The Seychelles are much more significant than they seem.A mini-republic of 60 ,000 people spread over 150,000 watery square miles in the middle of the Indian Ocean, the Seychelles have a strategic value which has long been underestimated, at least in the West.
Once a French outpost and, from Napoleonic times to 1976, a British colony, the Seychelles are now governed by a strong-minded oligarchy with a determination to provide their long-isolated countrymen with enhanced educational opportunities, better health facilities, and the ability to grow or catch their own food.
President Albert Rene's closest supporters, the foreign minister, the minister of defense, and the minister of education and information, all emphasize their country's commitment to socialism. But the Seychelles have not granted a base to the Soviet Union, and recently demonstrated to official Americans and Britons that rumors of a Soviet enclave on one of the country's out-islands were untrue.
Yet, with a Western facility at Diego Garcia, farther east, and new American access to Kenyan and Somali ports (the Soviets use Aden and Socotra) on the western rim of the Indian Ocean, the Seychelles will continue to be wooed by the Soviets for their strategic importance.
Despite their Soviet ties and strident rhetoric, the political leaders of the Seychelles are cordial, and remarkably undogmatic and nondoctrinaire in conversation. What is unique about the socialism of the Seychelles, they say disarmingly, is its determination to impose no capital controls. (The rupee of the Seycheless is hard, and fully convertible.) They also believe in individual home ownership, in the nurturing of a varierty of entrepreneurial instincts, and in the maintenance of an economy that must long remain dependent upon tourism -- until the oil now being drilled for is discovered.
But President Rene's government has maintained a firm grip since the coup that brought him to power in 1977. The life of the islanders is more regimented than before. All informations is controlled by a government-run radio and newspaper. A curfew in the hours before dawn was strictly enforced until recently. Thirdteen prominent Seychellois, including the editor of the only independent newsweekly, were detained without trial last year and were suddenly released this month and then deported. A small local army has been trained, with Tanzanian and Malagasy assistance. Rene clearly fears a countercoup, but the extent to which socialism, Seycheless style, has antagonized any but the former bougeoisie is unclear.
The Seychelles, long somnolent, are becoming volatile. There are new ambitions in the islands which big power competition in the Indian Ocean can but accentuate. In addition to a missle tracking station, the US presence consists of an excellent three-person embassy, 12 Peace Corps workers, and a very modest aid program. The British and French (as well as the Soviets, the Chinese, the Algerians, and so on) have large embassies with resident ambassadors.
Although symbolic, a first step toward strengthening American ties to the Seychelles would be the appointment of a resident ambassador. Doing so would show that we take the Seychelles, and its potential, seriously. So would new assistance for agriculture and fishing. It would be unwise to ignore the Seychelles.