition that can easily overwhelm developing nations.
But U.S. efforts to promote democracy and build civic institutions in Fiji and other small Pacific nations were eliminated in the mid-1990s and replaced by policies promoting trade and open markets. For years, the U.S. Agency for International Development had helped Pacific islanders fight AIDS and malaria and develop local market economies. In 1994, the agency closed its regional office in Suva. The Asia Foundation, once active in supporting journalism and democratic media, withdrew from the Pacific after a 70% congressional-funding cut. Peace Corps and Fulbright exchanges to the region were also terminated.
Americans should understand that in this era of corporatized diplomacy, with its boundless confidence in the democratizing power of open markets, developing nations would be better served if the United States helped them build civic institutions and pluralistic governments. To reduce America's public engagement with other lands, as has happened in Fiji, to a matter of trade and open markets will ultimately privatize U.S. diplomacy and place it in the hands of corporations and other interests that may not share the values and aspirations of Americans.
Why should Americans care about sad, little Fiji? Except for a few tour operators, hotel chains and McDonald's, Fiji is of little economic significance. Which is why it is now doubly ironic to threaten sanctions. In light of the U.S. failure to help build democracy in Fiji, such threats by the State Department are a bit like locking the hen house once the fox is inside. They represent the arrogance of a disengaged superpower, and a shameful retreat from what Winston Churchill once regarded as the responsibility of great powers. *