Photo by Guy Mansfield / panos.
Few sitting governments are brought before their own courts, but July 2009 saw St Lucia’s Government face charges of granting illegal tax concessions to tourism properties owned by its serving Health Minister. In what’s become known as ‘tuxedo-gate’, the entire cabinet of the ruling United Workers Party (UWP), led by the conservative Stephenson King, was found to have been complicit in allowing duty-free status on private property belonging to a member. With opposition St Lucia Labour Party (SLP) leader Kenny Anthony calling for the Government’s resignation, the island’s tumultuous local politics awaits either an appeal or an election – whichever arrives soonest.
The case is the latest in a string of allegations over nepotism which stretch back a decade – property and tax concessions that have left the population with little confidence in official structures. That most cases involve tourism development comes as no surprise; the issue remains a matter of high controversy, leading St Lucian Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott to chastise regional governments in 2008 for ‘selling our land like whores to foreign investors’.
St Lucia’s stunning beauty, capped by the famous twin peaks of the Pitons, hides a turbulent history. Home to Arawak and then Carib civilizations until their genocide under European settlement in the 17th century, St Lucia was bitterly fought over by the French and British, changing hands 15 times between 1660 and 1814 – when British domination of the Caribbean was finally affirmed. It was the French who introduced sugar to the island in 1760, bringing in thousands of Africans to slave in the lucrative canefields and establishing French patois (Creole) as the colloquial tongue. During the French Revolution slaves were freed and noble landowners executed under radical Republicans, a move which resulted in bands of freed slaves called Brigands instigating a terrifying 10-year guerrilla war against British troops, fearing re-enslavement by the incoming power. Sugar remained the primary crop through abolition and for 120 years after. The island achieved self-government in 1967 and independence from Britain finally in 1979; both events under the enigmatic leadership of long-time Prime Minister John Compton.
From the 1960s, preferential access to European markets for bananas maintained St Lucia’s economy and, though the number of farmers has fallen to a quarter of what it was in the early 1990s due to increased competition from US farms in Latin America, UK supermarket chain Sainsbury’s has ensured a future still exists for the St Lucian banana industry through recent fair trade deals.
Tourism has nonetheless replaced bananas as by far the largest economic sector, and recent governments have sought to capitalize on the island’s reputation for outstanding natural beauty with the construction of a host of high-end property developments and golf courses. St Lucia’s untamed Atlantic coast, home to numerous bird species and a nesting sight for giant turtles, was previously spared development due to its crashing wild waves – but controversial real-estate deals have recently seen the best beaches change hands, with artificial reefs put in to break the surf and local communities excluded. An ongoing theme is the lack of transparency over property deals, with accusations of cronyism and the awarding of concessions based solely on private discussion.
Though St Lucia has largely weathered the global recession, a steady increase in violent crime suggests unequal economic development and exclusion of the poorest. Prime Minister King remarkably secured significant World Bank grants in 2009 to mitigate the effects of climate change on its coastline – yet to many the far clearer danger lies from within the island’s boundaries. In the words of Walcott, regional development ‘is terrifying, all around there are huge hotels we are going to leave as monuments… It is about bribery, it is about corruption… Tell these investors we need a theatre, we need a museum.’ With a final punch at tourism policy, he added, ‘at least the slaves did not have to smile’.
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