By FREDERICK SMITH, QC
IN 1967, the small group of families that had controlled The Bahamas for generations were dealt a massive and crippling blow. When the PLP’s nationalist revolution swept Lynden Pindling into power, the world as these entitled oligarchs knew it was brought to an abrupt and jarring end.
This was deservedly so. For the most part, the pompous old white men that controlled the UBP government had, in their time, supported and enforced segregation and our very own version of Jim Crow laws. They had engineered and benefited enormously from a terminally corrupt political system, and clung desperately to the vestiges of white male privilege for as long as they possibly could, as in most of the British colonies.
For their many sins, most of the “Bay Street Boys”, and by extension, the vast majority of white Bahamians, were exiled from the political scene and made to feel excluded from the new society that was being constructed.
This banishment was only partially forced. With few exceptions, white Bahamians, no doubt suffering from Post-Traumatic Political Stress Disorder after a revolution they believed could never happen, absconded from the political scene, cloistered themselves in their profitable business interests and remained hidden in their protected neighbourhoods. Keeping their heads firmly down, have quietly focused on consolidating their economic success and quality of living ever since.
Unfortunately, after a bright and promising start, it turned out that Pindling and his cohorts were far more adept at learning from and perfecting the political crimes of their predecessors than ushering in any meaningful change. Soon, an elaborate and many-tiered culture of nepotism and corruption, on a scale which the Bay Street Boys could never have imagined, was firmly put in place.
Because the first PLPs could not bring their own economic means of manipulation and control to bear on the voting public, their revolution necessitated a never-ending flood of nefarious political benefactors, from drug smugglers, to conmen, to unscrupulous developers – anyone ready and willing to fund the acquisition and maintenance of power in exchange for a special licence to do as they liked in The Bahamas. The future of The Bahamas has been being systematically sold away, in little chunks, ever since.
Meanwhile, the considerable economic power of formerly prominent white Bahamian families plays little if any part in front line politics – aside from funding strategic donations to political parties, overwhelmingly the FNM. But this changes little. Pindling’s style of governance, characterised by arbitrary use and even abuse of power, through a Westminster-style dictatorship of the Office of the Prime Minister (because of the small number of Parliamentarians to act as a check or balance) that is above the law, and with tight economic controls on the public, disregard for the Constitution and routine human rights abuses, is today universal. Though some governments may be less bad than others, all follow this basic blueprint to the extreme detriment of the Bahamian people. It is not without reason that we have endured two decades of one-term governance.
Meanwhile, the bogeyman of old has moved on. Subsequent generations of white Bahamians do not hold the same prejudices as their forbears. Indeed, many speak passionately – though privately – about the kind of country they want to see, a country ruled by good governance, transparency, accountability, tolerance, fairness and the rule of law. Many hold modern, progressive views and want the best for the nation.
The crimes of the white oligarchs were unforgivable. But that should not tarnish the personal reputation of their descendants. Like the children born of Haitian immigrants in The Bahamas, they are not born with original immigration or political sin respectively! Nor does this give the rest of us an excuse for excluding them from the national conversation. Intimidating and stigmatising anyone because of their place of origin as has been done by both the FNM and PLP in respect of me, and the colour of their skin, as has been done to Brent Symonette by the PLP, punishing anyone for the sins of their fathers, is nothing more than crude racism and discrimination. It is also incredibly unfair and contrary to the facts. The black elite that rose up around Pindling were guilty of many crimes against the average Bahamian, but their children are not saddled with the same shame and stigma as their white counterparts and do not hesitate to become involved in the political scene.
Were prominent white Bahamians to be welcomed back into the political fold, their conditioned self-consciousness and awareness of past injustices would probably cause them to give back as fully and transparently as possible – if not out of a sense of personal responsibility then at least from a wish to have some say in history’s judgment of their families and community in the final instance.
Much has been made of the fact that certain white families only became successful after earning fortunes in less than honourable trades – smuggling, shipwrecking, rum and blockade running. But this should not be used to suggest their descendants will be likewise seduced into illegality – quite the opposite in fact. To the extent that these families now run legitimate and extremely successful concerns, the impetus toward petty corruption which plagues our current political class would be substantially reduced. It would be highly irrational and counterproductive to risk the reputation of a business worth millions, just to take a small bribe to eke out a political existence either in opposition or government.
White Bahamians are also likely to use any political influence they may gain to make it easier to do business in The Bahamas by removing economic restrictions and red tape, thus making their own and other companies flourish; a development that should be welcomed by all Bahamians. Generally speaking, other than some Conchy Joe and old white Bahamian families who often support the PLP because they directly and hugely profit from Bahamianisation (a euphemism for oligarchic monopolies and protectionism) they tend to be more worldly and hold open-minded ideas about questions of immigration, protectionism and taxation – an alternative perspective that is desperately needed at this time. And, they can be counted upon to support progressive initiatives such as renewable energy, economic diversification, eco-tourism and emerging industries.
In fiscal terms we need more successful, disciplined, loss-adverse individuals who are used to running a tight ship to help curb the unnecessary spending and cut back on fiscal waste. If The Bahamas is to flourish, we must move away from a “jobs for votes, jobs for friends” public service model, to one that is based on merit and qualifications. Generally speaking, our politics needs fewer lawyers and more businessmen – black, white and other. Frankly, we should consider hiring 13 successful Jewish businessmen from Miami Beach to run the business of promoting the economy of The Bahamas successfully, and as Shakespeare put it “Kill all the lawyers first”. Regrettably they have held a stranglehold on the economy since 1968!
As we saw in the last election, desperate and visionless politicians, particularly the older generation of PLPs, will not hesitate to try and scare the public with warnings that the white bogeyman is coming to get them once again. But the era of white supremacy and minority rule is gone forever; the social and cultural circumstances that allowed it to occur simply do not exist anymore.
And, far from being bent on national domination, recent history has made the best and brightest white Bahamians disinterested, reluctant, even afraid of participating in a political scene they believe is stacked against them. This is to the detriment of us all; any and all intellectual and financial resources available to us should be used to the benefit of the nation as a whole.
Our politics desperately needs more competition and radically different, new ideas – the more the better in fact. This is not only the case when it comes to white Bahamians, but also Haitian-Bahamians, Greek-Bahamians, Bahamian women, members of the LGBTQ community, etc. Our country has stagnated terribly in the throes of a single myopic perspective. Hatred, xenophobia, discrimination, homophobia, misogyny and racism. We have been crushed under the collective heel of an ever tightening circle of political elites who have repeatedly proven to be nothing more than different sides of the same tarnished coin.
Things simply must change. Though it may seem like an unlikely source of progress, a community that was so prominent in the past, and which remains economically potent, may be part of the solution.
But the onus is not only on the wider community to include them. White Bahamians too must take some responsibility for their current anonymity, in particular for the culture of abstention, pessimism, negativity and impotence that has taken hold of their community and prevented most of them from contributing more meaningfully. They must stop whining and complaining about the state of the country in private, while declining to get involved in the public conversation, yet directly profiting from the policies that deprive the majority in The Bahamas of opportunity.
They must actually take some personal risks, leave their gated communities and step into the political arena where so many other Bahamians, of varied economic means, struggle to create a better Bahamas as activists, public commentators and political agitators. White Bahamians must stand up and be counted. They must display the courage to be the change they want to see. They must end their self-imposed exile.
I hereby call on this sleeping giant of Bahamian politics, and more generally on all politically marginalised groups – Haitian-Bahamians, women, members of civil society – to become energised, get organised, join the political fray and fight forcefully and on the front lines for what they believe is right.
The peaceful revolution of the 1960s was both timely and necessary. But the social and political systems it ushered in have long past their usefulness and become an onerous burden upon the Bahamian people; an anchor around our necks, dragging us down into an abyss of violence, stagnation, frustration and despair.
Something simply has to give. And Bahamians must keep an open mind, seek radically different solutions and carve out a fresh path to peace and prosperity – though it may take us in the unlikeliest of directions.
We must not fear change. We must welcome change!