New Internationalist

Us Virgin Islands

Issue 194

new internationalist
issue 194 - April 1989

COUNTRY PROFILE

US Virgin Islands

Map of the US Virgin Islands Discerning visitors to the three American Virgin Islands - St Thomas, St Croix and St John - may sense a malaise in all levels of society. Although most people have a relatively high standard of living, in Caribbean terms, there is a marked lack of political direction and social concern. Uncontrolled tourism has increased racial tensions as well as spawning tawdry buildings and pollution.

Mountainous St Thomas is the commercial centre of the still picturesque capital, Charlotte Amalie (pronounced 'Amarlia'). It hosts most of the large annual inflow of tourists, 60 per cent of whom arrive on cruise ships. They head straight for the extensive 'duty free' complex even though its prices are often higher than in US mainland discount stores. Condominiums abound. The beaches and yacht marinas are among the most overcrowded in the region.

St Croix also attracts tourists but is dominated more by the oil-refining industry, now in serious decline with the opening of large US-offshore facilities. The island is struggling to diversify its industries, but the empty shells of closed factories are a constant reminder of the uncompetitiveness of local wages.

St John is the exception: most of the island is designated a National Park. This was possible because the collapse of its sugar economy earlier this century reduced the population to less than 1,000.

The US bought the islands from Denmark in 1917, noting their strategic importance in straddling one of the few sea-lanes between the Atlantic, the Caribbean and the Panama Canal. But their upkeep as an 'unincorporated territory' has cost the US dear. As a result there have been steep cutbacks in Federal aid: down from a $250 million high point in 1980 to half that by 1988. With little improvement in economic and fiscal management social services have deteriorated. Social divisions, expressed in racial terms, have bubbled up.

The race issue is never far from the surface. Lack of immigration control from the mainland means that whites, disparagingly called 'sunbirds', now constitute over 20 per cent of the population. Blacks respond by migrating to the States - to such an extent that the total population of the islands has fallen by over four per cent between 1985 and 1988.

Constitutional reform is a further cause of strife. While there is pressure by many indigenous islanders for greater autonomy, whites generally oppose any lessening of Congressional control which could entail extra taxes and possibly impose immigration restrictions.

Tony Thorndike

Leader: President George Bush,
Governor Alexander A Farrelly

Economy: GNP per capita $8,250 (US $17,480) Monetary unit: US dollar
Tourism employs 30 per cent of the workforce. Recession in St Croix-based oil and alumina refining industries has lead to increased unemployment. Sorghum, fruit and vegetables are grown on St Croix and St Thomas, and leaves from the bay tree forest on St John make bay rum. Cattle are exported to Puerto Rico, but generally poor soil and low rainfall prevent much agriculture.
Exports: Petroleum products, alumina, clocks.
Imports: Oil, bauxite, machinery, chemicals, food and consumer goods for the million or so tourists who visit each year.

People: 135,800

Culture: The islands have been controlled by the French, the English, the Spanish and even by the Knights of Malta until the Danes took over in the eighteenth century. Now they are dominated by the US.
Language: English
Religion: Protestant and Catholic

Sources: The Latin America and Caribbean Review 1988; State of the World's Children 1989.

 

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Discrimin-ation against the black majority.

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Heavily dependent on food imports, tourism and US aid.

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US laws and customs apply.

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Centrist, but little power due to colonial constitution.

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US standards apply but shortage of educational resources.

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Freedom of press and expression.

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Good at about
65 years
(US 76 years).

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