New Internationalist

British Virgin Islands

Issue 263

new internationalist
issue 263 - January 1995

Country profile - British Virgin Islands

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  Where are the British Virgin Islands? [image, unknown]
Where are the British Virgin Islands? [image, unknown]

The new prison being built in the British Virgin Islands (BVI) looks out onto glistening blue tropical waters, white beaches and a string of small green islands. Unlike the new $20 million government building in the capital, or the giant new cruise-ship dock, this building does not reflect the noble path of 'progress' which the people of these tiny islands are supposed to be experiencing. It represents the shameful baggage which comes with it. Sadly there is a pressing need for a prison. American-style gun-crime has seeped into the country with devastating consequences for a community that 10 years ago scarcely knew such evils.

The BVI's population is distributed between four islands (there are 36 in all) though most people live on the largest, Tortola. The islands are self-governing though not independent from Britain, whose resident Governor acts as representative of the Crown.

Most people enjoy a quality of life uncommon in the Caribbean. The use of the US currency and the steady growth in the yachting industry and up-market hotels have combined to create a tourism economy envied by others in the region. As the major source of employment, tourism has attracted an increasing number of immigrants seeking work.

Political power lies with a small group of individuals some of whom have been in and out of power for many years. The Chief Minister Lavitty Stoutt of the Virgin Islands Party has this time held office since 1987 when his predecessor, Cyrill Romney, resigned in the islands' biggest known political scandal. Romney had been closely linked to a local trust company alleged to have been laundering large amounts of 'dirty' money. His name was subsequently cleared and he is now Leader of the Opposition in the single-chamber Legislative Council.

Trust companies and off-shore banking earned the Government $19 million in 1993. The no-tax and no-questions-asked attitude makes BVI attractive to depositers wanting to tuck funds away anonymously. Government fees taken from this electronic banking industry (no cash comes onto the island) have helped to solve the economic problem of over-reliance on tourism, but at present there is only cursory attention paid to the origins of the money.

More visible than the drug profits hiding on computers are the increasing number of drug users. The 1980s brought a glut of cocaine which was easy to come by with so much being smuggled through the islands. Now there is crack, stealing young minds and turning human resources into desperate liabilities. Muggings, drive-by and even execution-style killings have shaken this once parochial world into a reality it never imagined.

The lure of this paradise now sits uneasily with the changed world of the BVI's people. Once sleepy islands where the few people who lived there knew every face are now beginning to resemble a cross between Disneyland and a violent ghetto. Soon the people will have to stop being dazzled by the US and see what can be done about the real problems they now face.

Steven Farami

AT A GLANCE

LEADER: Head of State Queen Elizabeth II, Chief Minister H Lavity Stoutt.

ECONOMY: GNP per capita US$8,500 (US$22,240).
Monetary unit: US Dollar. Tourism and international banking are the main planks of the economy. Small agricultural sector in livestock, fruit and vegatables, sugar cane (mainly used for rum production) and fishing.
Main exports: Rum, fish, handicrafts, fruit, vegetables and gravel.
Main imports: Foodstuffs, building materials, cars, machinery and fuel.

PEOPLE: 17,000.

HEALTH: Infant mortality 27 per 1,000 live births (US 9 per 1,000).

CULTURE: 90 per cent of BV Islanders are of Afro-Caribbean descent, 10 per cent are European, American, Indian or Middle Eastern. 40 per cent of population is from other Caribbean islands, 10 per cent from US or Europe. Large BVI populations in Florida, Washington and Toronto. West Indian culture mixed with US (all TV is from the USA).
Religion: Various forms of Christianity; largely Protestant.
Language: English.

Sources: The State of the World's Children 1994, UNICEF; The Americas Review 1993/94; and information supplied by the author.

 

STAR RATINGS

[image, unknown] INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Wealthy nation, minimal levels of absolute poverty.
[image, unknown] LITERACY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
98 % for women and men.
[image, unknown] SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown]
Everything imported, European and UK aid. Minimal farming.
[image, unknown] FREEDOM [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Freedom of press and expression.
[image, unknown] POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Increasing numbers in work, including some top jobs - though generally (male) chauvinist society.
[image, unknown] LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
72 years male, 77 years female (US 76 years).

 

POLITICS

Politics

UK Dependent Territory; locally elected Chief Minister and Legislative Council control most of territory's affairs.

 

NI star rating

EXCELLENT
GOOD
FAIR
POOR
APPALLING
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