New Internationalist

Country profile: The Bahamas

July 2016
Bahamas 'swimming pigs' [Related Image]
The highly adaptable ‘swimming pigs’ of the Bahamas have become a major tourist attraction. © Gabrielle Manni

If countries could be compared to inanimate objects, the Bahamas would surely be a collection of showcase cars – varying in their shape, size and maximum speed. With pristine exteriors, this collection of gems would attract buyers, investors and those who simply wanted a test drive – just to see what it’d be like to live ‘that kind of life’. The cars might be auctioned by a set of dealers with questionable motives, their hands slick with backhanders.

The Bahamas is an age-old tourist bait – an escape. It has everything an idyllic Caribbean holiday destination is supposed to have: sandy beaches, coconut trees, friendly locals, crystal waters and iconic local food. It has reggae music blasting from every restaurant and sunshine at least 355 days of the year. But there are a few skeletons in the closet.

Tourists are not averse to some of this history: tales of pirates, plunder and fort-based attacks add a dash of spice to the mix. The Bahamas was a haven for corruption even in its earliest days. It has been home to slavery, rum running and, fast forwarding into the more recent past, offshore banking, which some might call piracy by a different name.

Mandy Roberts
Dancers wrap up a session of ‘rushing’ for Junkanoo, a traditional perfomance of music, dance and costumes Mandy Roberts

The capital city, Nassau, is where it all began, and tourists often get no farther than its casinos, luxury hotels and high-end shops. Many of the outer (particularly southern) islands and cays, are untouched by mass tourism development and retain the old, simple way of living. From mid-Bahamas upwards though, the spread of hospitality development risks encroaching on quintessential island life – and the stark contrast between the unattainable wealth of tourists and living conditions for ordinary Bahamians has inevitably led to a rise in petty crime.

In Nassau, there is the ritzy section ‘Out West’ but many Bahamians live ‘Over the Hill’ – the local term for the less-developed end of town with its older houses and basic standards of living. On the outer islands, you have a different divide. In northern islands like Abaco, there’s growing disparity between native Bahamians and illegal migrants from Haiti, who live in shanty towns (‘The Mud’) with makeshift buildings lacking proper sanitation and electrical wiring.

Vanessa Arnell
An 82-year-old Acklins Islander, one of many caught unawares by devastating Hurricane Joaquin, October 2015. Vanessa Arnell

As with many countries, government corruption is inevitable, particularly if you are the Caribbean’s wealthiest nation. Perhaps more troubling still for young Bahamians like me is the sense that the country has been sleepwalking since its independence from Britain in 1973. Although it has taken big steps to improve the experience for tourists, it hasn’t built a legacy for future generations of Bahamian people. So the big investors dig deep into the natural resource wealth, and all those who can do so milk the tourism cash cow – feeding an aspiration to keep up with our US neighbours. Meanwhile printing, citrus, sugar cane, rum and beer, all of which were once valuable industries, are now costly imports.

It’s as if the motivation of recent ancestors to build a stable and secure future for the Bahamas has been forgotten. Instead Bahamians rely on the money of others as the last of its few remaining industries sell out.

The upcoming generation is stuck with a lack of prospects, their choices limited to tourism or banking, and the lack of government concern about this has young Bahamians like myself scratching our heads. If we’re going to continue using the phrase ‘It’s better in the Bahamas’ then we need to reset our standards. Better than where? And if we can’t do this, maybe the country should be listening to its youth, who are urging ‘It’s time to wake up, Bahamas’.

Kelsi Farrington
Country profile: The Bahamas Fact File
Leader Prime Minister Perry Christie.
Economy GNI per capita $20,980 (Haiti $820, United States $55,230). Tourism dominates the economy, with it or construction related to it making up around 60% of GDP and providing half of the islands’ jobs. Financial and business services, including the offshore banking industry – take up another 35% of GDP, leaving very little else.
Monetary unit Bahamian dollar.
Main exports Very few, but they include crawfish, crude salt and aragonite (a carbonate mineral).
People 383,000. Annual population growth 2011-15 1.4%. People per square kilometre 38 (UK 267).
Health Infant mortality 10 per 1,000 live births (Haiti 52, US 6). Lifetime risk of maternal death 1 in 1,400 (Haiti 1 in 80, US 1 in 1,800). HIV prevalence rate 3.2%.
Environment Positive steps have been taken to ensure that marine wildlife is protected, with seasonal fishing regulations and national marine parks for juvenile fish but concerns include coral reef decay, illegal over-fishing and solid waste disposal. Recycling efforts are being made in some districts but island ‘dumps’ used for burning general waste are still a major environmental concern for locals. CO2 emissions 5.2 tonnes per capita.
Language English (official). Haitian immigrants speak Creole.
Religion Christian, with around 35% Baptist, 14% Anglican, 12% Catholic,9% Seventh Day Adventist and numerous other Protestant sects.
Human development index 0.790, 55th of 188 countries (Haiti 0.483, US 0.915).
Country profile: The Bahamas ratings in detail
Income distribution
Inequality and poverty due to lack of employment are on the rise, particularly for migrants, low-skilled Bahamians and those in the more remote islands. Disparities between rich and poor are growing.
Life expectancy
75 years (Haiti 63, US 79).
Position of women
Although many women hold well-respected jobs in tourism, politics and banking, domestic violence and objectification of women are common. Marital rape remains legal and Bahamian women are unable to pass on their citizenship to children born outside of the country, amongst other dated laws highlighted by the June 2016 Referendum.
At 95.6% and a primary school net enrolment rate of 98%, this reflects the Bahamas’ pride in prioritizing literacy and English in school.
Freedom of speech is very much allowed and locals will openly have their say. Local jails such as ‘Fox Town’ have appalling reputations.
Sexual minorities
Although homosexuality is legal, LGBT marriage is not, and same-sex ‘behaviour’ is generally frowned upon in a highly religious country. Same-sex unions can be privately performed (more frequently for tourists than locals) illegally by pastors. Pro-LGBT rights movements have attempted to bring change with little effect.
NI Assessment (Politics)
The current government is from the Progressive Liberal Party, a high-energy, populist and socially liberal party that sees itself as being on the ‘centre-left’ but has done little to rein in finance capital or counter inequality. It backed ‘Vote Yes’ in the June referendum on gender equality and has actively fought for stem-cell research within the country. But it has been criticized for neglect of the outer islands – and particularly for having neglected to offer substantial advance warning and subsequent aid to those struck by the devastating Hurricane Joaquin in October 2015.

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 494 This column was published in the July 2016 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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Country ratings (details)
Income distribution2
Life expectancy4
Position of women2
Sexual minorities3
NI Assessment (Politics)4

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This article was originally published in issue 494

New Internationalist Magazine issue 494
Issue 494

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