Small is beautiful as Nevis breaks from St Kitts

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The former British island colony of Nevis in the Caribbean does not like being part of the smallest country in the world. It wants the title all to itself. It may no longer be able to rely on coconuts for its survival, but it does have a luxury hotel.

Nevis's parliament - all five members - voted unanimously yesterday to secede from its federation with the neighbouring island of St Kitts. The issue will now go to a referendum, requiring two-thirds of Nevis's 5,000 registered voters to confirm the breakaway.

The cheers in the parliamentary gallery in Charlestown, the Nevis capital, when the five MPs registered their votes after a marathon debate appeared to reflect the views of most of the islanders. Their 32,000 neighbours, two miles away on St Kitts, who will be excluded from the referendum, have shown indifference to the break-up.

The two islands' English-speaking neighbours in the Caribbean are anything but indifferent. The 14-nation Caribbean Community, which links the former British colonies, has been trying to forge more unity, particularly on vital trade issues, and has criticised the break-up.

Residents of Nevis, which covers 36 square miles, have long complained of being treated like second-rate citizens by the folks on the larger island.

The two were separate colonies until Britain forced them to merge just over a century ago. When St Kitts and Nevis was granted independence in 1983, Nevis insisted on a constitutional provision allowing it to leave the federation, with its capital in the town of Basseterre.

The people of Nevis said they had to beg the Basseterre government for a new fire engine and a new police station after the old one was burnt down. "We always had to bow and scrape," said Nevis's premier Vance Amory. "They looked on us as a mere appendage."

Mr Amory said Nevis contributes almost two-fifths of the federation's total tax revenue but receives only one-fifth of public spending in return. He said the little island now hopes to survive on tourism and offshore banking.

The US would like to believe that. It recently signed a "hot pursuit" agreement with the St Kitts and Nevis government after complaining that drug traffickers had "penetrated the highest levels of society" on the two islands. The agreement allows the US Coastguard to enter the islands' territorial waters to chase suspected drug-runners.