Bahamas -- uneasy paradise

Tourism slogans used to proudly declare it was "better in the Bahamas" -- but not anymore. Serious social and political unrest is threatening to shatter the stability of this small island nation.

Some of the unrest is caused by resentment toward the tides of Haitian refugees that continually land on Bahamian shores. Instead of moving on to the Bahamian shores, many Haitians stay, raising ticky-tacky shacks and creating concern that they will take jobs away from the islands' own poor or become welfare recipients.

It's believed that 25,000 to 50,000 Haitians are living in the Bahamas illegally. For an nation of less than a quarter of a million people, the prospect of so many new, foreign, and poor immigrants is frightening. Resentment toward them has reached such a pitch that the nation is debating proposals to amend the Constitution to severely restrict who is allowed to take up Bahamian citizenship. A referendum on the proposals is slated to take place within 18 months.

All this puts Prime Minister Lynden O. Pindling's Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) -- in power since parliament was established in 1967 -- on shaky ground. Party support is being undercut further by a seemingly uncontrollable increase in crime and drug trafficking.

This is not the first serious challenge Mr. Pindling's government has faced. The difference this time is the strength of the assault from sectors formerly counted among PLP supporters. Many are angry as well over corruption that they believe government officials are engaging in and over reported human- rights violations by state police.

The Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Methodist Churches have openly expressed grave reservations about the proposed constitutional changes, challenging their exclusionary features on moral, ethical, and social grounds. The stand has been endorsed by community leaders, many of whom have condemned the proposals outright. The most forceful such reaction has come from the trade-union movement, which was a major factor in bringing the PLP to power 14 years ago and keeping it there.

The negative reaction may be stronger than the government, which sponsored the proposals, anticipated. Some observers believe that balloting may never take place.

Unemployment among the young is high -- 28 to 30 percent. Among all Bahamians, unemployment is 12 to 13 percent. But those who are working are also dissatisfied -- the nation is wavering on the brink of series of strikes.

When public school teachers were told recently that they were legally barred from a strike action in their long-running dispute with the government over better pay and working conditions, other unions interpreted the ruling as a threat to their constitutional rights.

Since then, the teacher dispute was settled. But the PLP still faced the prospect of a civil-service workers' strike over pay and working conditions. Many worry that a strike by these particular employees, who could shut down all essential services on the islands, would lead to a total breakdown of law and order.

A good share of the problem, observers say, rests with the Bahamas education system. A report sponsored by the Ministry of Eduction has found that of the 39 ,236 students taking the Bahamas Junior School certificate examination in 1980, 82.38 percent either failed or just barely passed.

Labor Minister Clement Maynard says 4,000 to 5,000 new jobs are needed annually to achieve any appreciable reduction in unemployment. New policies to spur local and foreign investment are calculated to reduce to problem.

But the policy to encourage investment sharply clashes with other facets of the national mood. This is seen particularly in the rising resentment of foreigners. One of the proposed constitutional amendments, in fact, would allow the government to ban foreigners from owning land.

All this creates concern that tourism is also headed for a slump. Air arrivals in Nassau, the most popular destination, have declined steadily since mid-1980, dropping an average of 8.2 percent a month since July.

The rash of bad publicity resulting from the August disappearance of an American couple while cruising in Bahamian waters aboard their yacht has not helped matters. Many believe they were murdered by drug- runners.

Newspaper and television reports in the US suggest the Bahamas government is doing very little to curb the drug traffic through the islands. Stories by yachtsmen who claim to have been shot at or robbed has further tarnished the country's tourist image.

The government admits the drug problem poses a threat to security. Foreign drug dealers, aided by some Bahamians, operate with near-impunity on the islands.

Police say it is foreigners who are responsible for the vast amount of illegal arms in the country, but on many islands, trafficking is the chief source of income.

Undermanned and underequipped, the Bahamas police force may be in over its head trying to contend with drug-related crime. There are daily armed robberies of banks, supermarkets, and other businesses.

The result is that the Bahamas, long a calm, friendly island paradise, is now a jittery spot where anything could happen. The Progressive Liberal Party, in power since island independence, is beginning to worry, though the next election is 18 months away. So far, however, the party has little to fear from its opponents. Feuding among the opposition parties is hampering any possible drive to unseat the PLP.

A former official warns, "Unless the opposition forces settle their differences and come together . . . the country will continue moving in a direction that can only end in disaster for all the people."

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