New Internationalist

St Kitts and Nevis

November 2008

Country Profile

The St Kitts Scenic Railway circles the island’s cloud-covered peak, Mount Liamuiga, carrying hordes of tourists, its schedules revolving around the near-daily influx of giant cruise ships. The railway used to transport the island’s lucrative sugar-cane crop but the Government of the twin island state finally abandoned its 350-year-old sugar industry in 2005, after years of subsidizing it due to low world market prices, high production costs and the European Union’s restructuring of sugar import quotas.

The decision policy by the St Kitts and Nevis Labour Government has had wide-ranging repercussions. Sugar production here began when British and French planters shipped in thousands of Africans as slaves in the years after 1640, and continued beyond independence (from Britain) in 1983. Families whose history and working culture had revolved around sugar for so long have had to face demands for them to ‘modernize’ and adjust to the islands’ new growth industry: mass tourism. Taxi drivers and other locals will gladly impart stories from the cane fields – and of the new trial of long hours in low-paid service jobs – to any foreigner prepared to probe a little deeper. Former sugar workers are still awaiting their share of the expected EC$16 million (US$6 million) severance payments to become reality – a dubious prospect with national debt service outweighing expenditure on health and education.

In 2007 St Kitts’ new purpose-built Port Zante was completed to accommodate the 300-plus cruise ship arrivals in 2008. The complex contains numerous duty-free stores and foreign-owned chains, and with shopping glinting in many visitors’ eyes a good number choose to remain in port for their few hours ashore. Together with the fact that meals are provided on board, there is little scope for contribution to local people’s incomes.

Despite previous hotel developments like the massive 513-room Marriott in 2003, large chunks of St Kitts’ protruding, undeveloped, southeast peninsula – an area of high natural beauty and ecological diversity – have recently been sold off to build resorts and condos. The Government has also approved plans for the construction there of a luxury yachting marina.

Diversification away from agriculture also led the Government to promote its offshore banking sector, with Nevis alone, which has a population of 9,000, hosting a reported 17,000 businesses before 2003. Suspected of money laundering, the country had until then been high on the US ‘non-cooperative’ list to prevent the financing of terrorists –until controls were introduced. It is likely it was far more of a target for drug traffickers than terrorists, however, with known local criminals involved in the transhipment of Colombian cocaine.

Outside the resorts and the expensive plantation-house lodges, crime remains a major issue with rates of murder, rape and other violent crime amongst the highest in the region. Youth crime has grown the fastest, fuelled by drugs and an education system that has seen male secondary school participation fall well below that of their female counterparts.

Political bickering between the Government and the opposition People’s Action Movement is a regular feature on both islands, with accusations of corruption frequently floated. Following an attempt by Nevis to secede from St Kitts in 1998 (as Anguilla did in the 1960s under British federation rule), a commission has now determined that secession is not a viable prospect; even so, the alliance of what is the smallest state in the Western Hemisphere remains uneasy.

For the Government, balancing short-term income opportunities with long-term strategies remains critical. Tourism is notoriously vulnerable to global political events and the impact of local hurricanes, such as the damage inflicted by 9/11 and Hurricane George (1998) respectively. In the constant search for foreign exchange, little weight is given to the environment or to instilling a long-term sense of pride.

Rob Coates

St Kitts and Nevis Fact File
Leader Prime Minister Denzil Douglas; head of state Queen Elizabeth II, represented by Governor-General Sir Cuthbert Montroville-Sebast
Economy GNI per capita $8,840 (Dominica $3,960, UK $40,180).
Monetary unit Eastern Caribbean dollar.
Main exports electronic items and instrumentation, food and beverages, tobacco. Exports have shrunk markedly since the sugar industry died. Public debt was over 180% of GDP by 2006, making St Kitts & Nevis the second most indebted country in the world. Tourism now represents over half of GNI.
People 43,000. Annual population growth rate 1.3%. People per square kilometre 119 (UK 246).
Health Infant mortality 17 per 1,000 live births (Dominica 13, UK 5). Access to improved drinking water is more or less universal and to adequate sanitation 96%.
Environment 2004 CO2 emissions per capita 3.2 (US 20.6). Hurricanes represent the largest threat to local environment and livelihoods. Tourism development is causing coastal erosion and destruction of habitats.
Culture 95% Afro-Caribbean, the descendants of slaves. There are European and mixed-race minorities, both Kitticians/Nevisians and expats. The national sport is cricket, and a lively carnival at Christmas time in the capital, Basseterre, brings all people together and showcases the island’s music – mainly reggae and calypso/soca.
Religion Christian – Anglican 36%, Methodist 32%, Roman Catholic 11%.
Language English.
Human Development Index: 0.821 (Dominica 0.798, UK 0.946).
Sources World Bank, UNICEF, UNDP, OECS, World Guide,
Last profiled link December 1996
St Kitts and Nevis ratings in detail
Income distribution
Tourism is providing employment and a way out of poverty for some, but majority profits are made by foreign companies and local élites, and the tourism wealth and culture gap remains largely along racial lines. Unemployment has grown since 2005. *1996* ★★
Life expectancy
70 years (Dominica 75, UK 79). Healthcare has improved with the introduction of US medical schools. *1996* ★★★★
High, at 93%. There is much evidence that the secondary school system is failing boys from poor backgrounds. *1996* ★★★★
Position of women
Women head many households and hold middle-management positions but are sparse at the executive and political levels. Domestic violence is prevalent but treated seriously by the State. *1996* ★★
Press freedom ensures all opinions are represented; protests are allowed; elections are perceived as fair. But Nevisians accuse the Government of favouring Kitticians and the prison/population ratio is one of the highest in the Americas. *1996* ★★★
Sexual minorities
While PM Douglas has suggested a debate on decriminalization, ‘homosexual acts’ are still illegal and being openly gay is likely to draw aggressive responses. In 2005 a gay cruise ship was barred from docking here.
NI Assessment (Politics)
With sugar proving unprofitable at the international level and many people happy to leave this colonial relic behind, the Government is in a difficult position in terms of raising capital to service the national debt and offer development opportunities. Some gains for the poor have nonetheless been made. A new dependence on tourism is problematic with allegations of corruption, clear environmental degradation, and a continued service-oriented economy. Due to its tiny size, the relationship between public and private sector has always been close, and this often presents problems in terms of democratic credibility.

This column was published in the November 2008 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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Country ratings (details)
Income distribution3
Life expectancy4
Position of women4
Sexual minorities2
NI Assessment (Politics)3

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