Caribbean 'rebels' prefer Red Stripe to revolution

Locals want the governor of the British dependency of Turks and Caicos out. But violence is unlikely, reports Phil Davison
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The Independent Online
"A BRITISH frigate bristling with a fierce of array of modern weaponry, including Exocet missiles, is on the islands' horizon."

Drinkers in the Guanahani Hotel beach bar barely batted an eyelid when the radio flashed the news. There was the odd wry grin, a couple of sarcastic glances out to sea. They were too busy downing Red Stripe beers to worry about the Royal Navy zapping them with an Exocet missile.

The news bulletin, from the BBC's Caribbean service, implied the warship was off the Turks and Caicos Islands in case of an anti-colonial revolt by the 15,000 residents of this British dependent territory, most of whom are black. Earlier in the week, government and opposition politicians from the islands had petitioned Whitehall to remove the British governor, Martin Bourke, describing him as a "buffoon, a moron and a mad dog".

The Foreign Office rejected the petition, said Mr Bourke would stay and criticised the local leaders for "threatening violence". That appeared to refer to an anti-Bourke protest outside his residence in February during which a few dozen locals "broke through" a police cordon carrying placards saying "Bourke must go".

In actual fact, the protest took place with hands in pockets, little physical exertion and cops and demonstrators getting together later to play dominos or sip sodas. Nevertheless, it was unique in the annals of this group of islands and is threatening to snowball after what appear to be a series of over-reactions by the colonial masters.

Local politicians see it as "an historic moment" for the islands, tucked between the Bahamas and the island of Hispaniola, which is divided into the Dominican Republic and Haiti. It has revived calls for independence, despite the fact that their income from tourism - mainly scuba diving - and offshore finances is not yet enough to survive on without British aid.

Mr Bourke, 49, said he was concerned for his safety. A couple of British bodyguards and a handful of extra policemen were drafted in, and reports from Britain said 100 policemen were on alert in Manchester in case the natives got truly revolting. Locals reacted with lazy, scornful smiles.

"The Foreign Office said they wouldn't be threatened by violence but if the people of the Turks and Caicos want to get violent, what can the Foreign Office do about it?" asked Oliver, a barman at the Guanahani. A big teddy bear of a man, he said it with little conviction.

The "revolt" was set off by an interview in which Mr Bourke, a career diplomat with overall "reserve powers" over the locally-elected government, criticised drug trafficking, cor- ruption and what he called a rising crime rate on the islands, only five of which are inhabited. Local politicians expressed outrage. Where else in the world, they said, do people still leave their houses or cars unlocked?

They had already criticised the governor for reducing their privileges, for allowing his friends and family to bypass customs on arrival and departure and for appointing himself as a marriage officer for a few days so that he could officiate at his brother-in-law's wedding. "Colonial arrogance," they called it.

In the offending interview, Mr Bourke appeared to imply that local politicians and businessmen were still involved in cocaine and marijuana trafficking to the US. Speaking to the Independent on Sunday this week, the governor danced around the subject - "I've got to be really careful here, I'm in enough trouble already" - but other influential expatriates said Mr Bourke believes senior local politicians and businessmen are still involved in heavy-duty drug trafficking.

In 1985, then Chief (Prime) Minister Norman Saunders was convicted and jailed in Miami for cocaine trafficking. That led to a suspension of the constitution here and an outbreak of anti-British sentiment. Mr Saunders, from the tiny island of South Caicos, was and is extremely popular. After serving around three years in a Miami jail, he is back in politics as a member of the Legislative Council, or parliament.

Last year, a leading local businessman, "Smokey" Smith - owner of a popular bar called Smokey's On Da Beach - and three other men known as "Duck", "Porky" and "Red Boy" were arrested for alleged cocaine smuggling after an investigation by British police. "Porky" and "Red Boy" were well- known local pilots and were said by prosecutors to have been caught red- handed with 12 kilos of cocaine stashed aboard a plane and ready to fly to Miami.

Mr Smith was arrested after tapped telephone calls - authorised by the governor - which prosecutors said linked him with the shipment.

After minimal deliberations, the jury acquitted all four men. "There was no way any jury would convict those guys," said one local taxi driver here. "This is a small island. Everybody knows them. And they know us."

"There are people on these islands who are still trafficking in drugs," said Mr Bourke, refusing to comment on whether he was talking of current politicians or leading figures. He also denied that the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was putting pressure on Britain to block trafficking through the colony.

Meanwhile, on Grand Turk's Good Street, where few expatriates are to be seen and where a "black power" movement erupted in the eighties, local youths in dreadlocks and jeans insisted the governor should go, but expressed no desire for violence.

"I think the man is sick, sick in the head," said Errol, a 20-year-old student. "I think they should Federal Express the man out of here. Quickly."