Guardian News Editor
Published: Jul 01, 2013
On October 28, 1975, more than two years after The Bahamas attained independence, then Prime Minister Lynden Pindling declared at a Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) convention that, “political independence for The Bahamas is almost meaningless unless it holds forth the prospect of economic independence”.
Pindling envisaged The Bahamas developing economically “with a mixed economy in which there is struck the proper balance between public and private enterprise and between domestic and foreign investment”.
As the country observes its 40th anniversary of independence, it cannot yet say it is truly independent or empowered, not from an economic standpoint.
In considering what it is we have to celebrate in the coming days, the matter of economic independence is one I have been pondering with greater frequency.
While it is true that The Bahamas has done well with the model of tourism engineered by Sir Stafford Sands, who is widely considered the father of tourism in the country, we are not owners in our primary industry.
The Bahamas has taken advantage of its close proximity to North America. The tourist dollar has sustained us for decades.
Today, our greatest hope for economic stimulus is the multi-billion-dollar Baha Mar development at Cable Beach.
It promises to create thousands of jobs in 2014 and has created many hundreds during the construction phase.
The other morning, I met two construction workers on their way to the project. They seemed proud and grateful for work. They said they had come to Nassau from Grand Bahama because they could not find work there.
They said they now work 10 and a half hours a day on the site, and are hoping Baha Mar would extend their day even longer so they could make more money.
Baha Mar has done good for The Bahamas, and it is continuing to do good, as is the Atlantis Resort on Paradise Island, which has helped transform the Bahamian economy over the last 20 years.
On the Cable Beach strip, Sandals and Breezes resorts have been good for The Bahamas too, providing welcomed jobs. The Jamaican owners have been important additions to the Bahamian tourism product.
On Friday, good news came with the christening of a ferry that runs from Miami to Bimini, and the opening of a casino on that island.
But what is it that these foreigners have been able to do right? And where is the Bahamian owner of a major tourism resort 40 years after independence?
Is it government policy that encourages our thirst for jobs over Bahamian ownership in our number one industry, or lack of real interest by the Bahamian?
Have we struck the right balance between domestic and foreign ownership in our economy? Who really is at fault for what we have developed and how can we change it, or do we even want to?
I recently put these questions to former Cabinet Minister Darrell Rolle, who opined that what we really have is ‘dependent independence’.
Rolle explained: “Dependent independence is where you are politically independent, but not economically sustainable on your own as a people or as a nation. And therefore, you would tend to lay more emphasis on foreign investment and job creation as opposed to local ownership, which would generate job creation.”
Rolle, who served many years in the Pindling Cabinet, said, “What affects The Bahamas today is a sense of economic disillusionment attacking that sense of national pride, which ought to have been built up from the political swell of independence.
“I used to tell Pindling, we have to exploit the crest of the wave because sooner or later, the energy that gave rise to that wave could dissipate and go into the trough and we have never emerged from that.”
Asked if successive governments ought to share the blame for the failure to achieve true economic empowerment, Rolle said, “Yes, and the people of The Bahamas. I wouldn’t blame Pindling too much for the failure because Pindling had a short period of transition and one of the things that we have to accept is that the process of economic transition takes a longer period of time than that of political transition.
“There is the need to transform the thinking of the leaders and the people from that movement to majority rule to the real economic fruits of life.
“We must define where it is we want The Bahamas to go and then you have means of how you are able to get there.”
Rolle said the initial task of those involved in the struggle was to obtain majority rule and then 10 years after that to attain national independence.
“The question is, is that same captain (Pindling) capable of transforming the political expectations of the people to the real fruits of economic existence? That’s where The Bahamas failed.”
Prominent businessman Tennyson Wells, who is also a former Cabinet minister, said PLP and FNM administrations have not been proactive enough with their policies in terms of assisting Bahamians move forward economically.
“For instance, in the banking and financial sector, there’s really a policy — I don’t know whether the ministers of finance have endorsed it, but certainly I had spoken to one of the former governors of the Central Bank about putting together a bank,” he said.
“It was to do with money transfers at the time in and out of the country, and I was told point blank, unless you have an international institution behind you, you can’t get licensed to establish a bank, which I think is absolute nonsense, so that’s one area.”
Wells is a part of a group of businessmen planning a major tourist development at southwestern New Providence.
“When it comes to the tourism sector, I don’t believe that the government has been proactive enough in terms of encouraging Bahamians to participate,” he said.
“If you look at Jamaica, you look at Barbados and Trinidad and some of the other islands, you find that in this industry, it is now time for the government to encourage Bahamians to get involved in it at a level that they can compete with the international groupings, like the Kerzners and the Izmirlians, if that is possible.
“Every opportunity should be given to those Bahamians who want to do it. Don’t tell them go build a little boutique hotel or a boutique cottage on the Family Islands or out Cable Beach somewhere. That can’t be what we’re looking for in the long term.”
Wells said anytime a government is able to secure jobs for citizens — particularly if they can make decent incomes — that is a good thing.
But he said Bahamians need to become owners.
Tourism and financial services will no doubt continue to be important pillars of the Bahamian economy, but there must also be a national commitment to fostering deeper involvement by Bahamians and finding other ways to expand the economy.
The talk of economic diversification is of course nothing new.
When he addressed the Bahamas Business Outlook seminar in 2011, then Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham said it should be the desire of any government to see as many types of economic enterprises and sectors develop its economy as its resources can promote.
He noted that Bahamian entrepreneurs had been calling for government to open more opportunities in farming, fisheries, local manufacturing, and developing cottage industries to offset the current economic trend.
“It seems to me that the discussion around diversification arises from a desire to see this economy achieve higher levels of growth and perhaps more importantly, to become less vulnerable to shocks in the global economy,” Ingraham said.
“Diversification then seems to be defined as less dependent on tourism and financial services, both services, and more involvement in manufacturing, industry, and agriculture.
“The reality is the remarkable growth and development we have achieved through services presents huge opportunities for further integration of the $7.5 billion economy The Bahamas has in value and exploiting the natural resources we do have.”
For its part, the Christie administration continues to place emphasis on attracting foreign investments.
Prime Minister Perry Christie recently expressed great optimism over investments he said are in the pipeline.
The government also promises oil drilling legislation, although Christie has said he is not now banking on any revenue from a still unproven industry.
For now, the economic model that has existed for decades will continue to remain unadjusted, it appears.
There has long been talk in various circles about the need for a national development plan for The Bahamas, one that all stakeholders can buy into, and one that remains consistent even when governments change.
A key element of this long-term plan must be an improved model for national economic development with greater focus on the Bahamian entrepreneur.
Asked what he thought has fostered a mentality of laying out the red carpet for foreign investors and laying out the red tape for Bahamian investors, Wells said, “I think it is a lack of confidence that the leadership of our country has in Bahamians.
“Now the PLP said in the last election that ‘we believe in Bahamians and Bahamians first’. Well, time will tell.”