Antigua and Barbuda
Tourism is, literally, big business in Antigua. When a jumbo jet arrives from Britain, Germany or the US, it is the biggest thing on the island. The vast cruise ships which dock in the port of St John’s dwarf the surrounding buildings. More than half a million tourists visit Antigua each year, outnumbering residents by almost ten to one.
The island has embraced tourism with an enthusiasm almost unmatched in the tourist-dominated Caribbean. The industry provides on average about two-thirds of the country’s foreign-exchange earnings and is by far the biggest source of employment. Once, sugar was king, and Antigua was one of the most profitable of Britain’s sugar islands. The sugar industry, which stripped the island of its forests and introduced thousands of African slaves, finally went bust in the 1960s. Since then, Antiguans have looked towards their 365 spectacular beaches (one for each day of the year, the tourist brochures repeat ad nauseam) and turned away from the ramshackle interior.
Thirty miles north is the dependent island of Barbuda, once infamous as the place where its seventeenth-century English owner, Christopher Codrington, experimented with breeding slaves. A flat coral outcrop, Barbuda has an unusually rich and diversified bird life. Barbudans tend to view Antiguans with some suspicion, but are now engaged in their own hunt for the tourist dollar. The exclusive $1,000-a-night K-Club is a favourite with Princess Diana.
Antigua seems to have suffered more than its fair share of image problems. Nelson was stationed there for three years in the 1780s and dismissed it as a ‘vile spot’. Two centuries later Antiguan novelist Jamaica Kincaid produced A Small Place, a devastating attack on what she saw as the corruption and cynicism fuelled by the tourist boom. Things were hardly helped by British academic Tony Thorndike’s description of the country as ‘the most corrupt society in the Commonwealth Caribbean, hosting a notorious amorality from top to bottom’.
At the centre of this notoriety sits a remarkably durable political dynasty, the Bird family. From the 1940s until his retirement in 1994, Vere Cornwall Bird dominated the island’s politics, becoming its first Chief Minister and its first post-independence Prime Minister. A former union leader and Salvation Army officer, ‘Papa Bird’ ran the island like a personal fiefdom.
The publication of US journalist Robert Coram’s Caribbean Time Bomb in 1993 was not welcomed by the veteran politician or his two sons, Lester and Vere Jr. Among the indiscretions listed in the book were the family’s involvement in running Israeli weapons to apartheid South Africa and Bird senior’s role in shipping Israeli arms to the Medellín cocaine cartel. The US, said Coram, had connived in all such dirty business, ‘like a bumbling giant courting a diseased tropical princess’.
Lurid revelations, allegations of vote-rigging and a litany of corruption charges have not dislodged the Birds. Lester Bird is currently Prime Minister, having succeeded his father in March 1994. His brother, Vere Jr, however, was pronounced ‘unfit to hold public office’ by Louis Blom Cooper’s judicial review of the Medellín arms scandal.
None of which, of course, affects the tourists. And with Malaysian investors leasing an offshore island for a projected 1,000-room hotel, tourism is set to become bigger than ever.
AT A GLANCE
LEADER: Prime Minister Lester Bird
ECONOMY: GNP per capita $6,770 (UK $18,340)
HEALTH: Infant mortality 18 per 1,000 live births (US 8 per 1,000). Antigua’s health service has improved considerably over the last 30 years, and governments have invested in hospitals and clinics.
CULTURE: Claimed by the British in 1632, Antigua was only briefly occupied by France, and like Barbados, retains an ‘English’ identity. The cultural influence of the US is very strong, however, and there is a large Antiguan community in New York. The population is mostly descended from African slaves, imported in large numbers in the eighteenth century.
Sources State of the World’s Children 1997; Human Development Report 1996; Caribbean Development Bank; Caribbean Insight; World Development Report 1996; Latin America Monitor.
Never previously profiled
There is some social mobility, but rural poverty persists and the lucrative tourism business is dominated by a politically powerful minority.
Estimated at 95 per cent. Antigua, like other Eastern Caribbean states, has invested successfully in primary education.
Basic foods, once grown on the island, are imported from neighbouring islands, while tourism-related imports are growing fast.
Open repression is uncommon, but Government opponents complain of electoral irregularities and intolerance towards criticism in the media.
POSITION OF WOMEN
Women have access to education at all levels and are represented in middle-class professions, but politics remain a male preserve.
75 years, above average for the region and reflecting Antiguas relative prosperity (UK 77 years).
NI star rating
Copyright New Internationalist Magazine 1997