Country Profile

St Kitts-Nevis

Country profile: St Kitts and Nevis

Where are St Kitts and Nevis? Brimstone Fortress on the west coast of St Kitts is an imposing monument to the inter-imperial rivalries which once raged around the sugar-rich islands of the eastern Caribbean. Built in the seventeenth century to fend off attacks from French forces, this so-called ‘Gibraltar of the West Indies’ was hewn out of volcanic rock and in its heyday housed a garrison of more than a thousand British troops. Its cannons still point out towards the Caribbean Sea, where on a clear day you can make out the distant volcanic shapes of St Eustatius, Saba and Montserrat.

The days of European warmongering are long gone. Brimstone Fortress was abandoned by the British in 1852, neglected for a century and then reconstructed in the 1980s as an attraction for upmarket ‘heritage’ tourists. Today the historic site welcomes the wealthy Europeans and North Americans who stay in St Kitts’ luxuriously restored plantation-house hotels.

But if the cannons are now silent, the twin island state of St Kitts and Nevis is far from the peaceful idyll of the tourism brochures. Since independence from Britain in 1983, the country has been shaken by a series of constitutional crises, corruption scandals and violent crimes. Party politics are at best heated, at worst close to open warfare.

Like other small, poor islands in the region, St Kitts and Nevis became a convenient trans-shipment point in the 1980s for South American cocaine en route to the US. The extent of the drug-traffickers’ influence was dramatically revealed in 1994 when the son of the Deputy Prime Minister was murdered, apparently by professional assassins. The head of the police enquiry was then himself gunned down, raising the spectre of direct involvement on the part of Colombian cocaine cartels. While narcotics experts from Scotland Yard have been called in, the two main parties – the St Kitts and Nevis Labour Party and the People’s Action Movement – loudly accuse each other of drug-related corruption. Cruise-ship visitors, meanwhile, are openly hustled by dealers on the streets of Basseterre.

Perhaps even more serious is the prospect of the world’s smallest nation-state splitting into even tinier parts. Only two miles of sea separate St Kitts (33,000 people) from Nevis (9,000 people), but animosities run deep. Nevisians complain that they were yoked together with Kittitians to make life easier for British colonial bureaucrats and many wanted to separate at the time of independence.

Since then relations have been strained, with Nevis complaining that St Kitts takes its taxes but spends very little on improving its services. A particular bone of contention is St Kitts’ alleged insistence that Nevis-bound tourists pass through its airport, thereby raking off lucrative departure taxes. A commission is currently considering whether Nevis could viably secede from St Kitts, as did Anguilla back in the 1960s.

Political rows and high-profile murders are not what the islands’ fledgling tourism industry needs. With its sugar industry in seemingly irreversible decline, St Kitts and Nevis depend overwhelmingly on foreign visitors for employment and dollars. Cocooned in their all-inclusive enclaves, the tourists may be largely oblivious to the troubles outside, but local tourism officials know that bad publicity can spell disaster for a would-be tropical paradise.

James Ferguson



LEADER: Prime Minister Denzil Douglas

ECONOMY: GNP per capita $4,410 (UK $18,060)
Monetary unit: Eastern Caribbean dollar (EC$1 = US$2.70)
Main exports: sugar, garments, data processing
Main imports: machinery, foodstuffs, oil
Tourism is now overtaking agriculture as the islands’ economic mainstay, and the Government is investing heavily in a new cruise-ship terminal in Basseterre.

PEOPLE: 41,000

HEALTH: Infant mortality 33 per 1,000 live births (US 8 per 1,000). One of the eastern Caribbean’s poorer states, St Kitts and Nevis has made progress in primary healthcare since independence.

CULTURE: 95 per cent of Kittitians and Nevisians are of African descent and there is a small East Indian-descended community. Poverty and unemployment have traditionally forced many islanders to work abroad, and there are extensive links with the US and Britain as well as a vital remittance economy.
Religion: Christian, mostly Anglican and other Protestant denominations.
Language: English.

Sources The State of the World’s Children 1996, UNICEF; Human Development Report 1995, UNDP; Caribbean Insight; Economist Intelligence Unit; Latin America Monitor; World Development Report 1995, World Bank.

Never previously profiled


[image, unknown] INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Unequal land ownership persists, and a small middle class monopolizes the retail and tourism sectors.
[image, unknown] LITERACY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
90%. Governments have prioritized primary education, but resources are scarce and drop-out rates high.
[image, unknown] SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
The Government is trying to reduce dependence on imported food through diversification, but sugar still dominates the landscape.
[image, unknown] FREEDOM [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
No apparent censorship or repression, but some complain that changes of government result in political victimization in the public sector.
[image, unknown] POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Women are under-represented in positions of power and largely confined to menial work in agriculture and tourism.
[image, unknown] LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
66 years – rising steadily with better primary healthcare (Canada 77 years).


[image, unknown] NI ASSESSMENT [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
A ‘Westminster’ model of two-party politics has yet to produce stability or continuity. Impartial observers claim that political patronage has undermined both of the main parties’ democratic credibility, while tensions between St Kitts and Nevis threaten another constitutional crisis.

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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996

New Internationalist issue 286 magazine cover This article is from the December 1996 issue of New Internationalist.
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