Tiny Caribbean islands keep colonial status, hope to become tax haven for world's wealthy

Independence?m Association with Canada as a province?m Association with the United States as a commonwealth or free state?m

A close political and economic union with neighboring Cuba?m

Continuing crown-colony status with Great Britain?m

Those are the options tha inhabitants of the 30 Turks and Caicos Islands in the eastern Caribbean have debated during the past decade. One by one, the 7, 000 islanders have rejected the options -- except for colonial status.

While the poltical debate has been going on, the islanders have been more concerned with deep-seated economic problems. The issues are clearly intertwined, and the decision to remain a colony is as much an economic one as it is political.

The latest decision -- in parliamentary elections Nov. 4 -- did away with the incipient effort to move toward independence and/or possible ties with Cuba.

The islanders selected a conservative administration dedicated to opening the economy to outside, mainly US, investment.

The Progressive National Party (PNP) under the leadership of Norman B. Saunders took eight of the 11 seats in the islands' legislative assembly. The other three seats went to Owald O. Skippings, a 22-year-old fisherman who is leader of the People's Democratic Movement (PDM), and two of his PDM associates.

The PDM lost, it is felt, because it was closely identified with some of the radical, left-wing movements in the Caribbean. Its longtime leader, Jags McCartney, who was killed in a plane crash earlier this year, had openly argued that the islands should move "with the Caribbean tide."

Ironically, the islanders did just that -- but they moved with the conservative, not a liberal, tide, which has been the result in all island elections this year.

The young Mr. Skippings, aware of the changing attitudes in the Caribbean, had downplayed the more radical elements of earlier PDM platforms, but island voters apparently were not persuaded that the PDM would be able to bring the economic change that many of them feel is important.

Mr. Saunders says he wants tourism developed, particularly on Grand Turk, the major island in the grouping, and on some of the small islands that are virtually uninhabited.

Air Florida began fying to Grand Turk this month from Miami and New York -- and Britain is putting up $10 million for road construction and a new airport runway capable of handling jets.

But for the future, Mr. Saunders also wants to turn the islands into an offshore banking haven that would, he hopes, attract a good deal of US money. The islands, which use US currency although they are a British colony, have no taxes on income, capital gains, property, gifts, or inheritance.

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